Syria in Ocotillo

The air strikes in Syria continue. Government and pro-government forces go village-by-village, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, killing unarmed civilians that might have any political criticisms about the current Syrian regime. Women and children all face the same fate as combatants: they are silenced forever. In an inspection by the United Nations, this past June, of the town of Qubair, monitors found that the whole village was bombarded, shot-up, devastated, and yet they found none of the bodies of all the families that used to dwell in the homes left burning, all the slaughtered citizens were taken from the scene of the war crime. Pools of blood and body fragments were left behind, as well as the smell of the massacre itself. All bodies and physical evidences of the killings had been picked up and removed. But besides the small pieces left behind, and the tracks of the government military vehicles leaving the scene of the crime, the history of these villagers—their daily lives, their ancestry—was almost completely wiped out forever.

All this wanton death and destruction of citizens in their own nation is for what—so that current regime can stay in power?

In the Colorado Desert of Southern California, the Tribal Governments followed the protocols for the renewable energy projects. They made their comments and protests at all levels of government, from local county officials all the way up the President of the United States. At each level, they were either turned away or they were straight out denied even the courtesy of a formality consultation (such as was the case with the President, even though he made previous public promises to all Tribal Governments to change the tribal-federal relationship and have better, meaningful consultations). These Indians even pleaded to the media and to the public. Despite the limited coverage, there was no answer to their cries for help. At the end of the day, when the bulldozers began to carve away at the ancient desert, the People of the Lower Colorado River stood naked in the land of their ancestors, with no protections from the federal government and with very little aid coming from the public.

On a spiritual level, the Indians of the Lower Colorado River feel as the Syrians do. The machinery of renewable energy begins to grind at their traditional lands. Right before their eyes, the landscape of which they were an integral part of for thousands of year is changed in an instant. One step ahead of the developers are the non-Indian archaeologists, picking up pieces of pottery and lithic tools, so that they may be “collected” and “preserved” as archaeological “data”—taking them away from the very locations that the ancestors of these Indians had intended them to rest. One of the Native representatives, at one of the consultation meetings, told the BLM, “If you keep this up, there will be nothing left of our People. It will be as if we never existed.” And yet, this lamentation did not faze the federal government or the private developer.

Of course, there is a difference between the devastation in Syria and Ocotillo. In the former, people are removed from this physical existence with survivors struggling to hold on to their material lives; whereas in the latter, most of the Indians will retire at the end of the day to a decent home, that is not being shot at by government forces, and they will have food to eat. We do wish the victims in Syria welfare and pray that the Creator protects them all.

But the pain for these Indians is real and it persists. The nation and the federal government ignored these Native Americans. And the renewable energy projects proceed to support the energy platform of the president’s re-election campaign. In the end, the destruction in the desert is promoted in order to keep this nation’s current regime in power.

Unfortunately, the Ocotillo and Genesis renewable energy projects were concocted in a perfect storm for development. The current president is up for re-election and he seeks to bolster his platform by attacking the Republican stand-by of energy production and consumption, the use of fossil fuels, with his renewable energy projects. On top of that, the country is in a recession, making jobs the ultimate political capital—which the president promises that these renewable energy projects will help manufacture.

Of course, jobs are important to everyone, especially in a recession. Indians want to see the creation of jobs. The public needs jobs; Indians need jobs as well. Because of the imposition western civilization on Indian Nations, Native Americans have had to forsake their traditional livelihoods and economies, which had harmony or balance as the goal of these systems, and instead have had to engage in the western economy of working for money to sustain their lives. For better or worse, Indigenous Peoples need job opportunities just as anyone else does.

But the creation of jobs at what cost? Is an intact, relatively undisturbed, desert landscape the appropriate location for a utility-scale, wind energy facility? (And the public may not be aware that this land was designated “L” or “Limited Use” land—the second most restrictive land category out of four—under the California Desert Conservation Act in 1980.) Unfortunately, some of the elders who consulted on the Ocotillo project had to disclose the sensitive cultural information that the Ocotillo Valley is known by some traditionalists as the “Valley of the Dead”, in part because of all the Ancestors laid to rest in cremation sites along the valley floor. And, of course, these elders were fain to disclose this sensitive information, because it’s cultural knowledge about their ancestors that the elders were taught to pass down only to their fellow tribal members and that it was not meant for outsiders, such as the federal government or private developers, to know — that is price these elders had to pay to try to save their traditional land. Since construction has begun, many cremation sites and human bones have been unearthed in the project area, reaffirming the assertions and admonitions of these elders about the sacredness of the area.

But as the President of the Quechan Indian Tribe queried in a previous press statement, regarding the Ocotillo Wind Project, “We ask the non-Indian public: How would you feel if Pattern [Energy] proposed a wind project on top of your family grave site, or on top of Arlington Cemetery? Would anyone endorse such a project? That is the magnitude of what is being asked of the Quechan Indian Tribe.”

Is this the price of jobs today? Is this what our society has come to? That we are willing to generate jobs at the expense of the resting place of another person’s ancestor? Is this the cultural and spiritual low that our nation has reached in order to create employment? Money trumps the graves of the “other”. I guess as long as the majority feels comfortable, then it’s acceptable to build a 10,000 acre wind farm in the desert, as long as it’s not over the graves of the ancestors of the majority. And, of course, the BLM used this cost-benefit analysis, of how the Ocotillo Wind project will in the end benefit the “majority”, to justify approval of the project. The creation of jobs to help win over voters from the majority to keep the current regime in power is fine, even if it’s on the graves of the ancestors of the minority—at least according to this administration.

With the election of Barack Obama, many Americans thought that this nation had reached a cultural milestone in the arena of race relations and that we, collectively, had reached an acceptance of the “other” or of racial minorities. But the Indians of the Colorado River assert that more work needs to be done to recognize the human and spiritual rights of these and other Indigenous, and how these rights have been violated by the onslaught of these renewable energy projects. Until the desecration of these fundamental rights is recognized and mended, this milestone of four years ago, for these Indians, will be as if our society went back four hundred years when the dominant culture in America felt complete liberty to develop over the resting places and cultural resources of the Ancectors we seek to protect today. Where is the hope in that?

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