The Wind that Blows Over Our Ancestors
"These mountains are very important to... my people. On these mountains along the Columbia River is about one of the only places left more or less untouched for some of our Native foods and medicines. All of our upper valley... have all become farmlands. So what we have left are these mountains."
It is here, on some high bluffs that overlook the Columbia River that our ancestors lie resting in the arms of their mother, looking up towards the heavens. Here golden eagles nest and medicinal plants work their way up the soil towards the sky. It is also here that the Enron Corporation seeks to build its 15,000-acre windfarm. It is a strange and twisted tale in which ardent environmentalists and the Yakama Indian Nation have found themselves opposing an alternative energy bid.
In the days before the dams, 16 million fish would thrash their way up the Nch'I'Wana (the Big River) to spawn. The giant Dalles Dam on the Columbia put Celilo Falls under water. These falls were the epicenter of the Nch'I'Wana Native community's cultural and spiritual practice. Today, among other modern depredations, is the blight of the Hanford Nuclear reservation, with its radioactive leaks that find their way to the river. And now there is a new assault on all that remains of the river valley—windmills.
Winds rolling over the Columbia Hills average a constant 20 miles per hour. Over the past seven years, various incarnations of a huge wind project have appeared in the minds of developers as they look at the Columbia Hills. In 1994, the Kenetech Windpower Company approached Klickitat County and secured leases from private landowners to roughly 15,000 acres for a wlndpower site. The plan was appealed by the Yakama Nation and the Columbia Gorge Audubon Society and Kenetech's project stalled. The company's stock tumbled from $30 a share to $1 a share in the span of 12 months. In 1996, Kenetech filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
Enter Enron, a broker of capital in the energy market with an innate ability to sense opportunity. Enron picked up Kenetech's assets—which included the Klickitat County Board of Adjusters' conditional use permits for a 345-turbine wind project in the Columbia Gorge. The proposed 15,000-acre industrial windfarm with its rows of 200-foot-high turbines was no small project. The entire project would produce, on average, 30 to 50 megawatts. At full capacity, the system could generate 115 MW. Kenetech's environmental impact assessment (EIA) indicated that up to 382 acres of land would be directly impacted by roads and turbine placement and that up to 10,000 loads of gravel would be required to build the site.
The Yakama Nation does not oppose wind energy. In fact, the Yakama have expressed an interest in wind development in several locations within their nation. The problem is that the Columbia Gorge site is one of the most revered areas in Yakama and Klickitat territory. The Yakama's oral history supports this traditional use of the area from time immemorial.
The Yakama Nation and the reservation is comprised of a number of separate indigenous peoples, a consequence of the forced relocations and military policies of the US government. Included in those peoples are the Klickitat, who have their own traditional chiefs.
One of those leaders is Johnny Jackson, a slight and soft-spoken man whose wisps of hair and wiry frame belie the potency of his words. Jackson recalls the words of his ancestor Ta-wa-tash, who had a vision "that two men would come down the river from the east. One was a greedy man and one was a good man, but Ta-wa-tash did not know which was which. So he did not trust either of them and would not speak to them. My ancestor saw in his vision that when the men came they could corrupt the land. He said there was going to be trouble here. And then the war came, and Governor Stevens brought his army and the Klickitat people fought back, and the Cascade people fought with them, and the land was divided for the new people."
Those men were Lewis and Clark. The war, known as the Klickitat War, was fought in the Columbia Hills. The 1855 treaty ending the war removed the Klickitat and the Cascade people from the land.
The Klickitat War was right back of them mountains in the valley of the Klickitat," Johnny remembers. "Hard to make them understand that our people are buried there... They took them up to the mountains so they'd be closer to the heavens. That's got a lot to do with the sacredness of that mountain."
The Klickilat, like many other Native people, have specific teachings about these ancestors, ones that they plan on keeping. "Within our teachings. we say that we don't disturb the people when they are in the ground. Because the Creator says that 'when you arrive to me, I want you to answer to me with everything I give you,' and that's why this land is so important and sacred with our elders." The area is also host to other religious sites, including places for fasting and for harvesting of traditional and medicinal plants.
