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Kalu'wetolilh: Assembling Infrastructures of Indigenous Energy Sovereignty in the Mad River Valley


Published onOct 18, 2023
Kalu'wetolilh: Assembling Infrastructures of Indigenous Energy Sovereignty in the Mad River Valley


Renewable energy infrastructures are increasingly developed by Indigenous communities to achieve energy sovereignty amidst settler-colonial landscapes shaped by infrastructural ruination and climate change. The Blue Lake Ranchería in Northern California is recognized as a leader in this pursuit, following the development of a solar microgrid championed as a model of Indigenous energy sovereignty. Situated among broader conversations regarding local energy autonomy, the “Blue Lake model” is currently promoted throughout the region as a path toward community-based control over energy production. However, the Blue Lake model resists conflation with the concept of energy “autonomy,” demanding a new conceptual approach to Indigenous energy sovereignty. Though owned and operated by the Blue Lake Ranchería, the project was initiated, designed, and commissioned alongside a range of state and private-sector actors. The Blue Lake model is now anticipated to be a replicable and scalable solution, expected to circulate beyond its tribal and territorial boundaries amongst a diverse array of Indigenous communities in Northern California and beyond. Drawing upon Science and Technology Studies, Critical Infrastructure Studies, and Indigenous Studies, this article deploys a systems analysis approach to explore the formative histories and infrastructural components of the Blue Lake Model as a new regime of Indigenous energy sovereignty, locating infrastructure as a site of relational articulation between Native and state interests. 

da ledik | The Sun Is Shining 

Rows of photovoltaic solar panels are angled to absorb sunshine in the Mad River Valley of Northern California. Their gleam is visible to the homes and hillsides above and to a range of local, state, federal, and private-sector actors that champion the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid as a replicable model of Indigenous energy sovereignty. This relatively small Indigenous nation is increasingly recognized as a leader in renewable energy innovation, receiving awards and widespread media attention lauding the microgrid’s capacity to maintain power during blackouts and grid failures now commonplace throughout a region impacted by climate fires and the mismanagement of public utilities. More than a mere assembly of renewable energy technologies, the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid is recognized as a beacon of Indigenous energy sovereignty in a region darkened by climate change and infrastructural ruination. 

Although infrastructure is often understood as the banal “systems of substrate” that rarely garner attention or critique (Star 1999; Larkin 2018), the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid demonstrates infrastructure as a political expression of its historic struggles for tribal recognition and current aspirations for energy sovereignty. The “politics of recognition” are integral to wide-ranging political claims made by Indigenous and colonized peoples rendering themselves legible to the systems and interests of colonial power, past and present (Coulthard 2014). Distinguished from approaches to recognition as “a key word of our time” denoting forms of cultural representation and affirmative approaches to symbolic change (Fraser and Honneth 2003), the infrastructural politics of recognition are articulated throughout an expanding range of projects developed by Indigenous and marginalized communities deployed as highly visible exemplars of community making and political address (Ferguson 1999; Gupta 2018; Johnson 2018; Cupers and Meier 2020). Infrastructure remains central to the ways in which sovereignty is entangled with the politics of recognition in the Mad River Valley, reliant on legal, institutional, and political arrangements that render the Blue Lake Ranchería legible to the state apparatus. 

The question of Indigenous energy sovereignty is central to this project, shifting attention from the problem of renewable energy toward the problem of political power. Building on Carroll’s (2015) mobilization of sovereignty as a critical analytic, this article argues for a conceptualization of Indigenous energy sovereignty as an assemblage of power relations negotiated among Native communities and a range of settler state and private-sector actors engaged in technopolitical projects of infrastructural planning. Departing from Euro-Western notions of unilateral authority vested in the power of the state, Native American sovereignty is commonly understood through legal interpretations stipulated by the Marshall Trilogy of Supreme Court cases (1823, 1831, 1832) and the Johnson versus M’Intosh ruling (1823), marking Native nations as internal and dependent to the sovereign power of the United States. Deloria (1988) identifies the fraught possibilities of sovereignty and self-determination within this postcolonial condition, wherein the social, political, economic, and environmental conditions of Native lives and lands are largely mediated by the legacy of settler-colonial frameworks. The resulting “third space of sovereignty” (Bhaba 1994; Bruyneel 2007) is constituted through historic and ongoing relations with settler-colonial institutions, systems, logics, and technologies. However, the politics of sovereignty are increasingly “generalized” throughout an array of Indigenous-led movements toward self-determination, including those related to infrastructural planning (Barker 2006). Indigenous energy sovereignty is articulated through these interrelated angles of approach. 

Indigenous energy sovereignty is often misrecognized as a form of “autonomy,” understood as the capacity of tribal communities to independently operate and manage their own systems of energy production. A complementary body of scholarship attends to autonomous and small-scale energy solutions for remote Indigenous communities (Arriaga, Cañizares, and Kazerani 2013; Karanasios and Parker 2017, 2018; Rakshit 2017, Rakshit et al. 2019; Mercer et al. 2020a, 2020b), alongside projects developed to mitigate the rising costs of public utilities to improve economic stability (Krupa 2012; Hamilton 2012; Schatz and Musilek 2020). Yet, the conflation of “sovereignty” and “autonomy” tends to invisibilize the social, political, institutional, and technological relations necessary to design, operate, and regulate energy infrastructures on Indigenous lands. Lopez, Pellegrino, and Coutard (2019) therefore offer a useful typology of “local energy autonomy” that attends to the material, technological, and institutional relationships mobilized to generate localized energy systems. Applied to Indigenous contexts, this conceptual shift demands attention to the (post)colonial power dynamics therein. These relations are succinctly described by Taiaiake Alfred’s (2005) seminal work on “sovereignty” as “accrued by Indigenous peoples who have agreed to abandon autonomy to enter the state’s legal and political framework” (39; emphasis added). The Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid exemplifies Alfred’s understanding of sovereignty, wherein autonomy is ceded to integrate state-sponsored technologies, institutions, and modes of infrastructural planning. 

