2019 top stories: Coal falls, red power rises
For the Navajo Nation, the decade closed with two intersecting graphs that will certainly shape the 2020s and probably beyond: the tribe’s economic power — largely dependent on natural resources — took a calamitous hit just as its political power hit a new high with a victory in a gerrymandering case in Utah and the election of a Native Congresswoman in New Mexico.
1. Closure of the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Coal Mine
Although the tribe had successfully negotiated a lease extension in 2017, the ravens finally came home to roost in November, leaving the tribe not much better prepared than it had been 15 years ago when environmental groups first started pushing for a “just transition” away from coal. The Nation’s main charge in the coming years will be to figure out a way to replace $40 million in annual lease and fee revenue and 900 high-paying jobs.
2. NTEC buys three coal mines
As NGS’s owners beat a hasty retreat from coal, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company capitalized on a bankruptcy sale and bought three off-reservation coal mines, prompting an outcry from tribal members and even the Council and president, who said they were not apprised of the move. President Jonathan Nez pulled the tribe’s indemnity agreement with the company, which could have put the tribe on the hook for an estimated $463 million in eventual cleanup costs for the mines if NTEC defaults on its bonds.
3. Diné majority on San Juan County Commission
After a several-year legal battle spearheaded by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, San Juan County, Utah, was forced to redraw its voting districts, leading to the election of the county’s first majority-Navajo commission. The two Diné commissioners wasted no time exercising their power, reversing the commission’s position against the establishment of Bears Ears National Monument and holding commission meetings on the reservation.
4. Treaty of 1868 comes home
The “missing” third original copy of the Treaty of 1868, which turned up in the home of one of its drafters, Samuel Tappan, last year was gifted to the Navajo Nation Museum by its owner, Clare P. “Kitty” Weaver. According to Museum Director Manuelito Wheeler, this makes the Navajo tribe quite probably the only tribe in the country to own an original copy of its treaty with the U.S. Government.
5. New president, speaker take office
At 43, Jonathan Nez became the Nation’s youngest president ever upon his swearing-in in January. Another young leader, Seth Damon, 38, was sworn in as speaker. Damon had been serving as speaker pro tem after the previous speaker, LoRenzo Bates, decided not to run for re-election. Nez had been vice president under President Russell Begaye, but the two men had ended up in a bitter feud the last year of their terms.
6. Sen. John Pinto passes
An era ended on May 24, when the longest-serving member of the New Mexico State Legislature passed away, still in office at 94. Pinto was replaced by his granddaughter, Shannon Pinto, who pledged to continue his legacy. Pinto was one of several Navajo Code Talkers who died this year, leaving only five of the storied warriors among the living.
7. Tribal buildings close
The Nation’s long-neglected infrastructure came to the fore this year as the tribe was forced to temporarily close the Shiprock and Window Rock jails (they’re still not in use as overnight facilities) and one of its administration buildings. The police headquarters is also deteriorating and the Window Rock courts have already been relocated twice.
8. Uranium cleanup boom
The uranium boom of the 1950s and 60s left the tribe with a legacy of contamination and health problems, but now a different boom is starting. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced this year it had entered into enforcement agreements and settlements with mining companies totaling more than $1.7 billion to start evaluation and cleanup of 219 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Unfortunately few Navajo-owned companies were large enough or specialized enough to win major cleanup contracts, but subcontracts for trucking, road construction and such were awarded to Diné firms.
9. Light Up Navajo/CDB store opens (tie)
In an innovative partnership with the American Public Power Association, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority tapped skilled volunteer labor to connect 233 Navajo families to the power grid. Another innovative business, a shop selling CBD oil and other hemp products under the authority of the San Juan River Farm Board, may have jumped the gun. Both the Navajo Nation president and the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry took the position that the Nation had not yet developed regulations for hemp production and it was not legal to either grow or sell the close relative of marijuana on the reservation. As of late December, however, the shop in Shiprock was still open.
10. Two Native women elected to Congress
While Utah Navajos were celebrating their newfound power in county government, New Mexico’s Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, took office as one of the first two Native American women in the U.S. House of Representatives. The other is Sharice Davids of Kansas.