Co-ops, Native American Nations use commonalities to navigate a complex relationship
Rick Campos, Mojave Electric Cooperative
One of the most isolated villages in the United States is found deep in the heart of the Grand Canyon.
Supai is the home of the Havasupai Native American tribe, at the center of its reservation, which covers part of the canyon floor and the remote plateau on the western rim.
Electricity comes to Supai along a 70-mile line that crosses that plateau, a nearly deserted landscape that changes from high desert to alpine forest to rugged grasslands on Long Mesa, where it finally reaches the canyon rim. There, the line plunges straight down for more than 3,000 feet until it connects with poles in the canyon and winds its way to the village.
Mohave Electric Cooperative, based in Bullhead City, Arizona, more than 100 miles away, is responsible for the maintenance of the line through an agreement with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
“At Mohave Electric, we go the extra 70 miles,” jokes Rob Frederick, the cooperative’s line extension supervisor, as he drives down an uneven gravel road that leads to the precipice of Long Mesa.
Once a month, a Mohave Electric meter reader makes the same long journey to read the handful of meters on the line. But the co-op does much more than that. In the last five years, it has arranged for contract crews to inspect every one of the more than 800 poles that carry electricity to the canyon’s edge.
“We checked everything, every bolt, every washer. We replaced every pole that failed,” says Rick Campos, Mohave Electric’s engineering and operations manager.
The co-op also worked with the BIA on the design and construction of a solar facility on the canyon rim to provide an additional power source for the tribe, and leaders arranged for an engineering team to upgrade the electrical grid in the village.
“We know how important tourism is to the tribe, and they need power for their lodge and café to operate,” Campos says. “We were trying to get the system upgraded to get them more reliable service.”
Across the country, electric cooperatives are working with Indian nations to provide service to tribal facilities, homes, and businesses. About 250 co-ops have reservation lands in their service territories, and many regularly consult with tribal leaders or officials to meet the particular needs and concerns that can arise on tribal lands.
Both co-op and Native American leaders are candid in their assessment that the relationship is not always easy. Differences in priorities, along with poor communication or other misunderstandings, sometimes result in tensions between tribal nations and electric cooperatives.
But both sides also note that co-ops and tribes share a basic philosophy of commitment to community that gives them a strong foundation for working together.
“I think that there’s so much more similarity than there are differences,” says Tyler Carlson, CEO of Mohave Electric.
Chad Harrison agrees.
“Co-ops use the word family all the time,” says Harrison, who is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in North Dakota and a director at Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative based in Mandan, North Dakota. “So do tribes.”
But, he says, mutual education is essential.
“There’s not always an understanding of how things work on the co-op side or how things work in tribal politics,” Harrison says.
Working together can be complicated. Beyond maintaining the lines and system that provide power to Supai, Mohave Electric also directly serves another tribe, the Hualapai, distributing power across much of their reservation south of the canyon, including to the tribal capital of Peach Springs.
Mohave Electric was organized in 1946, and the Hualapai asked the cooperative to provide service to Peach Springs and their reservation just two years later.
In the last decade, Mohave Electric put up $50,000 to help the tribe install a 19-kW photovoltaic array on the rooftop of Peach Springs Elementary School as part of a larger co-op program to assist schools installing solar. The co-op and the tribal utility authority also communicate regularly on any issues within the co-op system on the reservation.
“We tend to get along very well at the operational level,” Carlson says.
Nonetheless, the Hualapai Tribe has the goal of eventually taking control of the distribution system on its reservation through its tribal utility authority. The move to take ownership of infrastructure on tribal lands, such as power distribution systems, is part of a larger effort by many tribes to gain greater sovereignty over their affairs.
‘They’re part of our community’
The Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona was one of the first tribes to acquire the power system on its reservation from a co-op, when it purchased both transmission and distribution lines after lengthy negotiations with Trico Electric Cooperative in the 1970s. Since then, several tribes have established electric utilities, either building out a system like the Navajo in northern Arizona or acquiring existing facilities from public or investor-owned utilities.
The lack of experience running an electric utility and a shortage of startup money are two challenges tribes face when considering starting their own utility, according to a 2010 study by the Western Area Power Administration. Co-op leaders who work with tribes say the decades of operational experience cooperatives bring is one of their principal advantages as tribes weigh whether to operate their own utilities.
