Southwestern Tribes Lead Cultural Healing March to Move Beyond Coal
Enduring record heat, Native Americans in southern Nevada led a three-day, 50-mile Cultural Healing Walk over Earth Day weekend to draw attention to the devastating effects of coal pollution on their community. The Moapa Band of Paiutes partnered with the Sierra Club to organize the walk and Earth Day rally, which drew members of several tribal nations and supporters from throughout the Southwest.
The cultural healing walk commenced at the Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant, which abuts Moapa Paiute lands, and ended at an April 23 rally at the Lloyd George Federal Building in Las Vegas. Reid Gardner is the last coal-burning power plant in Nevada.
The goal of the healing walk was to highlight the harm Reid Gardner is doing to the tribe's health, culture, and economy. Toxic coal dust from the plant is picked up by wind storms, blows over tribal lands and the towns of Moapa and Mesquite, and up to pristine areas like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
"We were here, we are here, and we will be here," Moapa Paiute member Calvin Meyers says of his tribe's relationship to their historical lands. Watch this video about the cultural healing walk, produced by the Las Vegas Review-Journal, featuring Moapa Paiute members and local Sierra Club organizer Vinny Spotleson. That's Spotleson below, with his mom, Kay.
Tribal members suffer from frequent asthma attacks, allergies, sinus problems, ear infections, thyroid disease, and other maladies that they believe are caused by constant exposure to particulates blowing from Reid Gardner's toxic coal ash disposal ponds onto tribal lands, covering residents' cars and homes and filling the air they breathe.
Sierra Club organizers Lynn Goya and Elspeth Cordua, below, collaborated with the Moapa Paiutes to organize the healing walk and April 23 rally at the federal building.
"This was an incredibly moving event for me," says Goya. "When you see the energy and promise of a little five-year-old—the youngest Paiute member to participate in the walk—and think of the toxins that blow over his home, his playground, and his community, it's heartbreaking. He deserves better, and I'm so proud to be part of the Sierra Club, because together we can make his world better. Nevada should be using clean Nevada-based power, not dirty imported power."
Goya gives kudos to Cordua for turning people out to the event. "Elspeth made hundreds of calls to Sierra Club members over the past week. It was 99 degrees the day of the rally, but over 100 people joined 50 or more Moapa Paiutes and members of at least five other tribes at the federal building."
Tribal walkers as young as five and as old as 81 joined in. "The 81-year old walked an entire day and the 5-year old walked for over an hour in record heat," Goya says.
About 100 non-tribal supporters joined the final mile of the healing walk and gathered at the federal courthouse to greet the Procession of Flags of Nations. They were welcomed with songs and drums by Cree singer Randy Woods. Moapa Paiute Tribal Council Member Richard Fisher offered an opening prayer, then Woods blessed the group with a prayer in his native tongue. Leland Swan of the Southern Paiute tribe offered a blessing in Paiute.
"Indigenous languages are one of the most rapidly disappearing cultural treasures of the world," Goya says, "so it was especially moving to hear the languages once spoken freely throughout the region."
Tanya Means, chairwoman of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe, spoke about her tribe's support for the issues facing the Moapa Band of Paiutes, and Vickie Simmons, a member of the Moapa Paiute's Environmental and Health Committee, read statements from children who had suffered from illnesses brought on by by living next to the power plant.
Moapa Paiute President Richard Anderson said the high percentage of thyroid and respiratory problems is a huge concern on the reservation. "We need air monitoring equipment installed on the reservation to study the emissions we’re breathing in and determine what needs to be done for our people’s health. We also need more stringent storage conditions for coal ash and a study to show the health risks associated with breathing in coal ash.”
Lynn Goya spoke about the Sierra Club's shared commitment to replacing Reid Gardner with clean energy alternatives. The Moapa Paiutes are working on a proposal for a 350-megawatt solar array on tribal lands.
Pictured below, clockwise from upper left: Richard Anderson, Vickie Simmons, Leland Swan, Richard Fisher (in blue shirt behind Lynn Goya), Randy Woods, Tanya Means.
"We want to get Reid Gardner retired as soon as possible," says Barbara Boyle of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. "This area has an amazing array of renewable energy resources—it's a perfect place for solar power."
On May 3, the EPA is holding two public meetings—one on the Moapa reservation and another in the nearby town of Overton—to discuss an air-pollution permit for Reid Gardner. There are informational sessions in advance of both hearings. If you are a resident of southern Nevada, or a concerned citizen from elsewhere visiting the area this Thursday, sign up here to attend the hearings.
All photos by Alan Goya.