Lighting Up the Navajo Nation

WREC’s lineworkers get more than they give, energizing remote homes in a week.

By Dianna Troyer

NavajoFor years, a Navajo man in his 70s never gave up hope that he would one day have electricity for his home and no longer have to buy generators.

“He told me he had been through 22 generators before we came,” says Jake Wines, a Wells Rural Electric Company lineman and recent Light Up Navajo program volunteer.

“He kept buying one of those small gas generators sold at a farm store,” Jake says. “He was so glad to finally have permanent, reliable power.”

A line crew foreman in Carlin, Jake, and three other WREC lineworkers energized the man’s home on the edge of Kayenta, a small town in northeastern Arizona about 20 miles south of the Utah border on the Navajo Nation.

The lineworkers set three poles and installed the accompanying components, connecting him to the power grid.

Jake says the weeklong volunteerism from July 8 to 15 was unforgettable for him, along with Colton Rasmussen and Conner Hight from Carlin and Eric Correa from West Wendover.

“Power lines are power lines, but learning about their culture and their people was what made a difference to me,” Jake says. “Meeting and understanding new people and another American culture was really cool.”

They volunteered for the program after WREC Chief Executive Officer Clay Fitch asked if anyone would like to participate. It was the first time the co-op sent a crew.

“We’re grateful our management allowed us to go, paying our wages a week so we could help those in need,” Jake says. “As linemen, that’s what it’s all about for us—getting the power on. It was satisfying to accomplish that and see how welcoming and appreciative the families were.”

Funded by federal grants and donations, the program was launched in 2019 as a partnership between the American Public Power Association and the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to electrify rural homes. Volunteer lineworkers nationwide provide labor.

“It was intense, getting everything done in a week,” Jake says. “Our days started at about 6:30 a.m., and we were driving back to the hotel in the dark.”

Love for Ancestral Land

As the crew worked, they noticed how families hauled water for cooking, cleaning, drinking, and their garden. Once or twice a week, a family member would drive an hour or more to a watering station in town to fill a 500-gallon plastic water tank on the back of a truck or flatbed trailer. They cooked on wood or propane-powered stoves.

“Imagine living like that,” Jake says. “It seems like a hardship to us, but to them, the land and home and living where their ancestors did is as important to them as their name. It’s their identity. They’re glad to be there—power or not. Most never think about moving away and have learned how to live within that environment. They’re experts at survival. They do what they can with what they have. They take pride in their property and gardens.”

Before beginning the project, the line crew drove 600 miles from Nevada to the utility authority’s office in Tuba City, Arizona, to meet with their tribal colleagues on a Sunday to plan their week.

It seems like a hardship to us, but to them, the land and home and living where their ancestors did is as important to them as their name. It’s their identity.
-Jake Wines, Wells Rural Electric Company Lineman

“They taught us common Navajo phrases printed on translation cards, so we could say ‘Hi’ or ‘We’re here to work.’ The elders only speak Navajo, while some younger people are bilingual,” he says. “Someone was with us in case we needed to translate.”

After finishing the first job for the Kayenta residents Sunday evening, they began working at two homes about 30 miles south of town in the arid Mormon Ridge area. It took them about 90 minutes to drive one way to the job along dirt roads.

To connect the main line and the homes, lineworkers set 11 poles for about 3/4 of a mile.

“We did it all—from the poles to wire, transformer, and meter,” Jake says. “The homes had already been wired and had a meter base.”

To set the poles, they had to deal with fine dark red sand.

“Trucks get bogged down in that sand along the power line easement, so they used a bulldozer to get around and haul our supplies,” Jake says. “One house was on a rocky hilltop, so we used a specialized pressure digger to dig holes on that job.”

Watching the electrical work progress, the families took breaks from their own work.

“They’re industrious, and these families earned their income from weaving rugs, making jewelry, and doing beadwork,” Jake says. “They have sheep for meat and for wool to make the rugs.”

Finale of Flipping Breakers

Finally, everyone watched the grand finale: flipping the breakers. The power was on.

“One family went to town to buy a swamp cooler and a TV,” Jake says. “Although they didn’t drill a well, at least with electricity, they could get a pump to make it easier to move the water.”

At the end of the week, the tribal authority thanked the lineworkers by hosting an appreciation dinner featuring traditional dancers and singers.

“We drove home with a feeling of accomplishment, knowing we’d made a difference in people’s lives,” Jake says. “We’re all glad we went.”