Mohave Electric’s Carlson says the Hualapai have had the goal of running their own system for several years. But when they’ve hired consultants to look at what would be required, “they essentially come back and say it doesn’t make economic sense. An electrical system has a lot of components, a lot of infrastructure, and an experienced employee base that’s hard to replicate.”
Still, he says, if the tribe reaches the point where it can proceed, the cooperative will negotiate to establish a fair price for the Mohave Electric assets on the Hualapai reservation. He notes that the cooperative philosophy is to empower local communities.
“I understand the desire to have things in your own control,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mohave Electric continues to work with the tribe to support projects on its reservation, including installing and providing service to a youth camp in the countryside. Services and supplies are provided to both the Hualapai and, through the BIA, to the Havasupai at cost.
“They’re part of our community,” Carlson says. “That’s the co-op way, the way we deal with each other, whether it’s a co-op or the tribal utility authority.”
That co-op tradition of member service provides an important connection between other cooperatives and tribes. Glades Electric Cooperative, based in Moore Haven, Florida, serves two Seminole reservations: Big Cypress and Brighton. The Seminole are also considering establishing a utility authority.
Electricity use on the two reservations is important to the co-op, Glades Electric CEO Jeff Brewington says, and the co-op collaborates closely with tribal leadership on a variety of issues as part of maintaining the existing relationship.
The co-op has been meeting with a tribal biologist “to discuss wildlife and if there’s anything we can do to mitigate the outages they cause,” he says. The co-op also recently met with tribal officials “to lay out ongoing conversations regarding new projects on the reservations so we can get ahead of the game with our infrastructure.”
Brewington says establishing and maintaining lines of communication within tribal governments can be challenging.
“It’s finding the right person. There’s one person over residential housing, and someone different over casino development,” he says. “Communicating with the right people and continuing that communication can be a challenge.”
But it’s important to remain committed to the process, he adds. The Seminole operate a casino, a museum, and a restaurant and have several housing developments on Glades Electric lines. There are other commercial and industrial electric loads on the reservations, and the tribes are interested in promoting further development.
“We’re working with them on all these things,” Brewington says. “We’re really trying to let them know they’re a valued member just like anybody else.”
Transmission and distribution lines cross Native American lands throughout much of the West. In recent years, several tribes have dramatically increased their right-of-way access fees to cooperatives and other utilities, also complicating tribal/co-op relations.
The 1948 Indian Right-of-Way Act gives the Department of Interior authority to grant rights-of-way on tribal trust lands, which are held in common, with the tribe’s consent. Eminent domain does not apply in such cases. In the past, the BIA often handled right-of-way leases, but a 2015 BIA ruling established that the agency would not interfere if tribes negotiated their own agreements. As tribes have taken greater control of the process, many have aggressively pursued higher leases.
The increases hit several cooperatives particularly hard. In New Mexico, Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative, based in Hernandez, paid San Ildefonso Pueblo $114,000 when it renewed its right-of-way lease in the 1980s. But when the lease was renewed for 25 years in 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported, it cost the co-op $4.7 million.
Tribal leaders defended the increases as an important source of revenue for reservations that often lack financial resources. But such increases can also impact a co-op’s membership. Jemez Mountains Electric, for example, was forced to impose a rate rider to help pay for the higher right-of-way costs.
San Ildefonso Pueblo offered concessions in negotiations with the cooperative. The most significant was that payments could be made over the life of the 25-year lease, rather than upfront, to help the co-op manage the increased cost.
Basin Electric Power Cooperative, the G&T based in Bismarck, North Dakota, is negotiating with the Crow Creek Sioux and the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate for the renewal of transmission rights-of-way within both reservations. The regional G&T has completed an initial step: an environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act.
“It was a fairly painless process,” says Kevin Solie, Basin Electric’s senior environmental compliance administrator. “It took just a few weeks.”
But securing right-of-way easements is more complicated because it can involve both tribal trust lands and property held by individual residents of the reservations, with financial implications for both sides. Basin Electric is drawing on its previous experiences and the relationships it has built with tribes, Solie says, including strides made during the development of a 150-MW wind farm near the Crow Creek reservation.