The emergent problem space of Indigenous energy sovereignty is further shaped by historic engagements with the settler-colonial apparatus. Integral to formative periods of settler expansion, infrastructure and energy combined to produce a “terrain of power and contestation” between colonized peoples and the settler state (Appel, Anand, and Gupta 2018). Nineteenth century infrastructural projects in the North American West were frequently weaponized as frontier technologies of dispossession, marking the rise of extractive energy regimes developed to power the project of settler-colonial nation building. Indigenous energy sovereignty movements emerged in response during the early twentieth century, led by “energy tribes” formed through inequitable and exploitative partnerships with a newly consolidated state-industrial energy complex (Thompson 1984; Royster 2008; Smith and Frehner 2010; Powell 2018). Though often negotiated to secure limited measures of tribal sovereignty, these partnerships were indicative of the “profoundly asymmetrical and nonreciprocal forms of recognition” marking Native–state relations (Coulthard 2014, 25). These formative moments currently inform a proliferation of Indigenous energy movements keenly attuned to the relationship between energetic and political power (Finley-Brook and Thomas 2011; Spice 2018; Whyte 2018), accompanied by scholarship locating an expanding range of infrastructural projects developed to strategically decouple from settler-colonial institutions (Egyedi, Mehos, and Vree 2009; Fields-Lefkovic 2012; Rezaei and Dowlatabadi 2016; Cowen 2017; Rakshit 2017; Rakshit et al. 2019; Kinder 2021). Indigenous energy sovereignty draws upon these historic and contemporary movements, continually struggling to reconcile autonomy and self-determination with the benefits accrued through the integration of non-Native actors, interests, and technologies. 

This article explores Indigenous energy sovereignty through a critical examination of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid project, demonstrated as an infrastructural expression of the tribe’s formative histories with infrastructure and federal recognition and located as a site of critical inquiry to the articulations of energetic and political power. As a timely contribution to the fields of Science and Technology Studies, Critical Infrastructure Studies, and Indigenous Studies, this article draws upon a systems analysis to examine the historical precedents and infrastructural assemblages of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid and its anticipated circulation as the “Blue Lake Model.” This approach demonstrates infrastructure as a technopolitical embodiment of tribal, state, and private-sector interests and as a problem space of histories, policies, and practices that extend beyond the material apparatus of infrastructure itself (Larkin 2013; see also Bear 2007; Von Schnitzler 2008; Anand 2011; Collier 2011; Appel 2012). The article draws upon sixteen months of ethnographic and archival research as well as upon semi-structured interviews with tribal representatives, regulatory bodies, private-sector energy interests, state institutions, and lead engineers responsible for project design and management. These interviews coincided with a series of site visits to observe the microgrid’s design and operation. Additional data were retrieved through the review of technical design documents; official reports published by tribal, state, and federal actors; and information provided by the tribe’s Historic Preservation Officer regarding the Blue Lake Ranchería’s formative histories, with infrastructure and federal recognition as the guiding logic governing its contemporary aspirations for Indigenous energy sovereignty. 

gara-ga’gwa-we’l | I Am Not Known 

The proliferation of media accolades and industry awards celebrating the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid seldom acknowledge its historic struggles for sovereignty and political recognition as infrastructural matters of concern. Formally affiliated with the Wiyot tribe, the Blue Lake Ranchería is composed of descendants of Wiyot, Yurok, and Tolowa peoples displaced through centuries of settler-colonial practices conducted in Northern California (Baldy 2015; Akins and Bauer 2022; Reed 2023). Its namesake recalls the rancherías established during the Spanish colonial era, referring to bands of displaced Native peoples rendered landless and without formal tribal governance following the failure to ratify a series of treaties in 1851–2. The term was later adopted by the federally imposed Ranchería system established during the early 1900s that resettled Native populations in Northern California on small tracts of land appropriated by the state as “refuge for homeless Indians.” The Blue Lake Ranchería was shaped through these “politics of nonrecognition” (Taylor 1994), followed by efforts to render itself visible to the settler state through the legal frameworks of federal recognition and technopolitical agendas of infrastructural planning. 

The Blue Lake Ranchería was first granted federal recognition in 1908, alongside fifty-nine additional Rancherías established by this system—marking a tenuous recognition subsequently entangled with infrastructural planning efforts introduced by the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA 1934). Lacking the oil, gas, and rare minerals of energy tribes elsewhere in the North American West, the Blue Lake Ranchería negotiated tribal sovereignty and federal recognition through this “Indian New Deal” and through the “promise of infrastructure” modeled on Western ideations of technological progress and modernity (Anand, Gupta, and Appel 2018). For Rancherías in Northern California, federal recognition was often contingent on participation with projects that rendered Native communities legible to the state through institutional partnerships, infrastructural development, and vocational training. The IRA delivered a policy framework through which Native lands were ultimately subject to regulatory control under the purview of “federal experts” (Allison 2015, 4; Mitchell 2002), alongside technical training and the provision of physical infrastructure designed to “organize Indians so that the United States could deal formally with them” (Deloria 2002, viii). In so doing, the IRA cultivated a politics of recognition mobilized to shape new Native subjectivities aligned with state interests. Mapped alongside the establishment of public works projects and labor camps throughout Northern California, the Indian New Deal established a technopolitical terrain upon which Rancherías negotiated an infrastructural politics of federal recognition. 