The Klickitat and Yakama people are not alone in their opposition to the wind facility. The Audubon Society considers the Columbia River Flyway one of the most important raptor areas in the Northwest. The project's Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) documents 34 Special Status Species, seven Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Priority Habitats and numerous high-quality native plant communities within the project area. The concrete will obliterate most of the plant and animal communities in the area and the windfarm will literally shred the raptors.
Now meet the adversary: Enron. Not actually much of a power producer, Enron's profits are in the financing of energy and the brokering of resources.
Enron has done pretty well for itself. In 2000 alone, Enron's wholesale trading and services business reported a pre-tax income of $777 million, nearly three times of that of the previous year. Total net income of the corporation jumped an amazing 32 percent in 2000 with revenues of $101 billion, up 150 percent. These increases have been reflected in the stock exchange: Enron's stock has increased 175 percent over the last tow years.
The company is rumored to the North America's most powerful energy broker. "Enron is at the top of a group of corporations that has the ear of George W. Bush," says Craig McDonald, Executive Director of Texans for Public Justice. The Center for Public Integrity reports that Enron was Dubya's leading patron in Austin, donating more than $500,000 to the governor. Enron also supplied its corporate jets for Bush's presidential campaign and gave $250,000 to underwrite the Republican Party's national convention.
Sensing the potential of Indian country and feeling the need to shore up some of its relationships (particularity around the issues of rights and access to oil and gas lines), Enron put together an "Indian desk." Jerry Pardilla, a Penobscott and director of the National Tribal Environmental Council, was lured away from the NTEC to head the Indian group at Enron.
Pardilla saw the potential of a collaboration with Enron to help tribes "build their energy infrastructure and creating means for tribes to build their economies." Pardilla points not only to the energy resources held by many tribes, but also notes that many tribes are large purchasers of residential energy.
Enron's interest in the Native American desk, however, seems to have been short-lived. The desk was dissolved less than a year after its creation.
Enron's interest in the indigenous communities has sparked interest in a number of quarters, including at environmental groups like Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Project Underground. Both became concerned with Enron's behavior in the Bolivian-Brazilian Cuibia project. In 1999, FOE used a shareholders resolution to ask Enron to report on the environmental and human rights implications in its worldwide operations. The resolution gained nearly a nine percent "yes" vote and secured a meeting between FOE and Enron officials. In late 2000, Progressive Assets Management, on behalf of the Solidago Foundation, asked to join FOE's campaign and expanded the resolution to include Enron's impacts on "biodiversity and indigenous peoples."
"We recognized that we had Enron in our portfolio and began to find that they couldn't pass our social screen. That began the process of formulating a shareholder action," explains David Rosenmiller, executive director of the Solidago Foundation. A bit more research found that others had also been disturbed by Enron's apparent lack of interest in "biodiversity, indigenous and human rights." By the spring, Solidago was joined by Domini Social Investments, FOE, Trillium Assets Management (on behalf of the Oneida Nation) and the General Pension Board of the United Methodist Church in the expanded corporate resolution. Solidago's concerns expanded as they continued their work with the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), a national Native organization with Johnny Jackson on the board. "Because of IEN's involvement, we decided that we should take a lead on filing a shareholders resolution. We were concerned..., as a grantmaker, that Enron was doing damage to a community that we worked in."
Bullit Foundation Director (and Earth Day pioneer) Denis Hayes speaks for many environmentalists in the region. "I can't believe that with all the windpower in this region, we can't find ways to put up projects that benefit both the tribes and the economy," Hayes says.
To most, however, the project remains a sore reminder of all that has been lost—and the critical importance of what still remains Johnny Jackson views the situation through the eyes of the ancestors, today's youth and the generations still ahead.
"When something is in the ground there, they put into the soil no headstones, markers, concrete, etcetera so they can see heaven," Jackson says. "We're not against windpower, if you have it in the right area. We just want to have it in the right place. There's Horse Heaven and Mabtom; the wind blows just as strong there. Let them put it there."
Native American Activist and Harvard graduate Winona LaDuke (Anishinabe) lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She is the program director for the Honor the Earth Fund and co-chairs the Indigenous Women's Network. Laduke and Ralph Nader were the Green Party candidates in the 2000 presidential race.
© Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2001