For poverty-stricken Navajo Nation, a wrenching choice between development and the environment


Elouise Brown stands at the edge of a rise in the middle of the New Mexico desert, pointing toward a barely distinguishable plot of land in the distance that has become the center of a battle in which her family and the entire Navajo Nation have become bitterly divided.

Brown is the head of Dooda Desert Rock (dooda means “no” in Navajo), an organization she formed to oppose the Desert Rock power plant that has been proposed for the nondescript stretch of earth a few miles away. She stands on the edge of the Dooda Desert Rock Camp, located an hour’s drive southwest of Farmington, N.M. 

The controversy over the plant is hardly new to the Navajo Nation and the broader Four Corners community of which it is part: The coal-fired facility would be the region’s third.

But this time things are different. This time the threat is not posed solely by outsiders who intend to plunder the area’s resources, offering a pittance in royalties for the mess they leave behind. Rather, the developers are members of Brown’s own family and tribe, acting with funds and official authorization from the Navajo Nation.

The company co-developing the project, Dine Power Authority (DPA), is an enterprise of the Navajo Nation. And the company’s general manager, Steven C. Begay, by dint of the complexities of Navajo clan structure, is considered Brown’s grandfather.

“He’s not in his right mind, I don’t think,” Brown said of Begay, noting that she treats him with customary familial respect but doesn’t receive the same treatment in return.

Taking a Stand

It’s the first day of Dooda Desert Rock’s (DDR) second annual four-day protest and Brown has returned from pointing out the construction site. She is now sitting in the camp’s central plywood shack, wearing a black Dooda Desert Rock T-shirt and a camouflage army jacket with her last name embroidered on the sleeve.

“We’re nothing to them, we’re nobody to them,” she says, speaking of DPA and its partner, Sithe Global. “They say we’re out in the middle of nowhere, but we don’t consider it the middle of nowhere.”

The walls of the shack are hung with news clippings and timelines that chronicle DDR’s efforts to kill the Desert Rock project. An illustration posted outside, near the entrance, depicts the plant in stark black, a skull and crossbones painted in red inside a column of noxious CO2 rising into the air.

“We don’t have a choice, we have to do this,” she says forcefully. “There’s nobody else doing this so we have to do it.”

But the involvement of DPA has added a unique wrinkle to the issue, one that has opened fault lines within Brown’s family and the broader Navajo Nation community.

With a 25 percent equity stake, the Navajo Nation Council could potentially generate desperately needed jobs and revenue for its 180,000 people, nearly half of whom are unemployed. Yet for Brown, whose activism has been central in stalling environmental approval for Desert Rock in court, the potential for economic benefits means little when the true costs are accounted for.

“It’s totally insignificant,” she said, in a telephone interview before the protest. “What’s more important, money or health?”

Health and the Environment

A passage from the invitation to the DDR protest makes plain Brown’s feelings about the involvement of the Navajo Nation’s government in the Desert Rock project: “Our Navajo leaders are forsaking Traditional Ways to take corporate money to poison our land, foul our air, and steal our waters. This abuse must STOP!”

By “Traditional Ways,” Brown explains that she means “care for everything and everybody.” She was raised by her parents, she says, to “take care of the whole cosmos.”

From the same vantage point where the Desert Rock site is visible, one can also see smoke billowing from the Four Corners power plant, leaving a brown-black streak along the horizon just above Farmington. And just a few miles east from there, barely beyond sight, is the San Juan power plant.

“The two combined are putting high levels of mercury particulates into the air and into the water, because they’re both using the San Juan River,” says Miles Lessen, a math coach for Navajo Nation schools who has lived in the nearby town of Shiprock for about a year, in an interview at the DDR protest. “So people who live down in Sanostee [a town west of Shiprock], this breaks my heart, they’re drinking the water from both plants that are coming through, so they’re getting a higher dosage than even I’m getting.”

For Brown, the health effects she believes were caused by this pollution catalyzed her efforts to block construction of a third coal-fired plant. 

“I’m not going to pinpoint this certain person with this certain ailment, but there’s a lot of cancer patients,” she says. “If you go to the cancer center in Farmington, there’s a lot of people. I’m not just speaking for the Navajo Nation, I’m speaking for all walks of life, all living species. There’s a lot of kids with asthma, respiratory problems of all sorts. There’s babies that were still-born. These don’t just happen constantly for no reason, there’ve got to be reasons behind it,” Brown continues, identifying chemicals, like mercury, released by the San Juan and Four Corners plants as the cause. 