The IRA was passed amidst a federal transition granting increased self-determination among Native peoples following the assimilative failures of the Dawes Act (1887). The policy framework marked a new “structuring of sovereignty” that sought to render Native nations legible to the settler state through the drafting of Western constitutions (Tatum et al. 2014) while also enlisting newly constituted members of the Rancherías to reshape their communities through the imposition of Western infrastructure. Roads, hospitals, schools, hydroelectric dams, and other energy projects were developed through partnerships with the Office of Indian Affairs, Public Works Administration, and Works Progress Administration. Beyond the superimposition of Euro-Western planning practices upon Native lands, members of Rancherías were among an estimated 85,000 Native men trained and employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division (CCC-ID), a federal program created to reconstitute Indigenous peoples as coparticipants of their own colonization and as subjects of state discipline and oversight (Parman 1971; Gower 1972; Morgan 2015; Zimmer 2015). Supervised by the CCC-ID, Native men assigned to work camps assisted with the construction of infrastructural and public works projects enacted throughout 200 reservations, including several in the Humboldt region. Under the auspices of federal recognition, the Indian New Deal delivered newly constructed forms of Indigenous subjectivity shaped through infrastructural development. 

The promise of infrastructure was ultimately revealed as one among many broken promises made to the Rancherías by the federal government, rescinded with the enactment of nationwide Indian termination programs during the 1940–50s. The federal recognition and tribal sovereignty granted to the Blue Lake Ranchería and others throughout Northern California were dismantled following recommendations made by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to terminate the Ranchería system, alongside two pivotal acts of legislation that delivered Indian termination policies to Northern California. House Resolution 108 (HCR-108, 1953) revoked federal recognition, territorial sovereignty, and exemptions from federal law. Federal recognition for 38 Rancherías in California was dissolved in 1954, alongside the termination of federally funded infrastructure projects and public works partnerships. Public Law 83-280 was passed concurrently to formalize this agenda, shifting federal jurisdiction over Rancherías to the California state government. The California Ranchería Termination Acts (1956–8) were passed shortly thereafter, resulting in the termination of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s federal recognition in 1958. 

The terrain of contestation between Rancherías and the US federal government soon found new purchase in legal battles over infrastructural provision. In the years to follow, infrastructure emerged as the “juridico-political terrain” upon which sovereignty and recognition are often adjudicated (von Schnitzler 2016). A Faustian bargain was hidden within the legalese of the California Ranchería Termination Act, wherein infrastructural developments were promised as compensation for the surrender of federal recognition. Section 1 of the Act called for the sale and redistribution of land, water, and mineral rights belonging to the Rancherías, while Section 10(b) stipulated that the federal recognition would be terminated upon doing so. As compensation for termination, Section 3[b, c, d] of Public Law 85-671 stipulated a broad range of federal obligations for infrastructural provisions and public services. Misled by the promise of infrastructure, the Blue Lake Ranchería surrendered its rights to land and federal recognition, leading to its official termination on September 22, 1966. 

A single court case ultimately restored federal recognition for the Blue Lake Ranchería and others in Northern California—a case revealing the paradoxical limitations of state sovereignty marked by efforts to anoint itself as the sole legal authority while simultaneously assuming its exemption from the law (Agamben 1998). In 1979, Tillie Hardwick and the nearby Pinoleville Ranchería filed a legal case against the United States seeking the “restoration of their status as Indians and entitlement to federal Indian benefits, as well as the right to reestablish their tribes as formal government entities” as restitution for the federal government’s failures to provide infrastructure in exchange for the termination of Rancherías (Hardwick v. United States, No. C 79-1710). The infrastructural developments promised by the federal government had not been delivered, and upon discovering this negligence throughout the Rancherías, the California Indian Legal Services filed a class action suit against the US government. 

On July 19, 1983, the court decided in favor of Tillie Hardwick and other plaintiffs, restoring federal recognition of “Indian Tribes, Bands, Communities or groups of the seventeen Rancherias as Indian entities with the same status as they possessed prior to distribution of these Rancherias” (Hardwick v. United States, No. C 79-1710). Among the countless broken promises made by the US federal government, its failure to uphold its promise of infrastructure ultimately led to the restoration of federal recognition negotiated through settlement processes including representatives from the Blue Lake Ranchería alongside 17 Rancherías throughout Northern California. The Tillie Hardwick versus United States case provided a legal precedent establishing infrastructure as not only the sum of its material and technological components but also as a technopolitical terrain upon which tribal recognition and sovereignty are continually negotiated. 

kalu'wetolilh | Gathering Together 

Following the successful settlement and restoration of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s federal recognition and sovereignty on December 22, 1983, the tribe placed infrastructure and energy sovereignty as central to its planning agenda. After formalizing its tribal constitution and governance structures described by a tribal representative as reliant on strengthening government and industry partnerships at local, regional, and national levels, the Ranchería soon integrated renewable energy and environmental programs as key strategies to accomplish these goals. Drawing upon the traditional Wiyot practice of kalu'wetolilh (gathering together), the tribe currently pursues these imperatives through a solar microgrid project that gathers a range of actors, interests, institutions, and technologies into an infrastructural assemblage. This Wiyot practice corresponds with an understanding of infrastructure as a “gathering” of political interests into a web of associations (Latour 2004), alongside discussions of infrastructure as systems that draw “different people, objects and spaces into interaction” (Larkin 2013, 329–30; Hughes 1983; Callon 1984; Bowker and Star 2000; Edwards et al. 2009). An attention to kalu'wetolilh provides a view of the histories and political rationalities assembled throughout the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid, generating new insights into the differentiated domains of infrastructure that exceed its stated purpose of renewable energy provision. 

The Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid is an infrastructural embodiment of Indigenous energy sovereignty—an assemblage of technologies and expertise drawn from several state and private-sector interests. As a technological object, it is championed for its novel configuration of (1) a 420-kW alternating current photovoltaic array, (2) a 500-kW/950-kW Tesla battery energy storage system (BESS), (3) a 1-mW diesel generator, and (4) a networked Microgrid Management System (MGMS). Through these integrated components, the solar microgrid distributes power to the six-building tribal campus, with plans to expand services to tribal homes within the Ranchería’s 100-acre territory. An attention to kalu'wetolilh provides a critical view of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid as a system constituted by “relations of interdependency that take material form,” wherein each technological component is infused with variform interests and agendas (Cattelino 2008, 200; Barry 2020). Through a systems analysis of the solar microgrid, these relations of interdependency are demonstrated throughout a gathering of parts and partners. 

The Blue Lake Ranchería’s interests in Indigenous energy sovereignty were codified alongside the development of its Climate Action Plan (2008), emphasizing a strategy of energy sustainability and self-sufficiency, followed by the development of its Department of Energy and Technologies (2013). This strategy gained traction with the subsequent acquisition of existing grid infrastructure (the Blue Lake 1102 distribution circuit) situated within its territorial boundaries, purchased from the regional public utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E). Purchases of this kind are exceedingly rare, requiring unprecedented regulatory approval from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Beyond the capacity to independently generate power within its community, this acquisition allowed the Blue Lake Ranchería to secure the infrastructural, territorial, and regulatory conditions for Indigenous energy sovereignty. 

Though described as a Native American community taking “control of its energy by launching a solar power-based microgrid” (Siemens, n.d.), preliminary designs for the microgrid project were initially developed through a partnership between Idaho National Laboratories (INL)—a branch of the US Department of Energy (DOE)—and Siemens, a multinational conglomerate with interests in energy and infrastructure. In the mid-2010s, Siemens and INL were collaborating to solve three central problems associated with renewable energy production and microgrid technologies: (1) the localized capacity to generate renewable power, (2) the safe and reliable storage of renewable power, and (3) the technology to collect data on, monitor, and automate energy flows within this system. These were technical problems in search of an experimental site to develop new solutions. 

In its search for a viable test site, INL contacted the Schatz Energy Research Center at Cal Poly Humboldt to identify a community partner for its experimental energy project. The Schatz Energy Center recommended the Blue Lake Ranchería, having previously developed several energy initiatives with the tribe, including programs coordinated with the DOE, the federal Office of Indian Energy Policies and Programs, and PG&E. An interview with a PG&E representative involved in the project remarked on the relative ease with which the partnership was negotiated—tribal sovereignty was leveraged in several instances to circumnavigate the regulatory, legal, and procedural concerns often limiting experimental pilot projects in non-Native communities. The solar microgrid project ultimately emerged as a site wherein the technical interests of INL, Siemens, and PG&E converged with the Blue Lake Ranchería’s pursuit of Indigenous energy sovereignty, and the project was swiftly approved by the Ranchería’s Tribal Council. Here, Native sovereignty created the conditions of possibility for this project, providing a site for state, private-sector, and tribal experimentation. 

Following approval by the Tribal Council, INL provided its facilities to test the microgrid controls and components before commissioning the system on Blue Lake Ranchería territory. Siemens provided power flow modeling studies and engineering support during early and onsite testing, also developing the MGMS to gather and analyze data to control and monitor the microgrid. Subsequent engagements with Tesla provided the 950-kWh BESS and engineering support for integration within the microgrid, anticipating its current prominence within the renewable energy storage sector. The Schatz Energy Center at Cal Poly Humboldt led the overall project design and implementation in collaboration with tribal partners as integral to its growing portfolio of renewable energy partnerships with tribes throughout the region. 

Situated as an experimental site where the infrastructural elements of Indigenous energy sovereignty are assembled, this project extends the traditional Wiyot praxis of kalu'wetolilh through the gathering of political associations and technological components. Tribal representatives connect this practice with the formative gathering of Wiyot, Yurok, and Tolowa tribal members into the recently constituted Blue Lake Ranchería. This practice is further informed by its subsequent reorganization shaped by the IRA (1934), the legal collectivizing of Rancherías in response to the broken promise of infrastructure posited by the California Ranchería Termination Acts (1956–8), and the recent restoration of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s tribal sovereignty and federal recognition in 1983. The politics of infrastructure are woven throughout, informing a current positionality described by tribal representatives as particularly “forward-thinking” and “risk-tolerant” in its approach to technological innovation and state partnerships. This reputation and strategy often diverges from more traditional and conservative approaches maintained by nearby tribes, marking a politics of recognition departing from the “impossible object of authentic self-identity” (Povinelli 2002). 

