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Candidates’ forum called ‘hostile’: Hopefuls discuss resource extraction at Dooda Helium event

Candidates’ forum called ‘hostile’: Hopefuls discuss resource extraction at Dooda Helium event

SHIPROCK

If you were looking for a fair and balanced presidential forum where the positions of each candidate were respected, that’s not exactly what happened at the Dooda (No) Helium Forum last Friday in Shiprock, according to many who were present.

This might explain why only seven candidates – Greg Bigman, Ethel Branch, Frankie Davis, Emily Ellison, Frank Dayish, Justin Jones, and Dolly Manson – showed up for the forum.

They navigated questions that were sometimes baiting and biased toward Dooda Helium’s zero-fracking and zero-resource extraction agenda.

Candidate Greg Bigman told Navajo Times he found the Dooda forum “hostile” from the get-go.

“The questions were loaded and they were trying to sway a candidate in one direction,” he said. “They should have been neutral. It felt very random and it did not feel fair.”

Reached by phone, candidate Buu Nygren said he was at another event during the forum. The Dooda Helium group had already chosen their candidate, Justin Jones, so there was no point in attending only to be “set up for failure” by the moderators, he said.

“It was like why show up to an event when they’ve already made up their mind?” he said. “I’d rather show up at a forum where it’s unbiased, because that’s what a presidential forum should be.”

Dooda Helium founder Eloise Brown, interviewed just before press time Wednesday, said the group wanted to organize a forum specifically aimed at Dooda Helium’s environmental concerns and their mission to protect the Navajo Nation’s land, water and air from contamination.

She denied that she is supporting Justin Jones and said that Dooda Helium has not yet decided which candidate the group would endorse.

However, she did confirm that it will be one of the candidates that is against any and all extraction of resources.

“What we’re looking for is who is going to ‘do the right thing’ for us and Mother Earth and Father Sky,” she said. “Yes, we have to be fair. At the same time, we’re doing our best to try to get the best leader we can get.”

‘Red flags’

Bigman said the views of every candidate, whether you agree with them or not, should be taken in.

“That’s what forums are about, listening to the ideas of candidates,” he said.

Moderators asked questions of some candidates, but not others, and the time-keepers seemed to lean in favor of certain candidates, especially if they were fluent Navajo speakers like Jones, Manson and Dayish.

“I think how the questions being asked and the amount of time given to each participant were inconsistent,” said Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who was in the audience. “It just felt like the rules were being made up as we went along.”

While the Dooda Helium group promoted the forum to focus on natural resource development, it digressed to other topics like government reform and intergenerational trauma.

“For some of the questions, the focus was natural resources,” said Crotty. “Some of the questions strayed away from that. I felt like the moderators were sharing their grievances with these long testimonials with multiple questions.”

Crotty said it got to the point where the candidates had to make sure they were either getting the time they needed or that other candidates were staying within their allotted time.

“I definitely think there were some red flags,” said Crotty.

Finally, while the program was scheduled to end at 6:15 p.m., it went for five hours until 8 p.m., stopped only when moderators were notified there was a water leak at arts center and Brown announced that no one should use the bathrooms.

Bigman, whose time for a final response of the evening was cut short, closed the forum by expressing his dissatisfaction.

“Today it feels like I walked into the gambler’s house,” said Bigman. “All the cards are stacked against me and I have to do things that are very different. But as a Naat’aanii, you rise above it no matter what.”

‘Sacrifice area’

An example of a loaded, all-or-nothing, question to candidates was, considering all of the negative impacts of natural resource extraction on the Navajo people, would they support extraction of oil and gas, helium and hydrogen, three entirely different technologies, as president?

Each candidate had three minutes to provide an answer.

Three candidates came out fully against any new extractive development – Jones, Branch and Dayish.

Jones qualified that he will still honor the current energy/natural resources development presently in place under existing contracts.

Oil and gas and coal production combined currently provides about 29% of the Navajo Nation’s general fund revenues.

“You have leases that are ongoing,” said Jones. “I’m going to make it known to all the workers – the day that Justin Jones becomes president does not mean we’re going to shut these operations down. Those need to be respected and fulfilled.”

Dayish, Jones and Branch all said that through strategic planning, economic development needs can be shifted to prioritize other industries like agriculture, ranching, small business, and goods and services that can create new revenue streams and offset revenue losses from dwindling extractive industries.

“There is no need to drill into Mother Earth anymore,” said Jones, which earned a loud round of applause.

Jones, an attorney and a medicine man, said his energy plan is going to begin with an evaluation and assessment of what has been done in the past and decisions will be guided by Fundamental Law, which is something Branch has also promoted on her platform.