“That’s how I got involved, I wanted to know ‘what can I do?'” she says.

Yet, when confronted with Brown’s dire claims, Desert Rock’s top officials react with a mixture of puzzlement and frustration.

“From a total impact standpoint, I think it’s going to get better before it gets worse. I don’t even see it getting worse, I just see it getting better,” said Nathan Plagens, vice president of Desert Rock LLC, in a telephone interview.

“We have an agreement with the Navajo Nation that for SO2 [sulfur dioxide], every time we emit, we will mitigate 110 percent by reducing SO2 emissions from another source,” he said in describing the first of a three-tier arrangement in which Desert Rock is contractually bound to reduce emissions not only from its own plant, but also from the two existing coal-fired facilities.

After SO2, Desert Rock has pledged to reduce nitrous oxide and acid rain using similar formulas at the contractually mandated second and third tiers respectively.

As for mercury, the plant wouldn’t use the San Juan River. Instead, its water would come from an aquifer located a mile below the surface of the land. And Desert Rock is classified as a non-discharge plant, meaning none of the water it uses will be re-released into the environment, Plagens said.

“The majority of the water that we’re using is basically for pollution control,” he said, with a hint of irony in his voice. “I don’t know where mercury can get in to come in contact with the water.”

But the real sticking point, from the standpoint of the courts and the Environmental Protection Agency, has been carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The gas is a major contributor to global warming, yet the EPA is not currently authorized to regulate it, according to Plagens. And a coalition of environmental groups, including DDR, has used the lack of CO2 regulations to appeal the EPA’s permit for the Desert Rock plant in court.

“The Environmental Appeals Board will say whether the EPA has to regulate CO2 permits,” said Plagens. “If they do have to regulate CO2, then a lot of things would be thrown on the table.”

At the DDR protest, Brown stresses the widespread consequences of allowing another coal-fired power plant to be built.

“Where are kids in their future generation going to go when the global warming gets worse? When there’s no more good air quality for them to breathe? What are they supposed to do?” she says.

And she’s not alone in her concern. “Unfortunately, every day, I’m losing my life expectancy. I eat healthy and I take care of myself, but I’m inhaling carcinogenic material,” Lessen says. “People down here, they’re getting it even worse.”

And while Sithe Global and DPA have promised to set aside funds generated by the plant to disassemble the facility and restore the environment after its resources are exhausted, there are currently no such plans for CO2 reduction.

Begay refers to the global warming claims of Brown and her associates as “nebulous.” “There are no rules the EPA can go by,” he said.

“It’s the same old garbage they’re coming up with that’s already been discussed,” he said.

The Promises

In forming DPA, the Navajo Nation set the standard for a broad paradigm shift currently taking place in Native American communities nationwide. Alongside tribes like the Crow and Blackfeet, the Navajo are pursuing a more active role in developing their own energy resources, including renewables like wind and solar in addition to traditional coal, oil and gas.

“The old-school is to lease the land, lease the resources,” said Begay, DPA’s general manager, in a telephone interview.

“We’re doing things under a new approach, with more participation and more equity,” he said.

Projections for the Desert Rock facility indicate that the equity Begay speaks of could translate into as much as $50 million in annual revenue for the Navajo Nation, whose yearly budget is $96 million, according to the 2000 census.

In testimony before the Committee on Indian Affairs on May 1, 2008, Begay emphasized the potential economic impact of the proposed plant.

“This project, which would create thousands of jobs during its four-year construction phase, 200 permanent, family-wage jobs in the power plant and another 200 well paying jobs in the adjacent Navajo mine during its lifespan, is absolutely critical to the economic future of the Navajo Nation, one of the most impoverished areas of the United States, with 50 percent unemployment,” he said, in a transcript of his testimony retrieved from the Department of the Interior’s Web site.

And, while already substantial, the revenues become all the more significant in the face of the potential closure of several plants that use Navajo-owned coal, which Desert Rock Vice President Plagens predicts could cost the Navajo Nation $40 million to $60 million per year in lost royalties.

The looming shortfall underscores the vagaries inherent in royalty schemes that have become a major force behind the push to take on a more active, management role in energy resource development.

“A lot of underhanded tactics have taken place in the past,” said Duane Matt, technology coordinator for the Office of Surface Mining, a division of the Department of the Interior. “I think [Native American tribes] need to have a personal, vested interest in what’s going on.”

