Wind, not war: toward an alternate power source

Joel Helfrich

In March 2001, then-Alaska Sen. (now Gov.) Frank Murkowski introduced legislation to open the Coastal Plain of northeastern Alaska – part of the 19.8 million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – to drilling companies. He argued if the citizens of the United States turned their collective backs on the oil that exists below the surface of the Coastal Plain, their inaction was a “prescription for economic and national security disaster.” Murkowski then held up a blank white sheet of paper. In that one moment, Murkowski effectively pulled the wool over our collective eyes. He made nearly everyone see the area known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a blank, barren place with no life – human or otherwise.

Despite the governor’s comments, the area that makes up the refuge has been inhabited for thousands of years by the Inupiat and the Gwich’in people. It is, indeed, telling that Murkowski failed to mention this information, despite the fact he served on the Indian Affairs committee during his four terms in the Senate. In the Gwich’in language, this place is called Vadzaih googii vi dehk’it gwanlii or “the sacred places where life begins.”

Indeed, Murkowski’s actions are common tactics in the fight over resources. The idea is that once you have made indigenous communities vanish, or sidelined them enough, you can do whatever you want is common practice in our society. Scholars often refer to this effort as “the myth of the vanishing Indian.” But “resource rebels,” as sociologist Al Gedicks calls them in his book by the same name, are not going to back down, nor are they going to go away.

Indeed, the Gwich’in people’s struggle is one that many indigenous peoples have experienced. All over the United States – indeed, throughout the world – indigenous lands are under attack from governments, mining and timber companies, housing developments, the tourism industry and research universities. Most pernicious, of course, are the mining and oil companies that can think of nothing better than appropriating indigenous land for their own purposes. But there is a growing movement that attempts to steer the national dialogue regarding energy in a new direction.

Enter Minnesota’s very own Winona LaDuke. She supports the “Wind, not war” concept – a simple concept that means exactly what it states. LaDuke first relayed this clever phrase to me as I sat in the audience of a lecture she gave at the Minnesota Historical Society early last fall. She felt her organization, Honor the Earth, “should start to practice what we preach.” In that vein, and with the help of many organizations, the White Earth Land Recovery Project – another organization of hers – purchased a 20-kilowatt turbine wind generator last March on the White Earth Reservation. By promoting “an alternative energy vision for the future,” LaDuke and many others are not only attempting to displace “dirty energy” such as nuclear, coal, mega-dams, oil and gas, but are also “respect(ing) the role of indigenous peoples as leaders in the movement for a safe and sustainable world.”

On May 16, in Willey Hall 125, Winona LaDuke will be on campus to discuss indigenous efforts to build American Indian wind farms like the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Wind Turbine Project in South Dakota, and wind projects at Pine Ridge and Porcupine Butte. “Native people have borne the brunt of America’s past energy policy, from uranium mining in the Southwest to massive hydroelectric projects in the sub-arctic. It is time for energy justice, and it is time for a new energy policy,” LaDuke said. She also notes that “financing wind energy in the economically poorest communities in the country is energy justice.”

Internationally, the movement against war and toward wind is growing. At a protest march against the war in Iraq in London on March 13, one bearded man held a sign that stated: “Wind not war.” Although only one person, among the 750,000 to 2 million people authorities say attended the protest, his message was clear. We must look for – indeed, we must seek out and struggle for – better ways of taking care of the energy needs of the human populace. And we should come together with the international community to make this happen.

Pat Spears, Lower Brule Tribal member and president of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, declares: “We believe in the wind. The wind is a gift; the wind has power. The wind is a blessing.” Bob Gough, Rosebud Tribal Utility Commission Attorney and a member of the same organization, put it this way: “The great plains is the Saudi Arabia of Wind Power. Twenty-three native nations in the Great Plains have the potential to generate over 300,000 megawatts of clean and renewable electricity from the wind – that’s half of the U.S.’s current generating capacity.”

In the meantime, according to Gough, “Tribes hope to bring 5,000 megawatts of wind power to market in the next decade.” Gough points out that this effort, by itself, is “the equivalent of three or more coal or nuclear power plants.” To clarify his point, Gough notes, “We can bring you coal, mercury, global warming, and climate change, or we can bring you wind power. The choice is yours.”

Joel T. Helfrich’s columns appear alternate Tuesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]