The Blue Lake Ranchería’s contemporary interpretation of kalu'wetolilh and aspirations for Indigenous energy sovereignty gathers an array of state entanglements. Infrastructure does not allow state power to “disavow” itself but is in fact reliant on a politics of recognition that requires tribes to interpellate themselves to the state apparatus (Appel, Anand, and Gupta 2018, 22; Althusser 1971; Larkin 2013). Following decades of engagement with state-led infrastructural planning efforts, the Blue Lake Ranchería continually renders itself visible through ongoing partnerships with state agencies. Its solar microgrid project is among 30 multi-sector partnerships within its current tribal portfolio, providing the institutional connections to support its application for project funding granted by the California Energy Commission (CEC) and its Electric Program Investment Charge program. Alongside the requisite matching funds and a record of successful partnerships with state and private-sector energy interests, the Blue Lake Ranchería continually cultivates its reputation as a uniquely willing partner with local, state, and federal governments in its pursuit of energy sovereignty. 

The infrastructural politics of recognition are discursively situated, also requiring the state to render itself legible to the Ranchería and other Native communities. These recall Simpson's (2014, 11) interrogation of political sovereignty as inextricably entangled with political recognition, asking: Who is “in the position of recognizing”? And “what is their authority to do so”? The early development of the solar microgrid coincided with a statewide agenda developed by the CEC and CPUC to deploy renewable energy programs in Native, rural, and “disadvantaged” communities developed through the Clean Energy and Pollution Reduction Act of 2015 (Senate Bill 350) and the subsequent creation of the Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Group that includes representation from the Blue Lake Ranchería. State positionality is embedded throughout these modes of outreach and clearly defined within the CEC’s Final Report on the Blue Lake Ranchería project, noting its “ultimate authority” to approve, deny, and regulate these projects (Carter et al. 2019, 146). Simply stated, Indigenous energy sovereignty remains beholden to the regulatory oversight and sovereign state authority maintained by the CEC and CPUC. Yet, an important question remains: What is the state rationale informing its support for Indigenous energy projects and the transfer of energy production to tribal domains? 

hikowakhuno'n | When It Starts To Get Dark 

Amidst frequent blackouts caused by grid failures and planned outages now commonplace throughout the region, the Blue Lake Ranchería solar microgrid illuminates the importance of Indigenous energy sovereignty in a region darkened by infrastructural ruination. During these blackouts, its solar microgrid provides power to the tribe’s main campus as well as a solar-powered gas station and grocery store offering fuel, food, and a range of necessities. Community members requiring electricity and access to emergency medical services during these outages also rely on the Ranchería, now powering an official Red Cross emergency and evacuation center. The tribe is recognized by state and federal agencies for its capacity to provide these critical services, marked by a collection of awards prominently displayed within the Ranchería’s tribal offices. These include awards and recognition granted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES), and CEC. However, these awards fail to reveal state interests in shifting the domain of energy and infrastructure to the Blue Lake Ranchería and other tribes throughout Northern California. 

The Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid is an infrastructural site wherein tribal aspirations for Indigenous energy sovereignty are recognized insofar as they can be reconciled with state prerogatives and institutional interests. In the Mad River Valley, infrastructure is the nexus upon which these politics of recognition—those that render assertions of Indigenous sovereignty subject to institutional relations that often reproduce settler-colonial power dynamics—are placed in praxis (Coulthard 2014; Berlant 2016). Amidst fanfare celebrating the microgrid project as a technological innovation and renewable energy success story, the politics of settler colonialism, infrastructural ruination, and climate change are often obscured. Project reports and interviews with regulatory agencies broadly characterize state interests as part of an expanding portfolio of projects developed with Native partners to “advance renewable energy” and “foster technological innovation.” This depoliticized tone is reflected in conversations with the tribe, wherein the politics of sovereignty are frequently redirected toward discussions of sustainability and productive partnerships. One tribal member commented on the perceived necessity to remain politically neutral in its negotiations with state agencies. The discursive terrain carefully navigated by Native and state actors consistently engenders a politics of mutual misrecognition situated amidst the depoliticized domains of technology and infrastructure. 

The depoliticization of Native–state relations is starkly contrasted with the fraught geographies of energy and infrastructure in Northern California. Here, the “normally invisible quality of infrastructure” is most “visible when it breaks down: when…there is a power blackout” (Star 1999, 382; Bennett 2005). Frequent blackouts, failing power grids, and faulty powerlines draw attention to the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid as a solution to worsening conditions throughout the region. The broken promise of public infrastructure is rendered clearly in these moments of blackout and breakdown—brightly lit tribal buildings and long lines in queue for the only operating gas station in the region are highly visible symbols of Native empowerment fueled by state mismanagement of public utilities (Graham and Marvin 2001; Larkin 2018; Collier 2011; Anand, Gupta, and Appel 2018). Although few still recall the broken promise of infrastructure adjudicated during the Tillie Hardwick case, tribal members and the surrounding community are keenly attuned to the contemporary terrain of self-reliance shaped by the abrogation of state obligations for infrastructural provision. 