In particular, Matt, who provides technology and training to Native American mining enterprises, referred to a recent lawsuit in which a Blackfoot woman sued the U.S. government for $47 billion in unpaid royalties.

Decided on Aug. 7, 2008, for 1 percent – $455 million – of the amount originally sought, the Cobell v. Kempthorne case exposed the flaws of the “old school” land-lease system of which Begay spoke. He said the case is partly responsible for a stipulation in agreements between DPA and Sithe Global requiring that all financial disputes be resolved in Navajo courts rather than in U.S. federal courts.

Royalty graft is likewise part of the checkered legacy left by the San Juan and Four Corners plants that has engendered deep mistrust among Brown and her supporters. But they remain unconvinced that the equity arrangement with Desert Rock will offer a significant improvement over the past.

“There were a lot of things promised that were not fulfilled – jobs, economic growth,” said Brown, adding later that the Navajo people would have to be “stupid to fall for this again.”

Miles Lessen, the math coach, points to inadequacies in the status quo to explain why he is pessimistic about the idea of things changing much under the Desert Rock model. “I think you talk to most people, stay around here for a while, talk to most people over in Sanostee and Shiprock and Gallup and all over and they’ll tell you there’s a lot of money that the tribe gets and most of the people here don’t see any of it,” he says.

Moreover, extravagant promises of economic development have a hollow ring to Brown and her supporters, who question whether the Navajo Nation will ultimately be able to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars necessary to purchase an equity stake in the project.

“If it’s projected as a 3.7-billion-dollar project and it’s not going to be built for another four or five years, I almost guarantee it’s going to be double that,” said Michael Eisenfeld, an environmentalist with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an organization that opposes the plant.

“Where do they think they’re going to get the money for this?” he asked in a telephone interview.

Moved Yet Unmoved

At the Dooda Desert Rock Camp, Brown talks about being forced from her previous three protest campsites, which were located closer to the Desert Rock construction zone. Members of her own family even attempted to drive her off the current site, summoning grazing officials and Navajo rangers to expel her.

“We can’t trust anybody,” she says. “Everybody’s doing this for greed.”

For Brown and her supporters, who include major environmental groups like the Sierra Club in addition to concerned area residents, opposition to the plant is not a simple choice between economic rewards and environmental preservation. It is a rejection of the premise that money cures all ills and brings nothing but happiness.

“To me, money’s not everything,” Brown says. “Money can buy a lot of things, but when your relative’s going to die from cancer, you’re not going to take that money that you earned from the coal-burning power plant and go buy your relative back.”

Perhaps the most tragic fallacy of all, she says, is the notion that people can no longer live without the comforts of modern technology.

“We’ve done without electricity coming into our house, we’re doing fine,” she says. “We live as good as any of you, anybody out there. We’re living as well as DPA does, or Sithe. And we may be hauling water; I don’t see any faucet in here, do you? They don’t need it either, they’re just lazy.”

Native American designer finds home


The definition of home is different for everyone. Some people consider home a place where family lives; others view home as where one feel the most at peace. For many, a simple definition of home is hard to construct.

Cal Nez, a successful Native American graphic designer, has struggled with the idea of home for as long as he can remember.

“Is home a physical location or inside me or Sandy, Utah?” Nez wondered during an  interview at the University of Utah.

As is tradition in the Navajo Nation, Nez was given to his grandparents to be raised at a young age. However, instead of being raised by his mother’s clan, which is considered to be dominant, Nez was raised by his father’s side. He never knew his mother and hardly knew his father. When he was about 5 years old he was forced, like so many Native Americans, by the federal government to attend boarding school.

Nez remembers his experience at boarding school as nothing short of hell and likens his time there to prison.

“I understand every aspect of confinement, abuse, of mental manipulation,” Nez said.

According to Amnesty International USA Magazine, beginning in 1869 with President Grant’s Peace Policy, more than 100,000 Native American children were taken from their families and forced into boarding schools in an attempt to “Americanize” the Native American population.

A scene he plays back in his head is one of a long, dark hallway at the boarding school in New Mexico. He is standing at one end and his grandmother is walking slowly down the hallway toward a tiny door, barely visible. Nez said he would never forget that image and the feeling he had of loneliness when his grandmother left him.

When Nez was a sophomore in high school he enrolled in the Latter-day Saints Indian Placement Program. The program placed Native American students with LDS families and Nez moved to Salt Lake City to attend South High School.

