In the sunny Southwest, many Hopi and Navajo people
have discovered that solar panels strike the right balance
between tradition and technology.
The Hopi village of Old Oraibi is believed to be the
longest continuously inhabited village in the United
States. A thousand years of history have shaped the Hopi
culture, with its many stone houses, corn, melons and
ceremonies. On the 1.5 million acres that make up the Hopi
Reservation in northeastern Arizona, 8,000 people live in a
dozen villages high atop the mesas. They follow teachings
about sustainability, and this covenant with Massaw, the
Creator: Live respectfully, acknowledge the Cloud People,
hold your ceremonies, grow your corn, and your people will
see the arrival of the next world.
It is from this village of Oraibi that the other Hopi
villages in Arizona sprang — Bacavi, Moenkopi and
Kykotsmovi, to name just three. Here, in the center of Hopi
tradition, one also can find evidence of a people looking
to the future: In Oraibi, and across the reservation, many
homes are now outfitted with solar panels, quietly
generating renewable energy.
The Solar Business
The United States’ fast pace and tendency toward
sudden, dramatic changes is not always a comfortable fit
with the Hopi values of resilience and tenacity, yet it has
not been possible for the Hopi to remain completely
isolated from the rest of American culture. Ironically,
many Hopi live without electricity, even though the
reservation is surrounded by coal mines and power plants.
The Hopi accept change slowly and deliberately, and most
readily when the changes are of their own doing. The Hopi
word potskwaniat means “Hopi pathway to the
future,” and it is a phrase aptly applied to the work
of Native Sun, a Hopi solar power business based in
Native Sun is owned in part by Doran Dalton, a man whose
lifestyle spans both past and future. Dalton is the former
chair of the nonprofit Hopi Foundation, and now runs Native
Sun, a small for-profit business that has employed up to
eight people for big installation projects. With the
support of a group of committed Hopis and friends, more
than 800 household-sized solar units have been installed
for Hopi and other Native American people in the region.
“We were all working at the Hopi Guidance Center,
most of us who founded the Hopi Foundation,” Dalton
says, “and we kept seeing the same people.”
They would come in for help, and then be back two years
later, needing assistance again.
“We started to talk about what was happening at Hopi.
Most of our people were unemployed, and we wanted to find
some employment for them. And, we wanted to make a
difference here,” he says.
Since its founding in 1985, the Hopi Foundation has
restored ancient ceremonial houses, offered language and
cultural classes, developed a health program with the
tribal government and initiated several cottage industries,
including Native Sun and Gentle Rain Designs, a clothing
company that uses recycled fibers.
In an unusual move for the isolated Hopi community, the
foundation even reached beyond the borders of the Hopi
Reservation to create a Tucson, Ariz., sanctuary for
indigenous refugees from Central America — an
expression of traditional Hopi teachings of peace.
Culture and Power
The Hopi Foundation began in order to stave off an
impending cultural crisis. “Non-Hopi influences
brought onto the reservation were creating problems,”
Dalton recalls. “It was basically Hopi trying to find
themselves — being torn between the Hopi way of
living and the modern way of living, and not being able to
reconcile the two.”
Loris Taylor, the foundation’s associate director,
says, “We’ve been taught through Western models
for a long, long time that the answers come from the
outside. When you focus on the deficiencies of people, then
the perception is that the people are weak and that
they’re unable to do things for their own conditions.
Our approach is that the strengths are inherent in
Many Hopi have resisted electrification of their homes, and
one-third of the villages have not allowed electric power
lines within their boundaries. This has posed an
interesting dilemma. “The Hopi had no objection to
electricity itself,” Dalton says. “It was the
Debby Tewa, a Hopi solar electrician who has worked on
Native Sun and other solar projects in the Southwest,
explains: “The traditional Hopis don’t allow
power lines into the villages because the utilities will
have right of way onto Hopi land. Village leaders think
that if we don’t pay the bills, the utilities will
take even more land.”
Spiritual issues influence the village leaders, too.
According to the Hopi Foundation, the electromagnetic field
of electricity that emanates from power lines is considered
disruptive to the atmosphere, ambience and balance of
The Hopi have tried a number of substitutes for
utility-generated electricity. Most Hopi houses are still
heated with coal, which the people gather from the ground
and the waste piles of the mine site on the reservation.
In the past, people also would “hook up to the
battery of their car and hope they didn’t use so much
that it wouldn’t start in the morning,” Dalton
says. Another solution was using generators, but he notes
those had their own complications. “The smell of
exhaust was bad, and we would be yelling (over the roar) at
the dinner table.” The village of Hotevilla, he adds,
was even called “Generator City” at one time.
Solar power provided a more appealing option while
maintaining Hopi self-sufficiency. “When you get your
own system, it’s yours,” Tewa says.
“There’s no power line, and no right of way
into the villages.”
Native Sun began operations with money from foundation
grants, and a revolving loan program helped community
residents purchase solar panels; today, the loan program is
administered by a local bank.
The energy company offers an array of photovoltaic systems:
two, four or eight panels, stationary or rotating. Most of
the options now are in operation somewhere on the
Similar issues confront members of the Navajo Nation, whose
reservation surrounds the Hopi Reservation. The Navajo
remain one of the largest populations in the country
without electricity; current estimates are that 10,000 to
25,000 Navajo homes lack grid-based power.
