The oldest ethnic group in the United States is also the least connected.
In the Navajo Nation — the country’s largest Indian Reservation that sprawls across parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — about 38 percent of homes are off the electric grid. Eagle Energy, a nonprofit dedicated to empowering disenfranchised people in this community, is trying to change that by installing or distributing solar-powered light kits across the reservation.
Eagle Energy is an offshoot of Elephant Energy, which operates in Namibia, Africa, distributing solar energy systems. In 2010, the founder of Elephant Energy, Doug Vilsack, took a trip to the Navajo Nation and discovered that many of the same energy issues present in Africa exists at home here in America. By partnering with local activists and Navajo chapters, Eagle Energy was born. The nonprofit’s staff, including its director of operations, Adrian Manygoats, is largely sourced from the local Navajo population.
To ensure that the Nation’s elderly demographic is well-served, guides who are fluent in Navajo are often used. This also makes it possible to find many of the community’s off-the-grid citizens, as only a long-time local would know where some of them live deep in the backcountry.
“One of the most shocking things about the Navajo Nation,” says Julia Alvarez, executive director of Eagle Energy, “is the extreme poverty despite the fact that it is right here in the south-central United States.”
Nearly half of the Navajo Nation lives below the federal poverty line. Years of mistreatment by the U.S. government, forced (and ineffective) integration and post-war uranium mining that lasted till the late 1980s marginalized and deteriorated the health of the population.
Today, those who live off the grid often rely on kerosene lanterns for indoor light. The cost of kerosene consumes a large portion of household budgets, while the smoke — released directly into the indoor environment — contributes to a high incidence of respiratory problems, which are exacerbated by the extreme temperature shifts between day and night in the desert climate (as evening descends, homes are shuttered against the cold, preventing ventilation).
Eagle Energy, partnering with other nonprofits, hopes to reach all of the estimated 18,000 un-electrified homes in the Navajo Nation, with its eventual goal of making these residences energy independent. It’s an ambitious mission, but every installation brings this extremely motivated group one step closer.
“We’re still a great people,” says Manygoats. “We’re still here. And I think that matters.”