While economists bemoan the rising U.S. unemployment rate, nearing 10 percent, there's a part of the country that has long struggled with unemployment many times higher – the Navajo Nation.
The unemployment rate across the sprawling region is 44 percent right now. But on Tuesday, its leaders approved groundbreaking legislation that they hope will bring change for their people.
The Navajo Nation became the first Native American tribe to pass green jobs legislation intended to grow thousands of jobs in ways that follow the Navajo traditions of respecting the Earth. The Navajo Nation Council voted to establish a Navajo Green Economy Commission that will draw on federal, state and foundation funding to pay for green initiatives ranging from farmers' markets to small-scale energy projects.
"This is huge," says Wahleah Johns, Field Organizer for Black Mesa Water Coalition, part of the Navajo Green Economy Coalition, which lobbied for the legislation.
"One of the largest indigenous nations in the U.S. is paving a pathway for green jobs development in Indian country. It could be a model for most Indian nations throughout the world."
The Navajo Green Economy Coalition hopes the initiative will alleviate the area's high unemployment rate. Many employed members of the Navajo Nation, which spans 26,000 miles – about the size of West Virginia – have to travel far to jobs off the reservation. Some 77 cents of every dollar earned on the reservation ends up being spent off of it.
"I think this legislation is really important, because we have a lot of really smart, talented people who go to college and return and can't find a job. I was one of them,"
says Nikke Alex, a member of the coalition and a recent University of Arizona graduate.
Many of the jobs that are on the reservation are with schools, hospitals and tribal government, or in industries like coal mining, oil drilling and, until a 2005 tribal ban, uranium mining.
The legislation defines "green businesses" as businesses and industries that contribute to the economy with little or no generation of greenhouse gases and/or can counteract the negative effects of greenhouse gases.
"With this green jobs program, we hope we will support existing sustainable practices, like local organic farming that already exists but just needs a good marketing mechanism, and ranching organic meats like sheep and cattle that a lot of folk raise on Navajo reservation that could be made into gourmet foods," Johns says.
The commission also expects to fund weavers' co-operatives and wool mills, since shepherding and weaving wool are part of traditional Navajo culture. Energy will be a focus in the form of weatherization, energy efficiency and small-scale solar and wind projects within homes and communities.
"Our government has been relying on dirty energy and it's time that our tribal government turns to more energy efficient and sustainable jobs," Alex says.
Johns touted the benefits of the reservation's sunny location – surrounded by Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, it has more than 300 days of sunlight annually – and its proximity to California, a leader in renewable energy standards that could become buyer if the Navajo Nation produces and sells solar or wind energy.
Rural electrification and rainwater harvesting are also becoming priorities for the Navajo Nation; 50% of the reservation lacks electricity and running water. The legislation will also create green jobs training programs in collaboration with Diné College and Navajo Technical College.
The legislation aligns with Native American cultural values, Johns says:
"All indigenous nations have always had a philosophy of being caretakers of Mother Earth. It's something our people have been practicing for countless generations and it's nothing new for our people."
The newly established Navajo Green Economy Commission will take two years to implement the legislation, spending the first year researching the community's job needs and applying for funds. The Commission intends to seek funding from various federal initiatives, including the newly established Clean Energy Corps, from state agencies, and from large foundations. The commission will then assess and grant funds for green projects.
The impetus for the legislation came from a grassroots coalition, formed in the spring of 2008, of individuals and the Sierra Club, 1Sky New Mexico, Grand Canyon Trust, Diné CARE, New Energy Economy and New Mexico Youth Organized.
Other Native American groups are also pursuing green opportunities. In South Dakota, two tribes are working on wind power. The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe launched the Sioux Wind company with the goal of building a wind farm on or near the tribe's reservation. The Oglala Sioux tribe approved the creation of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Renewable Energy Development Authority in May to oversee renewable wind power development on the wind-swept Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.