“The Fundamental Law has to govern us into the future,” said Jones.

Branch said she does not support any new extractive development on Navajo Nation until all of the existing contamination has been remediated and land reclamation has been completed, including hundreds of toxic abandoned uranium mines.

She believes the first priority has to be restoring the relationship and balance with Mother Earth.

“The Navajo Nation has served as a national sacrifice area for over a century,” she said. “At this point, we’ve had disproportionate development on the Navajo Nation. It’s unacceptable that we have such high rates of cancer in our communities, high rates of asthma and upper respiratory illnesses.”

She said this also is what made the Navajo people disproportionately vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were told not to dig up these monsters, and we did,” said Branch. “We were told that we would reawaken horrible things that our people would be impacted in terrible ways and they have been.”

She said the tribal government structure was initially formed precisely to facilitate the rapid dispossession of natural resources and wealth from Navajo communities.

“Our lands are poisoned, our animals are poisoned,” she said. “Our people are also poisoned. That has to stop.”

‘Sustainability and diversity’

On the other hand, Ellison, Manson and Bigman took a more measured approach to the extraction of resources.

Ellision said with 400,000 Navajos living on and off the reservation, decisions over energy resources have to involve the people.

“We continue this dance of development,” she said. “Some of us want it, some of us don’t.”

“It’s not just one person’s thought,” she said. “To develop a good energy plan, we have to consider the interests of every single Navajo citizen and think about developing a system that will be good for everyone.”

She said making sure there are sufficient energy resources and infrastructure to bring electricity and heat to a whole Nation in a balanced fashion is difficult and much work needs to be done.

“We all want to come back to come home, we want to have comfortable lives,” said Ellison. “At the same time, we want to respect our cultural values. How do we do that?”

With the Navajo Nation in a time of transition, Ellison said change is not easy.

“We’re talking about some very hard topics,” she said. “To make informed decisions going forward, we have to consider our past.”

Manson told Navajo Times the candidates were being pressed by moderators as if they were going to be the sole-decision makers on the issues.

She said chapters need to be involved with making decisions about natural resource development.

“It’s up to the local people first,” said Manson. “Of course, from there, the Council would have a discussion about it before it goes to the president. Everybody should have their say from the community and figure out how they want this to happen.”

As president, Manson said she would also have experts advising her on scientific matters, including the expansion of renewable solar and wind resources.

Manson added if there is new resource development, impacted communities should also receive more benefits including road maintenance and crime prevention.

Bigman said he believes all of the candidates care about protecting Mother Earth, but may have different perspectives.

“When I think about Mother Earth, I take a scientific view,” said Bigman. “We can continue to innovate and bring in new technology and help our people.”

He said chapter input when it comes to natural resource development and its impacts is critical.

“To be a leader, you have to make decisions in the best interests of everybody,” he said. “There’s always going to be conflicting views.”

Bigman also reminded everyone that there is actually an existing “Navajo Nation Energy Policy of 2013,” which was codified into law to guide leaders, lawmakers and policy-makers and is still in effect.

Several of the candidates appeared not to be aware of this.

“Sustainability and diversity have to be included in any energy plan,” said Bigman. “When it comes from the sun or comes from the ground it’s still energy. We need to have a plan to migrate to a better Navajo Nation.”

Notably, the Energy Policy of 2013, signed by President Ben Shelly, was an update to the Energy Policy of 1980, and opened the door to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydroelectric, while still allowing for the mainstays of oil and gas and coal to create electricity.

“A balanced portfolio of fossil fuel and cleaner renewable energy resources will provide the Nation with greater economic and financial stability,” the policy states.

Davis said she is all in for extraction of resources and stressed that the oil and gas royalties are what are filling the Navajo Nation government’s coffers.

“It’s hard to me when I hear people say when you drill, you’re ‘stabbing Mother Earth,’” she said. “It doesn’t make sense. We’re not trashing Mother Earth!”

As long as things are done respectfully and prayerfully, Davis said the people should have the choice about what happens in their communities.

“When we do something, we need to pray and ask Mother Earth for permission,” she said.

‘Time for a change’

Branch, Dayish and Jones said addressing climate change has to be part of the equation.

“We live in a time of intensifying climate conditions, heat and drought conditions,” said Branch. “We need to be minimizing the amount of harmful emissions on the Navajo Nation.”

She said it’s time to capitalize on clean energy, like wind and solar, while reducing the carbon foot-print.

“Right now, we’ve relied almost exclusively on extractive industries for economic development,” said Branch. “It’s time for a change.”

However, Davis pointed out that even wind and solar development require investment, resources and land.