The region’s utility provider is integral to this darkened landscape. PG&E, an investor-owned and quasi-public utility company responsible for providing power to millions throughout Northern California, is managed as a for-profit endeavor with an effective monopoly on energy production and distribution in the region. These conflicts of interest produce disastrous consequences, as PG&E shareholders continually prioritize profits over maintenance and improvements to an aging and failing power grid. Beyond infrastructural mismanagement and disrepair, this landscape of ruination articulates a range of socioenvironmental consequences (Stoler 2013; Gordillo 2014; Howe et al. 2016; de Jong and Valente-Quinn 2018). Warming temperatures and persistent drought produced by centuries of settler-colonial and energy-intensive economies increasingly translate to a region immersed in heat waves and climate fires—conditions that further strain the main grid, thereby increasing the frequency and duration of power blackouts and planned outages. 

During one site tour, a tribal member identified these conditions as integral to the story of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid. Stopping to point at the ridgeline north of the photovoltaic field, they recounted a large fire descending upon the valley in 2009 and the moment of realization to follow. Anticipating the failure of public infrastructure and a lack of adequate state response, these horizon fires marked a juncture wherein the tribe accelerated its pursuit for increased tribal sovereignty and control over its energy and infrastructure. This vision proved prescient, demonstrated by a proliferation of deadly fires sparked by PG&E’s faulty powerlines during the late 2010s. These events led to the nation’s first “climate change bankruptcy” proceedings and a series of lawsuits finding the company guilty of gross mismanagement, negligence, and manslaughter (Gilson and Abbott 2020). The early development of the Blue Lake Ranchería’s microgrid emerged alongside these legal and environmental conditions. As fires continued to burn and millions of Californians experienced power outages, PG&E (alongside the CEC/CPUC) expanded its interests in renewable energy partnerships with the Blue Lake Ranchería and a range of Native communities. 

Infrastructure is frequently located as a site wherein “politics by other means” are practiced, the medium through which political problems are rendered as technical concerns (Latour 1993). PG&E’s political problems of infrastructural mismanagement found a solution in the Mad River Valley—an experimental site wherein the Blue Lake Ranchería’s aspirations for energy sovereignty converged with state interests in decentralizing its responsibilities for public utility provisions. The development of locally operated energy systems is now framed as a technical solution to the political problem of infrastructural mismanagement that disproportionately impacts Native, marginalized, and rural communities in Northern California.

Amidst the technopolitical rhetoric of renewable energy innovation and public–private partnerships, interviews with PG&E representatives provide a semblance of clarity to this strategy. The Blue Lake project was frequently associated with PG&E’s Distributed Resource Planning strategy, marking a state shift from centralized infrastructural planning to a more modular approach shaped by distributed energy resources, including solar microgrids and other localized energy systems. This strategy reflects a state-led effort to decentralize energy and infrastructure in the region as part of a decisive shift toward a “flexibilized” approach adapted to “local needs and capacities.” As such, PG&E and state regulatory bodies are establishing a flexibilized definition of the “public” (vis-a-vis public utilities), determined by newly variegated state partnerships with Native, rural, and otherwise “disadvantaged” communities selectively targeted for integration within this strategy. Under the auspices of Indigenous energy sovereignty, this strategy suggests a significant transfer of state obligations and liabilities for energy and infrastructure to Native and marginalized communities. 

halabikotabi'milh | Uses of Many Kinds 

While the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid was initially designed to provide safe, affordable, reliable, and renewable energy to the community, its recent translation as the Blue Lake model demonstrates an infrastructure of halabikotabi'milh, with “uses of many kinds.” As an assemblage of actors and interests drawn from Native, state, and private-sector interest, the system is increasingly promoted as a replicable and scalable model for local energy resilience developed in response to shared experiences with climate change, infrastructural ruination, and the decentralization of energy and infrastructure. The Blue Lake model is now championed by tribal and state actors as an infrastructural exemplar of Indigenous energy sovereignty marketed to Native communities throughout Northern California and beyond. INL (2021) describes the project as “a forerunner to future energy projects benefiting similar communities,” a perspective confirmed during discussions with state regulatory agencies and utility providers citing the Blue Lake model as a replicable and scalable solution integral to state and federal trends in regional energy planning. Currently in its nascency, the expanding purview of this infrastructural project generates critical sites of additional inquiry through which infrastructure is shown to produce novel forms of “sociality, governance and politics,” where “institutions and aspirations are formed, reformed, and performed” (Gupta 2018, 3; Star and Ruhleder 1996). Through the ongoing translation and translocation of the Blue Lake model, Indigenous energy sovereignty anticipates a significant shift in Native–state relations concerning energy and infrastructure. 

The question of Indigenous energy sovereignty is recapitulated through its translocation to additional community contexts, actively promoted by the Blue Lake Ranchería and its state counterparts. Although project engineers describe microgrids as highly contingent on localized needs and capacities, the model circulates through an infrastructure of “knowledge transfer activities,” identified by tribal and state interests as integral to the project’s overarching goals. The Blue Lake Ranchería has delivered microgrid presentations and onsite tours to more than 40 regional and national tribes, including the nearby Wiyot, Yurok, Karuk, Tolowa, Hoopa Valley, Elk Valley tribes, Trinidad Rancheria, and Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, and regional tribes, including the Quinault Nation, Spokane Tribe, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians, and several Alaska Native Communities and tribal governments (Carter et al. 2019). Several tribes are currently considering or developing similar projects of their own, benefiting from the Blue Lake Ranchería’s active involvement in an advisory capacity to assist in a shared pursuit of Indigenous energy sovereignty. 

