Bringing Electricity to an Indian Hogan

Henry Percy
Mark Snyder Electric installed the solar panels on the Navajo hogan that was declared unfit to live in shortly after the project was finished. In his response to my article on the subject, he invited me to continue the conversation, which I do here.

Dear Mr. Snyder,

Not quite sure where to begin, but here's a start:

  • I don't live in Michigan.
  • I don't have solar.
  • I am not at all opposed to solar installations in Navajoland.

Your enumeration of the difficulties of bringing power, septic tanks, and water to hogans on the Navajo reservation tells me that doing so is very expensive. Could it mean that these modern conveniences, these inventions of the white man, should not intrude on traditional lifestyles? After all, the ancestors of the First Americans, as you call them, had none of these things. I guess the Navajo wish to live a traditional life on their land and among their own people with twenty-first century conveniences from the white man, paid for by the white man. Does any of this strike you as incongruous?

The article about Paula Curtis which I quoted indicated that she does not live in Flagstaff because she does not want to. Fair enough. That's what I said in my article, and that's what I say now. I know many people who have built houses in the back country and installed solar panels. Paid for, installed by, and maintained by the owners. There are many places I would like to live outside of a big city. But I know that to move there would involve tradeoffs: no cable, no electricity, no running water, etc. Unless I chose to pay for them. Every choice we make in life involves tradeoffs.

We live in a society in which people think they should have it all, no compromises. If I should choose to live in the Yukon, does society have an obligation to bring power and broadband internet and emergency health services to me? Should a hospital with trauma center be built nearby in case I get injured while pursuing my back-to-the-land lifestyle? Are there to be no tradeoffs for individual choices? Does everyone deserve to have it all?

You must admit that your company failed to perform due diligence on Ms. Curtis' hogan before installing the improvements. Shouldn't the first order of business have been seeing if her house was sound enough to invest in? Elsa Johnson was quoted as saying that it was difficult to find hogans that were sound enough to fit with solar. Shouldn't your company have determined that up front? I anticipate that you will reply that next time it will be different. That's probably what the other contractors said who installed solar systems that fell apart in a few years. Next time it will be different. Always next time. I believe that you have not begun to refute my contention that the project was ill managed, at the least.

You contend that some of your solar installations are 30-35 years old. But are they on the Navajo reservation? Because the article I was commenting on indicated that solar installations there require a great deal of maintenance -- batteries have a short life in the cold and heat, panels blow off in the high winds, owners do not do maintenance, etc. -- and so they last only a few years. If that is not the case, then your complaint is with the Arizona Republic, not me.

The article hinted -- or rather, Elsa Johnson asserted -- that your company had overcome those problems. Yet you neglected to carry out the most basic due diligence -- determining if Ms. Curtis' hogan was made of railroad ties before installing the solar panels -- so we are to take your word that your systems are head and shoulders above your competitors'? I hope you can appreciate why I am more than a little skeptical.

You say that "The Navajos [sic] best lands were taken from them in the 1800s, the San Juan River Valley in New Mexico," which is a roundabout way of saying that the white man stole their lands. Yes, we did. But in what sense did the Navajos have title to those lands in the first place? We know that they had not always lived in New Mexico. Their language is Athabaskan, and they probably migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where most Athabaskan speakers live. They most likely entered what is now the Southwestern U.S. a mere 600 years ago, or just 150 years before the Spanish arrived. So the Navajos stole the lands around the San Juan River Valley from other First Americans, among them the Hopi, whom they still despise. Was that wrong?

By the way, the very term First Americans is misleading, as if the aboriginal inhabitants were a monolithic group. Navajo, Apache, Hopi, Zuni, Comanche, Sioux, Cree, Creek, Iroquois, Onandaga, Mohawk, Sac, Fox, Shoshone, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, Kiowa, Cherokee, Klamath, Mukilteo, Muckleshoot, Quinalt, Yakima, Crow, Siboney, Carib, Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Inca, Yanomamo ... These tribes were anything but monolithic, with different languages, customs, sources of food and so on. I'm sure you don't call a Navajo a Hopi, do you? In short, lumping the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World together into one group as if they were all the same is highly offensive.

And yes, they were often at each other's throats, stealing each other's livestock or lands or women or otherwise despoiling or dispossessing them. Was that wrong? Sadly, that behavior is not confined to Arizona or the United States or the New World or any other spot on earth. That's what humans have done -- and do -- the world over.

To sum up, I don't care if Navajos drive Hummers or Priuses. I don't care if they put solar panels on their houses, on their cartops, or their backpacks. They're free to buy anything they want. But when I'm footing the bill for projects that have to be thrown out because the contractor failed in his due diligence -- after making assurances that his system is vastly superior to all others -- I feel like my money has been squandered. Is it too much to ask that such matters be aired, that someone be held accountable?

Incidentally, in several places you refer to Elsa Johnson as your "Navajo partner." Was your company awarded the contract through competitive bid? Was it negotiated at arm's length?