“It’s expensive,” she said. “Where will we get the money? The Navajo Nation has no capital. My plan of becoming energy independent is critical because we need capital. We are walking on trillions of trillions of dollars that can sustain us.”

Davis also said the Navajo Nation will get the rights to its land back and reduce dependency on the federal government once she is president.

“We’re ready to take the title back to our land,” she said. “That is what I’m about. Instead of leasing your land, under my government, you will own your land. It’s going to belong to you.”

Decayed uranium

When candidates were asked what the relationship between helium and uranium is, Jones correctly answered that helium derived from decayed uranium, found deep in the earth’s mantle.

Decayed uranium, which is over 4.5 billion years old, is no longer radioactive and helium is non-toxic gas that rises into the atmosphere involuntarily and can be captured, stored and taken to market for sale.

Davis tried to explain that this process is entirely separate from the surface uranium mining of toxic, radioactive uranium ore that devastated Navajo communities in the past century.

“What happens in the (helium) extraction process is uranium stays down in the ground because it’s a very heavy metal,” said Bigman. “Helium comes out as an inert gas.”

Bigman explained that any type of fracturing will cause helium to escape the earth because of its light mass.

While some of the candidates referred to helium as “energy,” it is actually a coolant that serves as a one-of-a-kind heat absorber and a purging agent, which is why it is in such high demand worldwide.

Beyond its uses in balloons and blimps, helium is required in many high-tech applications including lasers, semiconductors, medical Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanners, solar cells, and space-testing and rocket-launching systems.

Brown told Navajo Times that while scientists say that decayed uranium is not radioactive, that’s little consolation for those who’ve been impacted by the devastation of surface uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

“What do you expect from a person whose dad was killed by radiation exposure?” she asked. “What do you expect from people who were lied to by the federal government?”

Brown said many Diné no longer believe scientists who say, “You’re going to be fine.”

“Any time you hear the word uranium, it drives you crazy and it brings back your PTSD, or whatever,” said Brown. “You say, if anything has to do with uranium, I’m not even going bother because we have already been lied to.”

‘Can’t please everybody’

For those who might want to learn more about helium extraction, the Navajo Nation’s own Navajo Transitional Energy Company currently operates active helium wells that were converted from old, sealed oil wells purchased from Tacitus LLC at the Tocito Dome Field helium plant by Sanostee Chapter.

Separately, Brown said Dooda Helium mobilized a coalition last fall that protested against legislation (No. 232-21), which would approve three new Navajo oil-and-gas agreements to operate and explore for helium wells Tohachee Wash near Teec Nos Pos, Beautiful Mountain and Porcupine Dome by Sanostee.

The bill was tabled by the Naabik’iyati’ Committee this spring for more discussion with the local communities and has not made it back to Council since.

The sponsor, Speaker Seth Damon, said he hopes to have the revised bill back on the agenda for fall session.

“The NNOGC is collaboratively working with Navajo Minerals Department, Navajo DOJ and the local communities to get a collective, agreed-upon legislation by all parties,” said Damon.

Brown said while Dooda Helium is against “all helium extraction,” the group’s main focus has been on protesting the bill.

“I think we’re very close to where it’s not going to happen,” she said.

She suggested that once the legislation is gone, they’re going to concentrate on protesting the active wells at Tocito Dome.

Finally, Brown defended the forum, saying her group had invited questions from people across the Navajo Nation and she received a lot of positive feedback.

She also justified asking for responses to certain questions from candidates who were fluent in Navajo, saying that was to accommodate elders and non-English speakers who were listening.

“The idea was really for the grassroots to be involved,” she said.

Brown said she’s sorry if any of the candidates felt left out.

“But you can’t please everybody,” she said. “I’m just trying to be fair to everybody and I wanted the grandmas and the grandpas to understand.”

To learn more about each of the 15 candidates for president, visit https://www.navajotimes.com/rezpolitics/election-2022/


About The Author

Rima Krisst

Reporter and photojournalist Rima Krisst has been with the Navajo Times since July of 2018, and covers our Arts and Culture and Government Affairs beats. Prior to joining the editorial team at the Times, Krisst worked in various capacities in the areas of communications, public relations, marketing and Indian Affairs policy on behalf of the Tribes, Nations and Pueblos of New Mexico. Among her posts, she served as Director of PR and Communications for the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department under Governor Bill Richardson, Healthcare Outreach and Education Manager for the Eight Northern Pueblos, Tribal Tourism Liaison for the City of Santa Fe, and Marketing Projects Coordinator for Santa Fe Indian Market. As a writer and photographer, she has also worked independently as a contractor on many special projects, and her work has been published in magazines. Krisst earned her B.S. in Business Administration/Finance from the University of Connecticut.

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