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Film on the Front Lines: An Interview with Robert Lundahl on his new film "Who Are My People?"

08/30/2013 09:44AM ● Published by Steve

Gallery: Robert Lundahl's "Who Are My People?" [11 Images] Click any image to expand.

Filmmaker Robert Lundahl’s path has paralleled that of The Sun Runner’s coverage of industrial solar power projects and their impacts on both environmental and Native American cultural resources since at least 2010. Now, Lundahl has released a powerful new film, Who Are My People?, that tells the story of the very real impacts made by enormous multinational corporations such as Chevron, Bechtel, and even Google, upon Native American cultural and sacred sites.

With a "David vs. Goliath" battle over the destruction of these sites between multinational corporations—with cooperation from the federal and state governments (and usually the tacit cooperation of much of the mainstream media), pitted against tribes,a small but growing group of activists, desert residents overwhelmed by the number and size of these projects, and independent media, projects have scalped desert tortoise habitat, slaughtered desert foxes and burrowing animals, surrounded towns and agricultural operations, erased Native American geoglyphs and buldozed burial and cremation grounds, and wreaked untold havoc upon cultural and historical resources that cannot be recovered or restored.

We know so little about the rich history of the cultures that existed (and continue to exist) thousands of years prior to mass European migration to this continent that every time this rampant destruction is allowed to happen, we lose a piece of the puzzle essential to understanding the true history of the Americas. The real history of this country and these continents doesn’t begin with the arrival of Europeans, but long before, with the hundreds of cultures and civilizations that filled these continents for thousands of years before Columbus sighted land.

– Steve Brown

SB: Robert, you and I both grew up doing a lot of wandering aruond the desert and here we are today, we're still doing it. How did the desert make you feel as a child and now that you're older, how does it make you feel?

RL: The story starts with my memories of going to the desert as a child. I grew up in Los Angeles post war, before they put catalytic converters on cars. The air pollution was extreme. The desert, the West, represented relief from the ills and pollution of society and the cities. It still does.

SB: A lot of people, like the Governator says in the film, look at the desert and see emptiness, nothingness, a wasteland. Arnold said he sees miles and miles of a gold mine. What do you see?

RL: I see a complex ecosystem, geology, botany, biology, life unfolding, a wilderness, a humbling experience, an enlightening landscape.

SB: I've been called a "climate villain" by some because I've opposed industrial scale solar when it's destroying habitat, pushing species like the desert tortoise closer to extinction, and obliterating Native American cultural and sacred sites. Is it really necessary to destroy the desert to save the world?

RL: The entire presumption that is is necessary to destroy the desert to save the world is corporate propaganda. Solar belongs on rooftops, brownfields, and already distressed lands, not on pristine desert or Native American sacred sites. In a few years, we'll have solar collecting window panes, at that time we don't want the West full of junk that it will cost hundreds of millions if not billions to remove, and depleted ecosystems from massive industrialization across six Western states. My film is a wake up call for people who value Western lands and the character and history of the West.

SB: As a historian, I think we're barely beginning to understand the number and vitality of cultures that once thrived, and continue to survive on this continent. I'm concerned we'll destroy the puzzle pieces before we even have an idea of what the picture they form looks like. How have these industrial scale solar and wind projects damaged our ability to understand the past history of the desert region?

RL: Well you are asking two questions, what is the impact on cultures and how has ,or will, development destroy our understanding of the past.

The harm that large solar development potentially will inflict upon the American Indians and American Indian communities of Southern California might best be described as the "Final Bullet." Alfredo Acosta Figueroa, who traces his family lineage to Sonoran (Yaqui) miners working in the Sierra Nevada foothills during the1840s discusses why his family was forced to move south to the area near Blythe, "They overran us," he says tersely.

Gary G. Ballard, Kumeyaay Webmaster, professional Web blogger, and multi-media journalist, writes,"The great CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH 1848-1855 is historically paramount to Native American Indian history in California—it was estimated that some 300,000 immigrants poured into California during this seven-year period. When James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California, on January 24th, 1848, it was estimated there were some 150,000 Indigenous Native American Indians living in California. In 1848, Indians in California outnumbered whites by 10 to one—can you imagine that —walking out of your house today and hiking to your favorite park or beach in an 1848 California countryside?

