Riding the winds of change

Promoting green power brings presidential award to young Diné

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, Dec. 12, 2011

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It might have been to LeVon Totshohnii Thomas's advantage that he had barely heard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when he decided to apply there.

"I had no idea how prestigious it was," admitted the senior engineering major, who is Tl'aashchi'i (Red Bottom Clan) born for Kinyaa'aanii (Towering House). "I was a junior at St. Michael's (Indian School) at the time, and I just knew that one of the brothers had gone there before he joined his religious order. I had no idea what to do with my life, so I thought, 'He's a good teacher, I'll just apply to MIT.'"

It wasn't until some of the other teachers got wind of his application that he started getting intimidated.

"They were like, 'Do you realize how competitive it is? I hope you aren't too disappointed if you don't get accepted.' But it wasn't until I visited the campus that I thought, 'OK, now I know what they were talking about.'"

Thomas applied to 11 or 12 backup schools, but there was no need. MIT opened its arms.

And for a kid who didn't have a clue what to do with his life, Thomas has done all right. On Dec. 1, the 25-year-old was among 11 young Native Americans honored by President Barack Obama as "Champions of Change" as part of the White House Tribal Nations Conference.

Thomas is modest about the achievement.

"I'm really surprised, to tell the truth," he said in a recent telephone interview.

While the main reasons he is being honored are for his efforts to bring wind energy to the Navajo Nation, and sitting on the Navajo Nation Green Economy Commission, he sort of got into green energy sideways.

It started when he applied for an internship with Joe Kennedy's Citizens Energy Corp. and ended up being "the person on the ground in the Navajo Nation" when Citizens made its bid to start a wind farm in Cameron Chapter.

Unfortunately, "the project kind of fell apart when two companies (Citizens and Sempra) started competing for the job," Thomas said. But working with Citizens convinced him that green energy was the way to go.

"I met a lot of people like Wahleah Johns of Black Mesa Water Coalition who were really committed to bringing green energy to the Navajo Nation," he said. "That opened my eyes to the possibilities."

During a two-year hiatus from school after his grandfather died, Thomas applied for and received an appointment to the Navajo Green Energy Commission. He still believes in the commission even though President Ben Shelly used his line-item veto to cancel its budget recently.

"We've been working pro bono and making a lot of progress," he said. "The Navajo Chamber of Commerce is working with us, so that's really good. The next step is we need someone to write some grants for us so we can start looking for matching funds for the projects we want to do."

Thomas may have sort of stumbled into MIT and green energy, but his vision for his people is clear as a bell.

"In the short term, we need to start weatherization for all the chapter houses and community buildings, so they don't use so much energy," he said. "The next step is rainwater capture and individual solar and wind projects for the grandmas and grandpas who aren't connected to the grid."

But Thomas believes the greening of the rez doesn't stop with energy.

"I'd like to see farmer's markets, more organized flea markets where people can sell their stuff, arts and crafts cooperatives," said the Wheatfields, Ariz., native. "We need more support for the people who have already started their own small, green businesses."

True to form, however, Thomas doesn't have a plan for when he graduates in June.

"I'll just see what happens," he shrugged. "Obviously I'll need to get a job to pay off my loans. But I really would like to get back to the rez and do some work there. I see a lot of potential."