How then might we understand Indigenous energy sovereignty projects as adopted and adapted beyond their tribal boundaries of origin? Broadly conceived, Euro-Western notions of sovereignty refer to the power of authority confined within formally demarcated boundaries, with Native sovereignty constituted as “nested” and dependent nations beholden to this territorializing approach (Simpson 2014). However, the Blue Lake model suggests a new modality of sovereign power reconstituted as a circulatory and multiplicitous affair (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), wherein the emergent politics, knowledge, and practices of Indigenous energy sovereignty distributed among Native communities portends a social infrastructure of “traveling sovereignty” capable of shaping new kinship relations (Nguyen 2012). Related discussions held during several tribal summits reflect a groundswell of desire for reduced dependency on state agencies for energy and infrastructure. Indigenous energy sovereignty therefore emerges to produce “new possibilities for constructive action…sovereignty then revolves around the manner in which traditions are developed, sustained, and transformed to confront new conditions” (Deloria 1997, 123). Stated simply, the Blue Lake model is currently articulating a network of intertribal relations engaged in the rethinking and remaking of political and energetic power. 

Viewed as a knowledge-sharing praxis, the Blue Lake model suggests an infrastructure of “networked sovereignty” with the capacity to foster regional resilience forged in response to shared experiences with settler colonialism, climate change, and infrastructural ruination (Duarte 2017; Attebery 2020). Native communities throughout the region now look to the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid as both a political and practical solution to ensure safe, affordable, reliable, and renewable energy, with many already familiar with autonomous power generation given their common experiences with power outages and blackouts. Shared histories are also integral to the circulation of the Blue Lake model, demonstrating infrastructure as a means by which knowledge is transmitted through “kinship networks” (Kovach 2009). One tribal member remarked on the capacity of the Blue Lake model to restore and strengthen the Ranchería’s ancestral relations to its Wiyot, Yurok, and Tolowa kin. Here, the Blue Lake model shapes the terrain upon which common struggles for federal recognition and provisional relations with state-led utilities converge. Infrastructure is newly translated as a “gathering force and political intermediary” for these struggles toward sovereignty and self-determination (Amin 2014). More than merely providing renewable power to Native communities in Northern California, the Blue Lake model suggests the possibility for Native networks of empowerment throughout the region. 

Given the technopolitical rationalities that are materially, institutionally, and discursively reproduced through the circulation of the Blue Lake model, infrastructure is also shown to operate “...on differing levels simultaneously, generating multiple forms of address” (Larkin 2013, 329–30; Latour and Weibel 2005). Alongside new tribal networks of kinship and empowerment, state imperatives are simultaneously circulated and promoted. These “multiple forms of address” are subject to the inequitable power dynamics between tribal and state sovereignty. So, although the Blue Lake model suggests a strengthening of Native kinship relations, it also demands attention to the often-inequitable relations with the state as “strange kin” (TallBear 2015). When subject to the discipline and requirements of Native–state partnerships, this model of Indigenous energy sovereignty is continually subordinate to hegemonic state interests that continually interpellate tribal communities as coparticipants enlisted to promote regional and national strategies for the decentralization of public utility provisions. 

Recalling the ways in which Native communities were disciplined through the logics of infrastructure during the Indian New Deal, the knowledge-sharing praxis indicated by the Blue Lake model is similarly reliant on the conscription of Native peoples within this new regime of energy planning. The Blue Lake Ranchería is actively engaged in state-sponsored trainings and workshops provided to Native interests at regional and national scales, hosting and conducting events including the US DOE’s 2015 and 2017 National Tribal Energy Summits, the US EPA’s Clean Power Plan training for tribal governments, the USDOE/WAPA Tribal Energy Webinar Series, USDOE Office of Indian Energy meetings and workshops, and national FEMA webinars on community preparedness for tribes, among others. In ongoing coordination with Cal Poly Humboldt’s Schatz Energy Center, the Blue Lake Ranchería has also conducted over 150 site tours and presentations to public and private-sector actors, including the US EPA, FEMA, CalOES, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratories. The Ranchería’s close and ongoing partnership with the Schatz Energy Center at Cal Poly Humboldt also enables the tribe to engage in educational activities, tours, trainings, and webinars with more than 20 California State University (CSU) energy managers, the CSU Chancellor’s Office, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. In so doing, the Blue Lake Ranchería is often the public face associated with the state-sponsored decentralization of energy and infrastructure. 

The Blue Lake model of Indigenous energy sovereignty is positioned to reshape the terrain of public utility provisions in Native communities. The Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid provides a successful test case for renewable energy production serving Native communities lacking access to safe, affordable, and reliable energy. Cost savings, carbon reductions, increased employment, technical training, and reduced reliance on failing state infrastructures promise significant benefits to tribal communities in Northern California and beyond. The Blue Lake Ranchería reports an estimated annual energy savings of 200 thousand dollars, a 10 percent increase in tribal employment, and a reduction of 200 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per annum (Blue Lake Rancheria 2017). In turn, cost savings and economic gains from solar microgrid operations and promotions are allocated to support several tribal programs addressing technology, education, and environmental sustainability. 

The Blue Lake model continually generates substantial infusions of social, political, economic, and energetic power to the Ranchería. Tribal representatives attribute these benefits not only to the technological innovations demonstrated by the solar microgrid but also to the widespread recognition of the project among state, private-sector, and media interests. Yet, the Blue Lake model recalls a critical intervention regarding the politics of recognition, a model that “provides us with theoretical tools to enable us to determine the relative transformability of certain fields of colonial power…[to] put us in a better position to critically assess which strategies hold the most promise” (Coulthard 2014, 42). Alongside the potential for increased Native self-reliance in terms of energy and infrastructure, this systems analysis demonstrates a mode of infrastructural planning designed to circulate and promote the legal, political, and technological logics of state and private-sector interests. In so doing, the Blue Lake model suggests a mode of Indigenous energy sovereignty also capable of reifying existing inequities nested within tribal and state relations. 

