Sylvia "Cindy" Homer, vice chairwoman of the Colorado River… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
The Feb. 27 letter from the chairman of the Colorado River Indian Tribes was pleading and tough. It asked President Obama to slow the federal government's "frantic pursuit" of massive solar energy projects in the Mojave Desert because of possible damage to Native American cultural resources.
The Obama administration didn't respond. But four days after Chairman Eldred Enas sent the letter, the Indians say they found an answer, delivered by spirits of the desert.
Howling winds uncovered a human tooth and a handful of burned bone fragments the size of quarters on a sand dune in the shadow of new solar power transmission towers. Indians say the discovery is evidence of a Native American cremation site not detected in Southern California Edison's archaeological survey before the towers were built.
PHOTOS: Sacred ground
The Indians reburied the remains a few hundred feet away. But while digging the grave April 3, they hit more ancestral bones.
It was the last straw, the third discovery of artifacts at or in the vicinity of the $1-billion Genesis solar project 200 miles east of Los Angeles. All had been missed by archaeological surveys conducted in a rush to build.
"Mother Nature decided to show them what they missed in those surveys and said, 'Stop,'" said Sylvia "Cindy" Homer, vice chairwoman of the Colorado tribes.
Now the tribes, joined by others in the desert, are not merely asking the Obama administration to go slow because of potential harm. They are demanding it. Backed by the legally powerful Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Indians say Genesis and the transmission line corridor are proof of damage to sacred lands. They are readying court challenges that could alter solar and wind energy projects across the desert.
"We're at a flash point over a general unwillingness to listen to and respect the tribal perspective and advice," said David Singleton, a program analyst with the California Native American Heritage Commission. "These are important public policy questions involving gigantic power plants sprouting up in rural areas that had gone undisturbed for thousands of years."
Genesis is one of 27 solar plants in the West that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has identified as a priority, giving them a faster track to state and federal approval. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said the government is "on steroids" in its support for renewable energy.
But unless the developers and federal and state governments yield to the Native American concerns, they are headed for a showdown of complicated and competing values. It would come down to a single question: Does the cultural importance of long-buried Native American remains outweigh the need to rapidly build solar and wind energy projects to meet the enormous threat of global climate change?
In stark terms, should a project like Genesis be scuttled by what an executive for its owner called "a diffuse scatter of artifacts?"
The colliding interests are not new. They have been present for decades along the California coast, where most Native American village sites were destroyed by urbanization, said Jon Erlandson, director of the University of Oregon Museum of Cultural and Natural History and an archaeologist deeply knowledgeable about development in California Indian country.
"The relatively undeveloped deserts are next in line," Erlandson said. "But out there, fast-track processes that do not involve a lot of thorough research before building something are setting the stage for future conflicts and potential disasters."
Given the strength of the federal law protecting cultural artifacts, developers find that often it is less expensive "to slow down, consult with tribes and place projects in areas where they do the least amount of damage possible," he said.
Although a handful of solar projects are under construction in the desert, Genesis has emerged as a case study for Native Americans. As a federally recognized tribal group with sovereignty over a 264,000-acre reservation, the Colorado tribes were offended that the BLM approved Genesis without holding "nation-to-nation" consultations with them.
Before construction began, archaeologists had warned that the site near Ford Dry Lake was rich with Native American history. Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources redesigned the project to avoid land most likely to hold artifacts, then followed a streamlined method, approved by state regulators, for surveying the new site for remains.
The survey found nothing to alter the project. But during construction last November, workers uncovered a pair of grinding stones and what appeared to be a layer of charcoal. The Colorado tribes say they are evidence of a sacred cremation site. Genesis claims they are insignificant artifacts. But work has been halted on more than 125 acres since their discovery.
The human remains found months later were some seven miles from Genesis, near new transmission towers erected to carry power from the project.