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Hopi Tribal Members Face Lack Of Reliable, Affordable Fuel


Members of the Hopi Nation in northeastern Arizona have traditionally heated their homes with coal dug from their land. But since the 1970s, they have relied instead on coal from this huge strip mine on tribal land that supplied a big power plant. The mine and power plant closed this past fall, and now Hopi tribal members face their first winter without reliable, affordable fuel. From member station KNAU Melissa Sevigny reports.

MELISSA SEVIGNY, BYLINE: Trees are scarce on Hopi's often snowy, windswept desert mesas, so switching from coal to wood isn't easy. Propane and space heaters are expensive, and many houses don't have electricity. Monica Nuvasma lives in the village of Shongopovi.

MONICA NUVASMA: I think that that's a really difficult thing for most people to grasp, when they just turn their thermostat or push a button and they get the heating.

SEVIGNY: Before the mine closed, it provided free coal to many tribal members. Chelsea Sekakuku of Kykotsmovi Village says she now has to get up twice a night to add wood to her coal stove. It takes Sekakuku and her three children a full day to gather a truckload of wood, which only lasts one week.

CHELSEA SEKAKUKU: It's just a lot of physical work. And, you know, not everyone is able to afford wood, but it's a necessity now.

SEVIGNY: Today, a nonprofit called Red Feather Development Group is helping weatherize Sekakuku's 80-year-old stone house, which needs insulation and other repairs to help it hold in the heat. Joe Seidenberg is the executive director.

JOE SEIDENBERG: There are people that are living with extreme housing disparities, with major holes in their roofs, with cardboard windows, that are at a real risk for freezing to death.

SEVIGNY: Red Feather also hosts workshops on alternative heating options, but Seidenberg says funding is limited, and there's a long waitlist.

SEIDENBERG: It is truly an injustice that this is happening in the United States of America.

SEVIGNY: Melissa Alcala, administrator for the village of Tewa on Hopi, started a new program in response to the mine's closure - to get regular deliveries of wood from the White Mountain Apache Timber Company in forested areas to the south. Workers chop the timber into small sizes called Soh'so wood, the Hopi word for grandmother.

MELISSA ALCALA: So we cut them up into soh'so woods, you know, so they're not heavy to lift. We wanted to make it as easy as possible for our elders to be able to keep warm.

SEVIGNY: The village sells the wood for $240 a cord, but elders get a supply for free.

ALCALA: Because some of them are burning their clothes now. It kills me to not be able to help. However, I only service this village.

SEVIGNY: Clark Tenakhongva is the vice chairman of the Hopi tribe.

CLARK TENAKHONGVA: I saw people come into my office in tears saying that, how am I supposed to keep my house warm? And what can I say, as a leader?

SEVIGNY: Some Hopi blame the tribal government for not preparing better for the mine's closure, which was first discussed two years ago. The tribe has worked with nearby forests to offer wood-cutting permits. But Tenakhongva says a strategy to maintain coal for heat is difficult now that the tribe is no longer getting royalties from the closed mine. That's meant an 80% drop in the tribe's budget. He says this winter, many must choose between eating and keeping warm.

For NPR News, I'm Melissa Sevigny.

(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S "CLOUDS (INSIGHT VOL. 3)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Melissa grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert. She has a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Arizona and an M.FA. in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University. Her first book, Mythical River, forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press, is about water issues in the Southwest. She has worked as a science communicator for NASA’s Phoenix Mars Scout Mission, the Water Resources Research Center, and the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. Melissa relocated to Flagstaff in 2015 to join KNAU’s team. She enjoys hiking, fishing and reading fantasy novels.