By 1870 (22 years later) it was estimated there were only 30,000 Indians left living in California mostly as a result of the California Gold Rush and the onslaught of white immigrant settlers as their foreign diseases and U.S. government-sanctioned genocide were systematically wiping out the California indigenous populations—better known today as ethnic cleansing—120,000 California aboriginal Indians were lost in this 22-year period. By 1900 it was estimated that less than 16,000 California Indians had survived the invasion of their homelands (some 134,000 California Indians were lost during this 52-year period while the United States government was in control of California).

Sacramento Bee Staff Writer Stephen Magagnini, in a Jan. 18, 1998 article entitled, Indians' Misfortune Was Stamped in Gold, details the effects on Native life and indigenous population. "It has been the melancholy fate of California Indians to be more vilified and less understood than any other of the American aborigines," said Stephen Powers in his 1877 book Tribes of California. "They were once probably the most contented and happy race on the continent ... and they have been more miserably corrupted and destroyed than any other tribes within the Union. They were certainly the most populous, and dwelt beneath the most genial heavens, amidst the most abundant natural productions, and they were swept away with the most swift and cruel extermination."

"There is only one kind of treaty that is effective—cold lead."—editorial in Chico Courant 1866. On question number two, history is usually written by the victors. The build out of solar and wind across the deserts of the Southwest will be regarded by history as the new Gold Rush.

SB: What has been government's role in this destruction? Has there been a proper public review of these projects? A proper environmental review? The people I spoke with said the BLM's idea of tribal consultation was to call the number they had for the tribe and leave a message. They said there was no follow up, no real attempt to get tribal input on these projects. In fact, when I told the BLM's head archaeologist in California that I had personally spoken with Native Americans from the region who directly contradicted their conclusions, I was ignored. How is tribal consultation supposed to work, and what is the reality of how it has worked on these projects?

RL: We all want clean energy, but an important question is, where shall we put it? While solar on rooftops, brownfields, railroad rights-of-way, and on other already distressed lands close to load makes good sense, solar and wind on pristine desert and Native American sacred sites does not.

As an Emmy® Award winning filmmaker, I have explored this issue in the recently released feature documentary, Who Are My People?

Unfortunately I have discovered a shocking pattern of abusive practices by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in permitting utility scale solar and wind on public lands across the West—to the detriment of Native American peoples, which I have documented in the film. I'm sure it is no news to you that BLM processes are in disarray.

I have learned that the United States Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management, and its officials, officers and agents (collectively "Interior") have violated and are violating federal laws, regulations, and policies including the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA); National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA); National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); Administrative Procedures Act (APA); the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 (AIRFA), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), and the California Desert Conservation Area Land Use Management Plan (CDCA Plan).

The violation of Native American sacred sites, without consulting with Native governments as is laid out in Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, and more generally with Native American communities, as would be appropriate, is a major theme of Who are My People?

Secondly, the BLM allowing projects to proceed on lands that are home to sensitive biological resources and species, listed as "threatened" under the United States federal Endangered Species Act, such as the Flat-Tailed Horned Lizard, and the Desert Tortoise, and central to the traditional life practices and teachings of Indian cultures, also considered "vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), threatens the natural and "human environments."

SB: We've seen some of these projects come and go, but overall, they don't seem to be going away. What do you think should happen, with regards to industrial scale solar and wind projects in the deesert, in the future? How would you alter the process for reviewing these projects?

RL: There should be no large solar in the desert. As I said, its simply corporate propaganda. I think we need some context here.

My associate producer on Who Are My People?, John Boyd, who is Native American (Elwha Klallam), compared it to the way that industrial development is thrust into the poorer districts of cities (where people are least likely to "cause trouble"). He talked about the many empty homes in Muncie, Indiana, where he taught college, whose middle class occupants fell victim to the schemes of financial institutions. He compares companies like Pattern Energy (Ocotillo Wind) and Brightsource (Ivanpah Solar) to Olympic Power and Light, which dammed the Elwha River in Washington, where his tribe is from, in 1912.

John's family were fishermen along the Elwha, for generations before the dam went in. The Elwha dam brought a measure of prosperity to the Olympic Peninsula: jobs, power, development. It also killed the fishing, and nearly the tribe to which he belongs, by destroying their food supply—and then came the Depression, which saw Native and non-native peoples both dependent upon the river's remaining bounty. The salmon would still spawn below the dam, but the eggs were more easily washed away when they released runoffs.

