Joseph Kennedy, Jr., gets a chilly reception on the Navajo Nation
By Sonja Horoshko
Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., gave the tiny community of Cameron, Ariz., a few days’ notice that he wanted an audience with them. His assistants rented the chapter house, bought ingredients for mutton stew and fry bread, supplied cans of fruit medley, and hired some women from the chapter to cook the meal for his meeting the afternoon of Dec. 11.
Kennedy arrived via private plane at the Tuba City airport on Dec. 11 to address more than 50 people gathered in the Cameron chapter house. Everyone else arrived in pick-up trucks, which lined the parking lot.
Ed Singer, president-elect of the Cameron chapter, and council delegate Jack Colorado formed the greeting line to welcome Kennedy — the man who wants to build a wind farm on their Gray Mountain land without their consent.
Kennedy circulated through the rows of seated grandmothers and relatives, shaking hands, speaking to each directly, even persuading some of the women to stand and get a hug from him for a photo opportunity. It was all giggles and smiles.
After giving a nod to the code-talkers and thanking the Navajo people for their contribution during World War II, he introduced his wife, Beth, who stood at the side of the room. “I just wanted to have a chance to have a discussion with you about the wind resources you have that may be the best, not only throughout the Southwest but also the entire country,” Kennedy said.
The climate at Gray Mountain- Cameron may be cold and windy in the winter, he noted, but, “that wind can be turned into money and real development for the people of Cameron Chapter and the people of the entire Navajo Nation.”
The audience remained polite and quiet. They already understood the potential value of the wind on Gray Mountain. They had been working more than two years with a developer of their own selection, International Piping Products and Sempra Energy, after the Cameron chapter passed resolutions to develop a 250-megawatt wind farm under a Navajo Nation Local Community Initiative regulation [Free Press, December 2008].
The wind at Gray Mountain, 60 miles south of Grand Canyon National Park on State Highway 89, has sparked the power struggle between the Cameron chapter and the Navajo central government in Window Rock, between the Texas-based IPP and Kennedy’s Boston-based company, Citizens Energy.
The Cameron chapter had chosen IPP and Sempra to build the wind farm when, last March, Citizens and Kennedy announced that they had partnered with the Navajo Nation to develop a wind farm at Gray Mountain through an agreement with Navajo President Joe Shirley and the Diné Power Authority. The announcement came as a shock to the Cameron-Gray Mountain community.
On Dec. 11, Kennedy urged the community to give his company a chance, saying he would provide the tribe with more money than IPP and Sempra could offer.
Citizens Energy, a nonprofit company founded by Kennedy about 30 years ago (he is now its CEO), has a for-profit division that deals in wind power, Citizens Wind. Citizens is offering the Navajo Nation $10 million up front for the chance to build a wind farm at Gray Mountain, plus a 20 percent free carry in the equity with an option to buy into 33 percent of the project. But Citizens’ offer is for the central government — not the Cameron chapter.
Citizens Energy, which provides low cost heating fuel to families, has worked with Indian tribes across America, says Kennedy, “assisting a lot of low-income people, who, without our help, will have a much tougher time.”
Kennedy said he hoped to help the Navajo Nation reap the benefits of its resources.
“… [the capitalist system] has never worked very well for the poor and it sure hasn’t worked out very well for a lot of Indians across our country,” he said. “All I am saying is, I kind of get it!
“I have spent a lifetime going and visiting a whole lot of tribes, working with a lot of tribes and tried to get things done.”
Kennedy said Indian people are “faced with a scourge that is the white man who comes in, buys off a couple of Indians, puts a couple of Indians to work for him. Spread a little tiny bit of money out. A little tiny bit of money makes you feel like you’ve gotten an awful lot. I know who these people are and you know who these people are.”
He said he was not like that.
“I am saying to you…I am the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, the son of Robert F. Kennedy. I do not come here lightly. I come here as a serious friend of the Navajo people.”
But the audience at the Cameron chapter house clearly regarded him as an outsider from back East.
Cameron resident Andrea Robbins commented later, “He demands respect from us. But my mother asked me, ‘What about us? We are descendents of Manuelito and Barboncito, Geronimo and Red Cloud’.”
Kennedy said he had approached the central government first, rather than the chapter, because that is what he had been advised to do by tribal officials.
“If we had been told that [going to the chapter] was the way to develop on the Navajo reservation, I promise you this is where we would have stopped first. But at the end of the day I have to pay attention to what your elected leaders tell me is the proper way to move forward. That’s all we did. We are paying you so much more, so much more.”
The money will go out to all the chapters, he said.
But he added that he may be able to influence the distribution of the funds. He promised if the Cameron chapter would give him a chance, he would appeal to Window Rock to give more money to Cameron.
Community residents were dubious, seeming to prefer to develop their own project under the Local Community Initiative. They noted that the chapter has already passed resolutions in support of IPP and Sempra. A conditionaluse permit has been issued and an extension of it filed in Window Rock. Anemometers are installed, recording wind data, and the wind farm is past the initial stages. Sempra and IPP representatives have met with the community numerous times, gained the trust of residents, and already provided benefits, including fixing dams and stock ponds and hauling water.