Throughout this terrain of Native conscription and plans to replicate the Blue Lake model at scale, the settler-colonial histories and contemporary conditions that inform Indigenous energy sovereignty movements are either neglected or rendered as mere technical problems requiring infrastructural solutions. The settler-colonial fetish for electrification and energy-intensive political economies are normalized, promoting renewable energy innovations rather than the renewal of Native/Indigenous relations to land and livelihood. Discussions with lead engineers also lament a starkly limited integration of Indigenous knowledges regarding the design and engineering of the solar microgrid, wherein the “terms of transition” to renewable energy are calibrated toward state and private-sector interests and expertise (Berlant 2016). Guided by these logics, the socioenvironmental consequences of state-sponsored, energy-intensive technologies and economies are tautologically reframed as problems solved through increased technological innovation and state intervention rather than an indictment of historic and ongoing state (in)action. In so doing, the Blue Lake model shifts attention from state culpability toward a new “promise of infrastructure” discursively reframed as Indigenous energy sovereignty. This discursive shift also marks a fundamental shift in state and federal policy, wherein the burdens of climate change and infrastructural ruination are transferred to Native communities while the state and private sector maintain control over design, operations, and regulation. 

kuro'w | The End of the Story 

The Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid is a critical site through which an emergent regime of Indigenous energy sovereignty is located, drawing upon processes of kalu'wetolilh as a gathering of histories, technologies, actors, and interests. As a technological innovation, the microgrid is demonstrated to be a novel integration of photovoltaic solar panels, battery storage, and backup generators connected by a networked microgrid management system—each component materially embodying a corresponding array of Native, state, and private-sector interests. As a sociotechnical system responding to the Blue Lake Ranchería’s formative histories with settler colonialism and federal recognition, the microgrid draws attention to the multiple temporalities, “generative rhythms,” and shifting technopolitics of infrastructure (Bear 2007). Here, infrastructural projects are continually entangled with historic and ongoing efforts to gain and maintain political recognition and sovereignty. As a technopolitical imaginary, the Blue Lake Ranchería’s solar microgrid is an infrastructural expression of the tribe’s aspirations for Indigenous energy sovereignty developed in response to these histories, compounded by contemporary experiences with climate change and infrastructural ruination. Unsettling common understandings of “sovereignty” as an autonomous and territorialized affair, the infrastructural praxis of kalu'wetolilh reveals Indigenous energy sovereignty as reliant on a distributed and distinctly nonlocalized assemblage of histories, technologies, actors, and interests translated as a replicable and scalable system of political and energetic power. 

Translocated as the Blue Lake model, the cocirculation of Native and state imperatives shapes an expanding terrain of Indigenous energy sovereignty movements. As a knowledge-sharing infrastructure, this model travels to gather and interpellate a range of Native communities at regional and national scales. The accretion of new kinship networks emerges alongside these social infrastructures, developed in response to shared aspirations for renewable energy and reduced reliance on mismanaged public utilities. State and private-sector strategies for energy decentralization and public utilities divestment are simultaneously circulated, anticipating a corresponding transfer of state obligations for public utilities to Native communities. A settler-colonial politics of recognition is reproduced throughout, drawing upon settler-colonial histories of Native training and conscription within state-sponsored energy programs. Newly subjectivized by the Blue Lake model as leaders in renewable energy innovation, Native communities are rendered legible to state and private-sector interests—reorganized yet again through the technopolitical logics of infrastructural planning. 

Beyond the provision of renewable energy, Indigenous energy sovereignty is increasingly recognized for its potential to decolonize and decarbonize Native lands in Northern California—an angle of approach reminding us that “technologies are always metaphors as well as technical objects” (Larkin 2018, 179). However, Tuck and Yang (2012) remind us that “decolonization is not a metaphor”—it is an overtly political praxis that actively seeks to dismantle structures of settler colonialism in an effort to reconstitute Indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world. The Blue Lake model calls into question the presumed decolonizing imperatives of Indigenous energy sovereignty, demonstrated by the expansion of state influence among Native energy planning efforts. Reflecting the complexities of Indigenous energy sovereignty—shaped through increased state oversight coupled with reduced state obligations—the Blue Lake model fosters a strategy for decentralization during a moment in which state-sponsored climate change and infrastructural ruination are disproportionately impacting Native communities. Restating Tuck and Yang to account for these unsettling trends, decentralization is not decolonization. 

The Blue Lake model locates the coproduction of energetic and political power as continually mediated through inequitable Native–state partnerships, wherein the political problems of sovereignty and recognition are increasingly translated as technical and infrastructural matters of concern. Further research is required to examine the circulation and application of the Blue Lake model throughout Northern California and the North American West to determine the extent of its potential ramifications. Will this new regime of state-sponsored Indigenous energy sovereignty produce the “dream worlds of promise” summoned by Indigenous-led energy infrastructures (Anand, Gupta, and Appel 2018), or will Indigenous energy sovereignty be captured and co-opted as the “dreamwork” of settler state interests (Smith 2012)? The Blue Lake model establishes these frictions and possibilities as integral to the making and meaning of infrastructure and to critical examinations of Indigenous energy sovereignty.

Aaron Gregory

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