“I came to Salt Lake to learn what a normal family was,” Nez explained. But before he began his journey he had to deal with leaving his grandmother and the need to find himself. Nez vividly remembers leaving his family but telling them that he would remember who he was. He promised to come back for his grandmother.

This parallel in his life, first his grandmother leaving him and then leaving his grandmother would shape the ideas he has about family and belonging.

Nez moved to Salt Lake and attended Sough High School. While attending South, Nez felt the drive to succeed. He excelled in art and design and was the first Sterling Scholar in Art from South High. He remembers seeing the seniors graduate with honors and all the adornments. At that moment he realized he wanted to feel that sense of pride and accomplishment. He wanted to emulate the success he had seen the other students achieve.

Nez said he had always been able to duplicate and capture images and showed talent at a young age. At the boarding school he remembers doing one of his first drawings and his teacher, Ms. Beach, rewarded him with a one-dollar bill. The drawing was of Abraham Lincoln chopping wood.

With his natural ability to recreate designs and determination to “make it” Nez worked locally for a couple of advertising agencies. While working, however, he discovered he was missing something.

Nez decided he needed to take his talents and start his own business. “I quit. I packed up my stuff and left,” he recalled. Nez and his wife, Yolanda, were expecting their first child.

Armed with nothing more than his portfolio, Nez drove to Arizona to present his raw abilities in graphic design to the Chairman of the Navajo Nation, Peter MacDonald. Nez walked into MacDonald’s office and said: “I want to show you what I can do.” He walked out with two jobs.

One of the jobs MacDonald assigned him was for the Navajo Nation Fair in 1989. It is an original oil painting depicting a Navajo man wearing silver sunglasses and the scene of the fair can be seen in the reflection. Nez said this painting symbolizes the presence of the Native American.

The face of the man in the poster is made up of a collection of a few dozen different faces, one of which is his wife’s, Yolanda, grandfather.

Cal Nez Design, based out of Salt Lake City, is a 100 percent Native American graphic design and advertising agency. In October 2005 Nez was featured on the cover of Utah Business Magazine, when it highlighted minority business owners in Utah. Of the experience Nez says it was and is such a great honor. He said he just hopes he can be a good role model for other Native American business owners.

His philosophy about graphic design is that he tries to keep the integrity of the art. Each piece he works on and designs has his own personal touch. Nez believes the world of graphic design should move away from pre-made templates and generic work; he wants to return to the human aspect. “Every client is different,” he said. “Every message is different.”

Salt Lake graphic designer builds business from scratch


Cal Nez remembered working at a small but growing graphic design business in Utah in the late 1980s. He was content being an artist and working on logos and designs, but the pay was small for the number of awards his designs were receiving.

“We were the ad agency, graphic design [company] of that era,” he said. “We were taking every award. The designs in there, they were mine.”

Nez, a member of the Navajo Nation, realized that he was working at minimum wage or less, and not receiving as much credit for his work as he should. After another couple of weeks contemplating the issue, Nez decided to quit and open his own business.

Nez explained the decision to his pregnant wife, Yolanda, and set out in his car to New Mexico in search of work. He introduced himself to Peter MacDonald, former chairman of the Navajo Nation, and showed his portfolio.

“I picked up two jobs that meeting,” Nez said. “The dollar amount was quite significant for someone who was making 6 dollars an hour.”

Nez started out designing the Navajo Nation poster in 1989 and has since gone on to create the design for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, former Gov. Mike Leavitt’s re-election campaign and others.

More than 20 years after that fateful day, Nez is the one of few Native Americans in Utah to own a business in Utah.

Nez said he was one of the first design company owners to create a web site for his company, Cal Nez Design, Inc., which is a prospering graphic design and advertising company. He said the thrill of finishing designs for a client still makes it worth the effort.

“Right now I just finished a project for the United States Marines,” Nez said. “I get this energy. I love art; I love that challenge.”

In addition to running his own business, Nez started the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce in April 2008 by sending out letters to registered businesses in Utah.

“We’ve started small, but it’s going well,” said Sandy McCabe, a board member and owner of Sandy’s Kitchen. “Cal has done a lot.”

Nez remembered the path he took to become a business owner. He spent six years in a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that he despised. The schools were part of an effort in the 1800s that required Native American children to attend English-speaking schools to assimilate them into American culture. By 1902, the United States government had opened 25 federally funded schools.

