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Planet Main
In This Section
PDF January/February 2006
e-mail December 20, 2005
e-mail October 28, 2005


The Power of Many
How We Saved the Arctic Refuge (For Now)
Getting Somewhere on the Bridges to Nowhere
Cities Get Cool
Measuring Mercury
Fighting for the Valle Vidal
Building Trust
There's No Limit to Colorado's Power
Finding Common Ground
Trickle-Down Activism
‘Hey, I Can Do This’
I Can Smell for Miles and Miles
Building Environmental Community One Canyon at a Time
Paper to Pixels
Sierra Summit Soars
‘Why Live If You Don't Have Something to Struggle For?’
Expanding Excom
Club Charts Direction for Next Five Years
Big Easy to Beltway: ‘Where's the Beef?’
2005 Timeline
Faces of the Sierra Club


Hope Surfaces in Katrina's Wake
Snapshots from the Summit
Democracy Breaks Out
Rally for the Arctic
A Better Legacy
Thoroughbred Power Plant Blocked
John Swingle
Betsy Bennett
Larry Fahn
Is Your City a Cool City?
Endangered Species Act Endangered
Smithfield Shareholder Resolution
Owens Valley Victory
New Energy Bill Exploits Katrina
From the Editor: Wake of the Flood
Search for a Story
Back Issues

The Planet
Building Trust for a Better Future

Sometimes making environmental progress means there's some bean-planting or praying in sweat lodges along the way.

by Jenny Coyle

Robert Tohe was a young Navajo man living on tribal lands in New Mexico in the early 1960s when his eyes were opened by the White Roots of Peace tour, a group of Native American chiefs urging native people to empower themselves by upholding their traditions.

Building Bridges: Robert Tohe’s work to bring renewable energy to Navajo and Hopi lands is just one example of efforts to work with new allies.

While studying engineering at the University of New Mexico in 1970, Tohe joined the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island and was awed by the convergence of the anti-war, civil rights, and Native American rights movements. “It changed me forever,” he says. “I’ve been a civil rights activist ever since.”

Tohe is one of three Sierra Club staffers dedicated to building bridges with Native American communities. Through its Environmental Justice and Partnership programs, the Club is keenly aware that it can be more effective when it teams up with groups directly affected by corporate irresponsibility, including non-traditional allies like communities of color, labor groups, faith communities, and hunters and anglers.

Working with Tohe in Flagstaff is Andy Bessler, a Sierra Club Partnerships Program organizer (and non-Native American) who five years ago was instrumental in the shutdown of a pumice mine in the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain range sacred to 13 tribes.

Bessler and Tohe are working with Native American and environmental grassroots groups to usher in a “just transition” of Hopi and Navajo lands from producing coal to providing space for renewable-energy resources like solar and wind. They’re meeting with tribal communities, negotiating with government agencies, and demanding accountability from Peabody Energy, which owns the lease for the Black Mesa coal mine on tribal property.

Meanwhile, the Partnership Program’s Chas Jewett, a Lakota Tribe member, is protecting sacred lands in South Dakota. She works to keep logging in check in the Black Hills National Forest, promote wilderness proposals, and halt a campground near sacred Bear Butte. That facility, to be called “Sacred Grounds Campground,” would feature a 40-foot statue of an Indian.

In all cases their work is slow and steady. It can be tricky to get groups to agree, and a sensitive approach is key.

Bessler, for instance, has run traditional Hopi footraces, planted beans, harvested corn, prayed in sweat lodges, and danced at pow wows—all in an effort to understand the culture he works with, meet community members, build trust, and keep the lines of communication open. This comes easier for Tohe and Jewett, but they must also build a rapport. Says Tohe, “The Sierra Club as a whole follows closely behind me once I set up a trust relationship.”

His efforts at the moment—the transition of tribal lands from producing coal to supporting sustainable energy options—involves preparing a shareholder resolution for Peabody Energy’s annual meeting this spring and finding corporate funding to support sustainable energy development.

Tohe relishes these innovative approaches. “You have to understand how a community works in order to be successful,” he says. “I know there are going to be challenges every day, and I look forward to that.”


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