I refer to what happened to Boyd’s people as a form of genocide, referring to not only the deprivation of the Native inhabitants of the area through starvation, but through the desecration of over 9,000 years of Native American burials, many of which were were paved over when the modern city of Port Angeles and its then four paper mills were built.

The tale of his people on the Elwha was made somewhat more positive in 2012 as the dams on the Elwha began to be removed, in the largest dam removal and ecosystem restoration project in the nation. But it took almost 100 years and 300 million dollars. And the Elwha Klallam have not yet been fully compensated for the tragedies they were forced to endure. Will it take 100 years to remove the hardware from the Obama administration's current solar and wind build-out of renewable energy across the Western deserts? Long after new technologies like solar collecting window panes become available? And the fragile, old growth desert, which sinks as much carbon as a northern grassland prairie ecosystem, may take thousands of years to recover, if it does at all.

It's easy to damage our communities and the environments and lands on which they depend—for spirituality, culture and sustenance—without a thought for what the future might hold.

John wrote in a recent article, "It is not about our (Native Americans) rights but the inherent right for people (our communities) to exist in an environment that is at times hospitable but at times contrary to survival of species... yet, as our communities continue to be, persevere, exist, and prosper, there is a contingent that must conquer... act in the "best interest" of all people. So, what is best is not necessarily what is the most appropriate... especially when it defines resource utilization. Historically, and politically, public interest was at the forefront, and only recently has 'corporate' interest gained favor."

We should be looking to the deserts as a storehouse of pharmacological resources, foods, and history, to show us how Native peoples survived global warming, how species migrated and adapted, following the end of the last ice age. And we should be appreciating the depths of cultures, their long term survival in the area, and recognizing that as they do, as sacred.

SB: I have my own list of losses these projects have created. What are the biggest losses resulting from these projects in your opinion?

RL: The loss of common sense.

SB: With your film's title you ask a question. What does that question mean in relation to these projects and why is that question asked?

RL: The central questions revolve around what is truly important: The success of big corporations? Or clean air; the environment and ordinary people? What does all this have to with me? What is sacred? Who Are My People?

SB: If people can take away one thing from your film that will be of benefit, what is it?

RL: Well, it's not in the film per se, but the one thing people need to realize with regard to Large Solar, is that right now its not green at all. The Texas Solar Energy Society writes: Solar photovoltaic (PV) technology is evolving rapidly to address today’s global climate and energy challenges. The industry’s dramatic expansion and its use of new and increasingly complex materials raise serious health and environmental issues, both in product manufacturing and throughout product lifecycles. A major concern is the fate of millions of PV panels currently in use.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition writes: The most common thin-film materials are amorphous silicon (a-Si) and polycrystalline materials that include cadmium telluride (CdTe) and copper indium (gallium) selenide (CIS or CIGS). Many of these thin-film technologies contain highly toxic and untested materials. Very little is known about the potential environmental, health, and safety consequences of their production processes, and we know even less about hazards that could emerge throughout product lifecycles.Film

In addition, new materials and processes are rapidly emerging, many of them incorporating nanotechnology, like Gallium Arsenide nano-posts to increase surface areas exposure to sunlight. Nanotech relies on the distinctive chemical, physical, and electrical properties of materials at the molecular scale. Unfortunately, most existing U.S. environmental laws do not cover these emerging technologies, and very little is known about the risks nanotech products pose in production, use, and end-of-life disposal and recycling.

Monocrystalline solar cell production currently uses many of the same chemical-intensive manufacturing processes found in the microelectronics industry. Therefore, the PV industry will face many of the same hazardous waste issues. E-waste chemicals and materials found in solar PV components include the following:

• Lead is often used in electronic circuits, including solar PV circuits, for wiring, solder-coated copper strips, and some lead-based printing pastes.iv Lead is highly toxic to the central nervous system, endocrine system, cardiovascular system, and kidneys.v Because lead accumulates in landfills, discarded solar PV panels have the potential to pollute drinking water. In one study, solar PV panels using lead solder exceeded by 30 percent the maximum allowable concentrations for lead in the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP)* standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).This can be easily resolved by using lead-free solder. Unfortunately, current U.S. regulations do not require lead-free solder in the manufacture of solar panels (or any electronic devices). The E.U. has been more proactive, restricting the sale of electronics that use lead-based solders.

• Brominated flame retardant: Polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) and brominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) are used in circuit boards and solar panel inverters (which convert DC to AC power). PBDEs, which bioaccumulate in fatty tissues, are recognized as toxic and carcinogenic and are described as endocrine disrupters.

• Hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) is used in many solar panels as a coating to absorb solar radiation. It is also often used in screws and circuit board chassis. Cr(VI) is considered carcinogenic.

• Cadmium is a known carcinogenx and is considered "extremely toxic" by the EPA and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA). Potential health impacts include kidney, liver, bone, and blood damage from ingestion and lung cancer from inhalation. The European Economic Community (EEC) has prohibited the sale of most products containing cadmium for health and safety reasons.

End-of-Life Hazards Associated with Specific Solar PV Technologies• Crystalline Silicon (c-Si): The first commercial solar modules were made of crystalline silicon (c-Si). These modules are still the most widely produced, comprising more than 70 percent of production in 2006.

End-of-life hazardous waste: As outlined above, c-Si PV circuitry and inverters contain hazardous materials such as lead, brominated fire retardants, and hexavalent chromium. Toxics contained in the modules themselves are below levels regulated by the EPA. Recycling options: Used silicon (Si) wafers can be melted into Si ingots and cut into new wafers. A company located in Freiburg, Germany, is one of the few facilities to provide reuse and recycling services for defective c-Si solar panels.

• Amorphous Silicon (a-Si): Amorphous silicon has a structural composition that allows it to be deposited in thin layers on materials such as plastics, glass, and metal. Commercially available since the 1970s, a-Si cells use very little silicon (about 1 percent of the amount used in c-Si) and are inexpensive to manufacture. They are commonly found in low-power consumer devices such as outdoor lights, watches, and calculators. End-of-life hazardous waste: Amorphous silicon PV panels contain no EPA-regulated toxic materials aside from those contained in the circuit boards (as noted above).

• Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Thin-Film PV: CdTe thin-film solar PV cells use layers of CdTe and cadmium sulfide (CdS). CdTe is the fastest growing thin-film technology because it is less expensive to manufacture than other solar PV materials. New start-up companies based in Arizona and Florida are already making CdTe thin films. Future applications include the use of CdTe quantum dots, a product of nanotechnology.

End-of-life hazardous waste: While the toxicity of cadmium is well known, there is limited information on CdTe toxicology. CdTe is believed to be less toxic than cadmium compounds found in nickel cadmium (NiCd) batteries.xvi However, tests to-date are inconclusive. Early studies of how metals may leach into groundwater show that CdTe modules failed both the TCLP and DEV tests. More recent studies indicate that CdTe panels marginally pass TCLP standards and one manufacturer reports that its panels currently pass TCLP and DEV tests. CdTe quantum dots are known to cause damage to cell biology and cell death.

• Copper Indium Selenide (CIS) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) Thin-Film PV: CIS and CIGS thin-film PV modules rely on new semiconductor materials. CIS and CIGS are much less expensive than c-Si because they can be printed onto glass, and, as thin films, use less material. Companies based in California and Massachusetts are using nanotechnology to increase CIGS efficiency, but with the use of nanotechnology comes uncertainty about environmental, health, and safety hazards.

End-of-life hazardous waste: Selenium is a regulated substance that bioaccumulates in food webs and is considered highly toxic and carcinogenic by the EPA. CdTe is often used in these modules as a buffer material, which also introduces the CdTe toxicity issues noted above. CIGS has toxicity levels similar to CIS with the addition of gallium, which is associated with low toxicity. CIS and CIGS use CdS (cadmium sulfide) as a buffer layer, so cadmium is also a potential hazard. In an acute toxicity comparison of CdTe, CIS, and CIGS, researchers found CIGS to have the lowest toxicity, and CdTe to have the highest.

Recycling options: No recycling processes have been explored beyond the pilot scale, although recovery of indium is essential for industry success because of low global availability.

• Multijunction Solar PV: Multijunction solar PV panels combine two or more different semiconductor materials that capture light from different parts of the solar spectrum. Capturing light from this broader spectrum makes multijunction cells more efficient. The maximum efficiency of a solar cell based on a single material is about 30 percent, but multijunction cells are already approaching 40 percent efficiency in laboratory tests with the help of multijunction concentrators. These use relatively inexpensive optics to concentrate sunlight onto a small surface. Because of their complexity, multijunction cells are expensive to manufacture, limiting current commercial availability to military and communications satellites. Current multijunction PV cells use gallium arsenide (GaAs), combined with thin-film materials such as CdTe or a-Si. Other materials under development for use in multijunction panels include zinc manganese tellurium, indium gallium phosphide/germanium, and indium gallium nitride; very little is known about the toxicology of these materials.

