When it comes to a green future, money isn’t everything.

In the case of Indigenous peoples, there also needs to be a variety of support and cultural understanding.

That’s according to Kimberly Yazzie, a Diné researcher in ecology at Stanford University, who has seen how Indigenous communities have been harmed in the race to establish wind, solar, and mining projects. 

“There’s this history of tribes not getting a fair deal, and so this history needs to be addressed,” she said. “There’s work that needs to be done.”

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As lead author in an article published this week in Science, she outlined ways Indigenous peoples can move forward on the journey to save the planet. 

Many green projects over the last few years have been criticized for not including tribes in important decisions that infringes or even destroys ancestral land. 

Yazzie cautioned that building a just and equitable energy future will take relationship building, research, and consultation. That can take time, she admitted, and while it’s not a luxury many feel we have, it’s essential so mistakes of the past are not repeated. 

“To go fast, start slow,” she said.  

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The three big takeaways from the paper include: flexible application deadlines, equal access to updated and accurate information, and resources to build stronger infrastructure within tribes for projects. Since 2021, federal money has been available for tribal renewable energy projects — an amount that now stands at around $14 billion dollars — and Yazzie hopes that the paper can help tribes access those dollars. 

Strict deadlines, for instance, can shut tribes out from funding due to how long it takes to identify resources, secure other funding sources, and tailor competitive applications. The paper calls for rolling deadlines, and specifically mentions the Tribal Energy Loan Guarantee Program as an example of how more applications should accept applications at any time. 

A second solution includes increasing access to updated and accurate information for tribal green energy projects. Although the federal government has a database, it can be hard to find state or private information. One solution could be a database updated with funding sources, not only from federal programs but philanthropic organizations, with funding amounts and requirements clearly outlined for easy reference. Or having readily available technical information or experts to answer nuts-and-bolts type questions about solar and electrical projects. 

Clara Pratte is a Diné researcher and a tribal government consultant. She’s a co-author on the paper and said that having a more effective way to share information was very important. 

“There’s no best practice guide on how to run projects like these,” she said. “And at the end of the day, we want better, more mindful, culturally competent development to happen on tribal lands.”

It’s also important that funding goes to the people on the ground and not just to the project, a way to make sure tribal members are involved. Pratte specifically said the role of “tribal energy champions” can make or break a idea. These are tribal members who stick with a given endeavor through the very early stages till its completion, and can pool information and resources from other tribal energy projects.

Pratte said that ideally this work would be done by tribal members who have cultural knowledge valuable to the ethical development of these projects. 

“Just because it’s ‘green’ doesn’t mean it’s going to be done in a thoughtful way, so I think tribes and tribal people really have to be at the forefront of defining what that process looks like,” she said.

Yazzie said she’d also like to take a closer look at the future, especially when the Biden administration’s financial support ends.

“I think a question we’re going to have to ask ourselves is what are we going to do when that administration changes and when funding programs run out,” she said. 

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