But there, too, many people are recognizing the potential
of solar energy and working to fill the growing demand for
solar panels. Native American Photovoltaics (NAPV), a
nonprofit organization that was founded in 1998 by New York
architect Gregory Kiss, has constructed 44 solar systems
for off-grid homes on the Navajo Reservation near the towns
of Winslow and Dilkon. NAPV’s mission is to bring
electricity to people who live in rural areas where utility
companies are unlikely to ever extend their lines.
NAPV installs PV panels and offers monthly maintenance
service. The employees also teach conservation and
efficiency. Dave Silversmith, the NAPV project manager,
says, “I teach people how to use electricity from the
solar panels efficiently, what kinds of appliances they can
run and how to conserve electricity.” He also
translates solar terminology into Navajo and explains
concepts that are still new to people there.
NAPV also helps clients procure financing for solar panels.
A Department of Energy grant supported the initial project
and early capital costs. Now, the organization is hammering
out new arrangements that will help finance future
Initially, test families signed up for a plan that required
paying $50 per month for 10 years toward the purchase of
their solar-power units (this fee also included repair and
maintenance service). Additional grants that permit smaller
monthly payments for similar projects that support 20 or 30
systems may be awarded.
Another possible plan that would finance home PV systems
and fund a solar panel factory on the Navajo Reservation,
where unemployment hovers between 50 and 75 percent, would
require a down payment of $1,000 to $2,000 from each of
20,000 potential Navajo subscribers and 10 years of $150
monthly payments from those with average annual incomes of
at least $6,000.
A Solar Future
What the Hopi and Navajo have done is common sense for the
rest of us as well: Use less, produce what you can on your
own, and be cognizant of the implications of each action on
others. This is more than a spiritual and cultural decision
— it is a necessary economic one as well. Imported
fossil fuels are nonrenewable and damaging to the
The push for energy alternatives, self-reliance and
efficiency is growing in communities across the country.
Today, in the era of energy-utility deregulation, many
Native American tribes are considering developing their own
utilities, pooling their consumers to secure lower rates,
and moving towards alternative energy sources. A 1998
handbook called Native Power, produced at the University of
California, Berkeley, has been particularly influential,
showcasing alternative energy projects on various
reservations and in Native Americans’ homes, and
outlining possible energy efficiency and self-reliance
measures for tribes.
Back on the mesas of Hopi, solar installer Dalton grabs
some equipment and heads out down the dirt road; Native
American communities of the region are learning from the
Hopi about solar technologies, and Dalton says he hopes
Native Sun has helped customers and potential solar
entrepreneurs to reconnect to a more ecologically and
culturally sustainable way of living. His work at Native
Sun exemplifies the vitality of the Hopi culture and its
strength in today’s world. The people who survived
for a thousand years on the edge of a cliff perhaps have a
few lessons for us all.
Natural Resources on Tribal Lands
Although Native Americans are among the poorest in the
United States, their lands are home to a wealth of natural
resources. Two-thirds of the country’s uranium;
one-third of all Western low-sulfur coal, and vast
hydroelectric, oil and natural gas resources are all on
Native American land. Some of the largest corporations in
the world have access to mine these resources through
leases overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Too
often, Native American communities receive less than the
full value of the resources in royalties, and are left with
huge slag piles, uranium mill tailings and abandoned
uranium mine shafts (more than 1,000 on the Navajo
Reservation alone) when mining operations end.
Both the Navajo and Hopi tribes have had disputes with
Peabody Energy’s Black Mesa Coal Mine, which spans
both reservations and employs members of both tribes. The
Navajo Nation took the federal government to court after
the Interior Department accepted a lease rate from Peabody
worth much less than the market value of the coal. Now,
some members of the Hopi tribe are engaged in a battle with
Peabody over the company’s use of reservation water
Peabody employs about 15 Hopis, and provides about $7.7
million in annual royalties to the tribe, a huge chunk of
the budget for a relatively impoverished tribal treasury.
But the company’s coal slurry pipeline to the Mohave
Generating Station, some 250 miles away in Laughlin, Nev.,
annually sucks more than a billion gallons of water from
under the Hopi and Navajo Reservations. The fact that the
Mohave electric plant helps keep the lights bright in Las
Vegas and hair dryers blowing in Los Angeles even as
thousands of people on the Navajo and Hopi Reservations are
without electricity illustrates the unfortunate reality
that energy mined from Native American lands is often not
used for Native American communities.
Vernon Masayesva, a past Hopi Tribal chairman and now
director of the grass roots group Black Mesa Trust, says,
“One billion gallons of our ancient, sacred water
evaporates each year in Nevada’s desert skies. One
billion gallons of living water, enough to provide for Hopi
for 100 years, dies on a dry wind.”
Today, water levels in some Black Mesa wells have dropped
more than 100 feet, and many of the springs are dry.
Projections are that by the year 2011, the Hopi village of
Moenkopi will be without water. Complex issues are
involved, including the jobs and royalties Peabody Coal
supplies to both the Navajo and the Hopi, but for
Masayesva, the problems with mining and burning coal only
reinforce the need for renewable energy. He advocates
building two large-scale solar power plants to generate
jobs and revenue, one on the Hopi Reservation and one on
the Navajo Reservation.
Winona LaDuke is an enrolled member of the Mississippi Band of the Anishinaabeg tribe, and she lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She is program director of Honor the Earth, a national foundation that supports environmental initiatives within indigenous communities. In 1996 and 2000, LaDuke was the Green Party’s candidate for U.S. vice president, and she is the author of several books, including All Our Relations.