Mark Snyder Electric installed the solar panels on the Navajo hogan that was declared unfit to live in shortly after the project was finished. In his response to my article on the subject, he invited me to continue the conversation, which I do here.

Dear Mr. Snyder,

Not quite sure where to begin, but here's a start:

  • I don't live in Michigan.
  • I don't have solar.
  • I am not at all opposed to solar installations in Navajoland.

Your enumeration of the difficulties of bringing power, septic tanks, and water to hogans on the Navajo reservation tells me that doing so is very expensive. Could it mean that these modern conveniences, these inventions of the white man, should not intrude on traditional lifestyles? After all, the ancestors of the First Americans, as you call them, had none of these things. I guess the Navajo wish to live a traditional life on their land and among their own people with twenty-first century conveniences from the white man, paid for by the white man. Does any of this strike you as incongruous?

The article about Paula Curtis which I quoted indicated that she does not live in Flagstaff because she does not want to. Fair enough. That's what I said in my article, and that's what I say now. I know many people who have built houses in the back country and installed solar panels. Paid for, installed by, and maintained by the owners. There are many places I would like to live outside of a big city. But I know that to move there would involve tradeoffs: no cable, no electricity, no running water, etc. Unless I chose to pay for them. Every choice we make in life involves tradeoffs.

We live in a society in which people think they should have it all, no compromises. If I should choose to live in the Yukon, does society have an obligation to bring power and broadband internet and emergency health services to me? Should a hospital with trauma center be built nearby in case I get injured while pursuing my back-to-the-land lifestyle? Are there to be no tradeoffs for individual choices? Does everyone deserve to have it all?

You must admit that your company failed to perform due diligence on Ms. Curtis' hogan before installing the improvements. Shouldn't the first order of business have been seeing if her house was sound enough to invest in? Elsa Johnson was quoted as saying that it was difficult to find hogans that were sound enough to fit with solar. Shouldn't your company have determined that up front? I anticipate that you will reply that next time it will be different. That's probably what the other contractors said who installed solar systems that fell apart in a few years. Next time it will be different. Always next time. I believe that you have not begun to refute my contention that the project was ill managed, at the least.

You contend that some of your solar installations are 30-35 years old. But are they on the Navajo reservation? Because the article I was commenting on indicated that solar installations there require a great deal of maintenance -- batteries have a short life in the cold and heat, panels blow off in the high winds, owners do not do maintenance, etc. -- and so they last only a few years. If that is not the case, then your complaint is with the Arizona Republic, not me.

The article hinted -- or rather, Elsa Johnson asserted -- that your company had overcome those problems. Yet you neglected to carry out the most basic due diligence -- determining if Ms. Curtis' hogan was made of railroad ties before installing the solar panels -- so we are to take your word that your systems are head and shoulders above your competitors'? I hope you can appreciate why I am more than a little skeptical.

You say that "The Navajos [sic] best lands were taken from them in the 1800s, the San Juan River Valley in New Mexico," which is a roundabout way of saying that the white man stole their lands. Yes, we did. But in what sense did the Navajos have title to those lands in the first place? We know that they had not always lived in New Mexico. Their language is Athabaskan, and they probably migrated from northwestern Canada and eastern Alaska, where most Athabaskan speakers live. They most likely entered what is now the Southwestern U.S. a mere 600 years ago, or just 150 years before the Spanish arrived. So the Navajos stole the lands around the San Juan River Valley from other First Americans, among them the Hopi, whom they still despise. Was that wrong?

By the way, the very term First Americans is misleading, as if the aboriginal inhabitants were a monolithic group. Navajo, Apache, Hopi, Zuni, Comanche, Sioux, Cree, Creek, Iroquois, Onandaga, Mohawk, Sac, Fox, Shoshone, Blackfoot, Nez Perce, Kiowa, Cherokee, Klamath, Mukilteo, Muckleshoot, Quinalt, Yakima, Crow, Siboney, Carib, Aztec, Maya, Toltec, Inca, Yanomamo ... These tribes were anything but monolithic, with different languages, customs, sources of food and so on. I'm sure you don't call a Navajo a Hopi, do you? In short, lumping the aboriginal inhabitants of the New World together into one group as if they were all the same is highly offensive.

And yes, they were often at each other's throats, stealing each other's livestock or lands or women or otherwise despoiling or dispossessing them. Was that wrong? Sadly, that behavior is not confined to Arizona or the United States or the New World or any other spot on earth. That's what humans have done -- and do -- the world over.

To sum up, I don't care if Navajos drive Hummers or Priuses. I don't care if they put solar panels on their houses, on their cartops, or their backpacks. They're free to buy anything they want. But when I'm footing the bill for projects that have to be thrown out because the contractor failed in his due diligence -- after making assurances that his system is vastly superior to all others -- I feel like my money has been squandered. Is it too much to ask that such matters be aired, that someone be held accountable?

Incidentally, in several places you refer to Elsa Johnson as your "Navajo partner." Was your company awarded the contract through competitive bid? Was it negotiated at arm's length?