He sees those relationships as key to successfully working with Native American nations.
“I’d say the bottom line is to expect that it’ll take some time and work through the process and get to know the people,” Solie says. “I think that goes a long way.”
‘A joint effort’
Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative serves the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota. When the co-op held its annual meeting at the tribe’s Prairie Knights Casino this July, members were welcomed from the stage, as they have been for several years, by tribal Chairman Mike Faith.
The attention paid to tensions that sometimes arise between electric cooperatives and Native American nations can obscure the strength of many such relationships.
“Mor-Gran-Sou’s relationship with the tribe started when the co-op was formed,” says Don Franklund, the cooperative’s co-general manager and CEO. “I’m pretty sure there’s been a tribal member on the board for its entire 75-year history. We literally don’t know any other way.”
Today, Franklund estimates that about 30 percent of the co-op’s members are also tribal members. The principal challenge in serving Standing Rock, he says, is the relative poverty in some parts of the reservations.
“It’s very much the economic conditions that tribal members, our members, live in,” he says.
The co-op and the tribe work together to meet tribal goals and serve co-op members on the reservation. For example, the tribe is eligible for a hydropower allocation that is passed on to Basin Electric, which then provides it an equivalent bill credit. Mor-Gran-Sou works with the Standing Rock Sioux tribal utility authority to pass those savings on to tribal members.
Lance Brown Otter, a Mor-Gran-Sou Electric Cooperative lineworker and Standing Rock Sioux member, helps restore power to the village of Solan after strong storms hit the tribe’s North Dakota reservation in 2018. (Photo by Carmen Devney)
“For years, the tribe had a goal of providing free electricity for tribal elders,” Franklund says. “While they’ve never been able to completely achieve it, we’ve been working with them on helping them implement that plan.”
The cooperative is also working on two 150-kW solar installations that would be sited on the reservation.
“The tribal council would like to be more self-sufficient with some of these energy development projects,” Franklund says. “We’re willing to work with them toward that goal.”
As part of that effort, the cooperative is collaborating with the Standing Rock Sioux to put a solar-wind curriculum in place for students at its tribal college.
Mor-Gran-Sou Electric and the Standing Rock Housing Authority also work together when new housing is developed to minimize line extensions and take other steps to make sure service is installed efficiently.
Harrison, the Standing Rock member who sits on the Mor-Gran-Sou board, is executive director of the tribe’s housing authority. He believes a key to a successful tribal-co-op relationship is people in each group taking the time to get to know the other community.
“That’s where I see there’s a real benefit in having tribal members on the co-op boards,” says Harrison, who also serves on the board of the statewide North Dakota Association of Rural Electric Cooperatives. “I have lots of conversations with statewide folks, and once they start to understand the perspective that we have coming from the reservation, the relationships just kind of takes off.”
One area of common misunderstanding is the different relationship that electric cooperatives and Native American reservations—which function as “nations with the nation”—have with the government.
“Reservations are sovereign nations, and that sovereignty can take some explaining,” Harrison says. “Co-ops play by state rules most of the time, and tribes play by federal rules. There’s a fundamental difference between the two.”
Tribal government, culture, and religious beliefs can also be difficult to understand. Mor-Gran-Sou’s approach is to respect the culture by, as often as possible, allowing the tribe to make determinations about how projects are handled on their lands.
“We don’t ask questions about why,” Franklund says. “We just ask them what they want.”
Mohave Electric takes a similar approach. Even still, CEO Carlson says the long, often difficult history of relationships between Native Americans, the U.S. government, and the non-Native population sometimes leads to suspicion and a sense of “historical grievance that can cloud business discussions.”
He believes it’s incumbent on cooperatives and tribes to work past those situations for the betterment of tribal co-op members. The responsibility, he adds, lies on both sides.
“When relationships have been poor, that’s a joint effort, and when relationships are good, that’s a joint effort,” Carlson says. “When anyone says the relationship is bad because of ‘them’ or ‘you,’ that’s inappropriate. It never happens that way. When a relationship is bad, we’re both participating. And when they’re good, it’s because we’re both participating to make them good.”