Despite that turmoil, Nez said he first realized his potential as an artist at the school.

He left his grandparents in New Mexico at 16 to live with a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints family in Utah and studied at South High School in Salt Lake City. Nez said his experience in Utah changed his life, and although he thinks of his Navajo heritage with pride, he also considers himself an active LDS church member.

Now, Nez has a family of his own. He remembers when his first daughter, Courtney was going to school for the first time.

“I sat out there literally all day to make sure she was going to come back to my arms,” he said, remembering the terrifying experience of his first school.

Nez’s son, Colby, is in high school, and Nez said he is proud of the school work he brings home.

Besides spending as much time with his family as possible, Nez continues his business and produces designs for other organizations. He cherishes his Native American roots and includes that in his designs as much as possible.

“I can go out there and oil paint any concept you can imagine,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any sign that looks alike.”

For SLC graphic designer, a life spent searching for home and helping others


Perched on the edge of a mesa overlooking Albuquerque, N.M., surrounded by a desert calm interrupted only by the occasional breeze, is where you’ll find Cal Nez with his laptop, sending email, completing the mundane clerical tasks associated with his work as a graphic designer.

Nez, speaking to a reporting class at the University of Utah, shifts his recollection from the sweeping vistas of New Mexico to the dreary confines of the boarding school where he was, by his reckoning, held as a prisoner for six of his formative childhood years. He remembers ranks of children, standing at strict attention like soldiers, sometimes for hours. Mincing no words, Nez refers to the experience as one of the biggest demons in his past.

“It took away the beauty of being a child—the beauty, the peace of it,” he says.

Nez, who was born in the Navajo Nation, relates his life story in a series of evocative, symbol-laden snapshots like these—some real, some imagined, others a mixture of the two. Beneath each image, the fight to define a geographic and spiritual home simmers, informing Nez’s dual roles as artist and founder of the Utah Native American Chamber of Commerce.

The impetus behind much of his work, Nez says, is an effort to reassert the presence of Native American people.

“We have a right to fulfill our space as human beings here on earth,” he says. “We are not history; we are not what you see in movies. Our drums, our songs are still going on.”           

Following boarding school, Nez was uprooted once more, this time landing in Salt Lake City, where he enrolled as a sophomore at South High School. Here, he invokes the mental picture of a long school building corridor, his grandmother silhouetted against the light spilling through the door at the end, never turning back.

Nor would he turn back, racking up a dizzying number of achievements and accolades by graduation, including a Sterling Scholarship, a position as editor of the school newspaper, a spot on the wrestling team and student-of-the-year honors.

“I knew I was supposed to go to South High School,” he says, emphasizing the sense of providence he felt in making the wrenching move away from his grandmother and the Navajo Nation. His voice soft, he gazes above the class and, as if speaking to her in person, recalls promising his grandmother that he “won’t ever cry,” and that he was “going to make it.”   

But, even as he celebrates the 20th anniversary of Cal Nez Design, his Salt Lake City–based graphic design company, the 50–year–old father of three still muses over what life would have been like had he been able to stay with his grandparents on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico. 

The tension between these two versions of home is evident in much of his work. Using a diverse range of media, including oil paint, pencil and airbrush, he has produced art and designs for everyone from Governor Michael Leavitt, to the Navajo Nation, to the Utah Museum of Natural History. They are works that dot the spectrum of his identity, which stretches between his life in Utah and his roots in the Navajo Nation.

In April, Nez, in a drive to provide support for fellow Native American business owners, founded the Native American Chamber of Commerce. The organization, he says, is designed to unite Native American voices, bring increased awareness to Native American issues and for lobbying purposes.

He further hopes to foster a spirit of entrepreneurship in the younger generations of Native Americans.

“[There is] nothing you can do about the past,” he says, his voice low but clear, “Read about it, study it. But there’s the future…future. That’s where I think the answer lies.”

Abel Saiz, owner of Saiz Construction, is a member of the chamber and an acquaintance of Nez. He speaks of the organization as a support network for Native American business owners who are often discriminated against.

“We’re not called the invisible people for nothing,” Saiz says, adding that he wishes an organization like the chamber had been around when he created his construction company 22 years ago.

Though Nez acknowledges that many challenges remain in his life, he has found some measure of peace on questions of his identity and his true home.

“I’m beginning to find home is here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “And it doesn’t matter where I’m at.”

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