The Wisdom of Our Grandmothers

Stacy Ho, WEA Avocacy DelegatePolicy Associate, Green For All

Sometimes I find myself talking about sustainable economic development as the “new thing,” the idea that will distinguish the future from the past. But sustainable economic development is not new to indigenous communities. As I participate in the Women’s Earth Alliance Sacred Earth Advocacy Delegation to the Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, I am struck by how much we can learn from the Navajo, or Diné, people as they look to the culture and traditions of their grandmothers as a source of renewal and reinvention.

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As Tony Skrelunas, Native America Program Director at the Grand Canyon Trust, explained to our delegation, the Navajo used to be a migratory people who moved their homes as they herded sheep and grew corn on rotating areas of land. Their culture was rich with traditions, ceremonies, rituals, and practices that taught and preserved an ethic of conservation, honor, integrity, and living in harmony with the earth and each other. This communal green economy, based on barter and valuing knowledge, brought Navajo society to its pinnacle in the 1940s. 

Today, grassroots indigenous organizations — including the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Navajo Green Economy Coalition, Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, and Dineh Bidzill Coalition — are calling on the Navajo people to return to those core values. These groups want the Navajo to assert their sovereign rights over and determine the best uses of their rich stores of natural resources, including their water and land; to generate energy from renewable sources; and to protect their people and sacred places from the harm caused by extractive industries, including coal and uranium mining and coal-fired and nuclear power plants. Coal-fired generating stations, for example, are depleting precious aquifers and producing mercury, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide pollution while producing electricity for Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson.
If native communities can access and use sufficient land and water, organizations such as Indigenous Community Enterprises (ICE) are poised to drive green economic development initiatives that sustain and provide business ownership for indigenous families and communities based on traditional agriculture, such as corn and sheep. Indigenous organizations — including ICE, the Just Transition Coalition (which includes Black Mesa Water Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Sierra Club), and the Shonto Community Development Corporation — are also already leading the development of cutting-edge technologies. These include green building construction that incorporates solar and wind energy generation and water-harvesting systems in elders’ homes on the Navajo Reservation and a community-owned, large-scale solar energy system that has the potential to create jobs for a network of Navajo installers and be supplied by a local assembly and manufacturing plant.
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These groups share a vision of driving the growth of an environmentally sustainable economy that is equitable and grounded in Navajo culture. I am inspired by how this vision honors the wisdom of these indigenous leaders’ grandmothers and is showing a way forward that holds so much hope for a more just, healthy, and self-sustaining future for indigenous communities. 

Green For All is a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. We are dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans through a clean energy economy. We work in collaboration with the business, government, labor, and grassroots communities to create and implement programs that increase quality jobs and opportunities in green industry – all while holding the most vulnerable people at the center of our agenda.


  1. Vitalogist on July 7, 2011 at 6:28 pm

    WOW, projects like this one are sorely needed and should be replicated nationwide. The message here is one of hope and overdue acknowledgement that we may shape our future from the past's fugitive societies of compassion and interconnection, and not from its solid centuries of rogue materialism.

    Thank you to G4A and the author for this work.

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