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An interview with DOE Office of Indian Energy Director Wahleah Johns.

U.S. Department of Energy

It's an honor to be in this role as a director of the Office of Indian Energy. There's an amazing team and program here. It's been established for about ten years now. 

I'm Navajo. I'm Diné, from Northeastern Arizona. And how I got involved with energy work was through water. I come from a rural remote community on the Navajo Reservation, where my family hauls water every day. They don't have access to electricity. And broadband is sort of nonexistent there. 

My work around water is trying to understand our aquifer, the Navajo aquifer. And it sits below the community I'm from. 

Usually, coal resources are transported by railway, and this form of transportation was mixing coal, pulverizing coal and mixing it with groundwater, pristine groundwater. Every day, 3.3 million gallons, every day. So you go back home, and we're hauling water, and all of this is powering cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Pretty much the West, to be where it's at today, wouldn't have been possible if it weren't for the coal and water of where I come from, and the people. 

That perspective on energy, living two miles from a coal mining operation, and seeing the exporting of power to benefit cities, and yet over the hill from the operations, you know, there's many families that don't have access to electricity or running water or basic infrastructure. And that motivated me to, one, protect our groundwater, and start to figure out strategies to understand, scientifically and policy, how can we protect our groundwater? There has to be another way to generate power that isn't taking from our resources. 

For Office of Indian Energy, our focus is going to be on, one, addressing energy access of the Native American homes that don't have access to electricity, and two, helping to support tribes going through clean energy, that transition. I believe that we have this beautiful light that shines on us every day that I'm always excited to see, and that actually can bring power to people who are in need of electricity, but can sustain, and cut emissions, and create jobs, bring hope to our planet that is in desperate need of climate solutions. 

Because 100 percent of our investment in IE goes to tribal projects, and we see tangible, immediate results that benefit the people and the communities, that make them more climate resilient, that make them more self-sufficient in generating their power, that builds capacity, that creates jobs. If a project is designed right for the community, it can demonstrate that self-reliance, that self-determination, and that sovereignty that tribes really hold close to them, and that gets me excited. 

My message to tribal leaders, tribal communities, is that we are here, ready to support, that these opportunities are exciting, because the values and goals that tribes have on culture, land, water, this administration and even our office has been like supporting and providing these resources to get them to that – you know, that are aligned with their cultural values and their community values and their nation's values, and want to be of service. 

We learn so many lessons from projects that have gone bad, like my backyard, where I hope our groundwater is going to continue for my future generations, they'll have that. We've learned these lessons. We hear them all the time, the stories. But how can we do it much different and better from those lessons, from the legacy, kind of energy projects? And that's our task now, is to – in this administration, in this time, is to show and demonstrate what that looks like, that it's equitable, and it's not just benefiting a few. I think it's definitely a saleable issue. So that's part of my charge, is really just to build in systems that are going to improve the quality of life of Native American people, and continue to show what is possible. And I'm excited about that. 

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