There was widespread concern that, if Citizens were to develop the wind farm, the central government in Window Rock would not return any tangible benefits directly to the chapter, but would keep the money for general purposes.
Mary Begay, a chapter resident, described pipelines and transmission lines “that were run across our land” through agreements with the central government in the past. “To this day we’ve no benefit gained from all these installations,” she said.
Another audience member asked whether Ted Bedonie, outgoing Cameron chapter president and a supporter of Citizens as the developer, is guaranteed a job with Citizens after he leaves office.
Neither Kennedy, his wife, nor anyone on his staff is guaranteed a job, said Kennedy. But he did not directly answer the question about Bedonie’s future with Citizens Energy.
As Kennedy answered questions, tempers flared. Singer asked about the Cape Wind/Nantucket sound wind project which the Kennedy family has famously opposed because it would be off the coast in view of their compound.
“Why not in your back yard, but in the Cameron back yard instead?” Singer asked.
Kennedy asked if Singer had a big family and if every one of them had voted for him in the past election. “Yes, they did,” Singer replied, drawing applause. Kennedy said not everyone in his family opposes the project at Nantucket Sound.
Colorado asked a follow-up question about Cape Wind, but was repeatedly interrupted by Kennedy.
“Let me finish my question,” Colorado said.
Kennedy interrupted again, saying, “You gotta listen to what I say, sir. If you don’t listen to what I say, I can’t help you.”
Colorado tried to ask again, but Kennedy continued to admonish him, adding, “I am not going to get pushed around by anyone. I don’t get pushed around by big companies and I don’t get pushed around because you are not listening to what I said.”
And thus the tone of the meeting degenerated while audience members lined up to speak. The remarks were interpreted by Singer, a certified court interpreter, but the process bogged down because it took time and not everyone could hear.
Mary Begay, another resident, said, “I do not like my leaders chastised. I am sure he doesn’t like his leaders chastised. He is our guest here and he should respect our leaders and mind his manners. Our chapter house is small and humble but good ideas with integrity are hatched here.”
“If they so desire our land and resources,” Begay said of Citizens, “our chapter house sits alongside a major highway. There is no need to go to Window Rock. Come here and tell us what you desire. Our land base has been overwhelmed with right-of-ways and I do not like that.
“They do not like wind turbines in Massachusetts. I do not want their wind turbines on my land on Gray Mountain. We’ve chosen one company to work with and that is enough.”
Begay added, “They dare to talk about rules and regulations in Window Rock. They set up a three-branch government and tell us we are empowered locally. Then why is a foreigner here today? He sponsored this meal before us but we are not comfortable partaking of it – it is not appealing as we sift our food around watching him, so ill-mannered in front of us. Let us do our own economic development. Let us do what we want for once.”
A show of hands
But Kennedy told the crowd, “If you think you’re going to be better treated by that other company… you won’t be, and you’ll make a lot more money off what we do. You don’t believe me, you don’t trust me, but you’re wrong about this and I will prove it to you.”
He called for a show of hands to give his company a chance. “How many of you will give us a chance?” A long silence passed. Three hands lifted.
“I can get three votes out of all the people? I get three votes? Three people who’ll say that you’ll give us a chance? It’s not right. Not fair! You’ve blamed an organization for a lot of trouble we didn’t create. We’re not responsible.”
But Kennedy said he believed he could change people’s minds.
“Over time I believe that we will prevail because we’re playing by the rules. We will prevail. We will get that project built. When we do, I hope that when that happens someday down the line in the future, that you’ll recognize it and maybe I’ll get more than three votes out of all of you.”
Citizens provided the tribe a $430,000 grant in March 2008 for energy assistance for low-income families on the reservation. But the money did not flow to Cameron.
Soon after, according to Singer, they learned that it wasn’t Citizens’ money, but that it came from Citgo, a Houstonbased oil company owned by the Venezuelan government that supplies heating oil to Citizens at a 40 percent discount.
In a Nov. 28 editorial, “Dial Joe 4 Chavez,” the Wall Street Journal criticized Kennedy (it called him “Generous Joe”) for his connection to Venezuela and its leader, Hugo Chavez. “Citizens says it passes the savings on to the poor, aiming to help 400,000 homes in 16 states. In the process, Mr. Kennedy happens to get a high-profile publicity plug.”
“We, the people of Cameron chapter, are very well informed and will not do business on our land with companies that funnel money and associate with businesses like Citgo that are direct links to dictators who displace and oppress natives — like us — in Venezuela,” Singer said.
“ ‘Generous Joe’ has been knocking on our door, too. But simply being a Kennedy doesn’t make him right,” said Singer.
“We have been working for three years to structure the wind farm based on our right to develop it as a Local Community Initiative benefiting our local community. We have already selected our partners.”
Kennedy, however, insists he is the only fair player in the game, and that central government calls the shots. The distribution of money is “not an issue we have anything to do with,” he said.
“I get the fact that it appears that IPP has the support of the local community. All I would say is, at the end of the day, if that’s the route the Navajo Nation chooses as a sovereign nation to choose a path of development, then I would expect that IPP would win.”
A meeting had been slated at the end of December for all the parties involved to sort out the question of who has final authority to choose the development company.