End-of-life hazardous waste: GaAs crystals will release arsine or arsenic if deposited in landfills. Arsenic is highly toxic and carcinogenic. The limited toxicological data on GaAs suggest that it could have profound effects on lung, liver, immune, and blood systems. There is little toxicological data on gallium, although it is widely used as a marker/tag in MRI tests and is believed to be safe.

Recycling options: There are no pilot scale recycling facilities for multijunction PV. The global rarity of metals such as indium and tellurium will make recycling essential to the success of solar PV based on these platforms.

• Emerging Solar Cell Technologies: Many solar cell technologies now in the research phase are based on organic materials. Many of these new technologies degrade during operation and are therefore very unstable and far from commercial viability. Technologies being developed include dye-sensitive cells and hybrid cells that combine new organic materials with multijunction cell crystals such GaAs. The instability of these new materials raises serious health and safety concerns, particularly regarding their use in combination with toxic semiconductor materials. In addition, emerging PV technologies are making extensive use of new techniques in nanotechnology, such as the deposition and synthesis of nanocrystals, quantum dots, and nanowires.

We don't need these toxic materials decomposing into the water systems of the 6 Western states in the Solar PEIS (Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement). That is the bottom line. If you want to address climate change there is a lot you can do. Begin by using less power, not by putting millions of highly toxic panels in our last remaining in-tact ecosystems. Plant a garden, so no one has to ship you your food. I wish I could give you better news, Steve, but let’s stop deceiving ourselves.

SB: What do you predict for the future of the desert? Are you hopeful? If so, what needs to happen to make your hopes become reality? How is your film heping to move us in that direction?

RL: What we really have to worry about is chemical contamination of water supplies. Not having clean water in Western rural areas, or anywhere else for that matter.

I would like to see us (the U.S.) adopt a smart plan to create distributed— rooftop—energy resources on the German model, so we don't destroy land and culture to "go green." It's just another government boondoggle now, like the Solyndra scandal, with 30 percent cash grants up front to companies, and billons in loan guarantees on the back end. You're talking Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Goldman Sachs—non-local multinational firms. They're eating sushi and laughing, while rural communities like Ocotillo in San Diego County suffer. Next it may be Ely, Elko, Mesquite, Prescott, Flagstaff, Durango, Moab, Twentynine Palms, Joshua Tree... The BLM/Obama administration "fast tracking" helps ensure the people don't have time to figure out how to do this right, and yet we have to.

The industry is on a "death-march to hell" and dragging us with them. They don't care about "green." That's a joke. They care about money. One solar industry insider told me, "We don't even recycle paper."

Adequate solar panel systems need to be developed, for example using safer silicon (sand) substrates rather than those now available, and particularly toxic Gallium Arsenide. Gallium Arsenide was developed in Russia in the 1970s and in the 80s it was identified as a carcinogen. We've known about this stuff for a long time, but many solar start-ups like Alta, making high yield panels have no recycling capability because it is too expensive. We need to make sure that what we mean by good engineering is engineering for health and safety of our bodies, our environments and our communities. We don't have that right now. We need to say, "Whoa, cowboy," and slow down.

Mainly the answer is this. We need to simplify our lives and use less power. If we do that we'll save the Earth. Corporations that maximize profits at the expense of people, and engineer products without a complete cradle to cradle planning process, design for disassembly, recycling and reuse, under the scrutiny of stringent government oversight, are not going to do it for us.



You can view the trailer for Who Are My People? at or go to for more of Robert Lundahl’s award-winning work.. Would you like The Sun Runner to host a screening of Who Are My People? in the desert? Help sponsor a screening. Contact Images ©Filmmaker Robert Lundahl.

Trailer for Who Are My People?

Culture, In Print, Today, News sun runner steve brown ivanpah ocotillo wind solar renewable energy blm doi kokopelli cec Native American sacred sites alfredo figueroa chemehuevi national parks film pattern energy indian documentary desert tortoise historic solar power cultural iucn robert lundahl who are my people filmmaker green power wind power climate change american indian activists gary ballard phil smith yaqui geoglylphs kokopilli john boyd department of the interior flpma nhpa apa airfa nagpra cdca brightsource bechtel chevron google solar panels solar cells rooftop solar solyndra goldman sachs


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