Offshore wind farms are seen as a way to curb carbon emissions, and several are planned for waters not far from Martha’s Vineyard. The impact of those turbines — good or bad — will not be the same for everyone on the Island.
For the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), offshore wind farms could affect the connection to some of its most sacred bonds with its culture.
Aquinnah Wampanoag chairwoman Cheryl Andrews-Maltais and tribal historic preservation officer Bettina Washington, in an interview with The Times, say there are several factors connected to tribal culture that their government is concerned about that could be impacted by the turbines, including submerged archeological sites, marine environment and wildlife, and the sunrise.
Yet at the same time, the tribe knows that finding renewable energy sources is needed.
“Certain things we’ve had to acquiesce — if it’s something that we have more of or something that can be potentially replicated, and if we have to take a loss here for the greater good, we have,” Andrews-Maltais said. “But there are certain times and certain instances where that’s not going to be acceptable. And whatever we need to do, we need to do, because we’re not only protecting it for ourselves, but for our future generations.”
Among these irreplaceable things are submerged archaeological sites. The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe have inhabited Martha’s Vineyard for at least 10,000 years, based on archaeological research. There are fears that the construction of the turbines and undersea cables could damage these sites. Andrews-Maltais and Washington said this submerged, unexplored history could be potentially damaged beyond repair.
Washington mentioned some projects that were of concern to the tribe, including Revolution Wind, South Fork Wind, Sunrise Wind, and Bay State Wind, all of which are planned to be built in waters not far from Martha’s Vineyard. The tribe’s concerns were not given the attention they deserve regarding the projects in waters around the Island, which Washington said were like the “Saudi Arabia for wind.”
“The challenge is they need to weigh these out,” Washington said. “What happens from a tribal perspective is that what we are valuing and what we are saying to them does not have the same weight … when they make their determinations of where a project should be placed.”
The fact there are multiple projects planned to be built was another concern for the tribe, and whether “Mother Earth” will be able to heal properly from the construction, if they do go through.
A past offshore wind project the tribe had particular difficulty with was Cape Wind. Cape Wind was an offshore wind project set in motion in 2001. It was planned to be built on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound, an area used for spiritual and cultural ceremonies and practices. The tribe filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to halt the project, citing violations that included “significant adverse effects, and the destruction of historical, cultural, and spiritual tribal resources.”
Andrews-Maltais said this project was problematic in regard to tribal consultation from early on, and concerns were not addressed appropriately. Cape Wind eventually decided to relinquish its lease in 2017.
Issues such as turbine heights remain a concern for the tribe, despite improvements in the process.
An important cultural practice that could be impacted by offshore wind farms is seeing an unobstructed sunrise. In the Aquinnah Wampanoag tradition, the tribe greets the day and brings sunlight to “all things to grow across Turtle Island (North America) and Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard),” according to Andrew-Maltais. For the “People of the First Light,” which is what Wampanoag means, greeting the day is a spiritual ceremony.
“That’s why it’s so critically important that we have the ability to have that unobstructed view, for lack of a better word, so that we are able to give full celebration and full thanksgiving for the sun and the daylight that comes each day,” Andrew-Maltais said.
Washington compared the sunrise ceremony to attending a church service, and said that it can be very personal to the tribe members participating.
When asked whether filing a lawsuit against the current projects was a consideration, Andrews-Maltais said, “At any given point, the tribes have to use whatever tools we’re given.” Whether litigation would be pursued depends on how receptive and responsive representatives are to tribal concerns.
BOEM is one agency from the federal government that is supposed to listen to concerns of tribal members. It undergoes consultation with tribes to understand how projects may impact these communities. Public affairs specialist Lissa Eng said her agency makes “good-faith efforts” to invite tribes to consult early in the planning stages, and throughout the decisionmaking process. It also incorporates indigenous knowledge based on “environmental studies, assessments, and formal government-to-government consultations.” In certain cases, BOEM may partner with tribes.
According to Eng, BOEM has three goals with indigenous communities: improving the agencies’ understanding of the communities’ connections to “physical and biological resources and society,” being mindful of the “long-term horizon” of indigenous communities, and committing to understanding, foreseeing, and minimizing the impact from BOEM’s decisions on indigenous communities. “We believe that tribes must have a seat at the table,” she said.
Andrews-Maltais said that while consultations are not a “one-and-done” act, the process at times felt like agencies were “checking a box” that indigenous people were talked to. This is particularly true when plans move forward despite opposition from these communities.
“We’ve asked repeatedly for a consolidated and concise process through which we can be involved from inception, the idea of what’s going on, through the decisionmaking and decommissioning of any project undertaking that they’re doing,” she said.
While Andrews-Maltais understood that federal agencies need to balance the interest of multiple stakeholders, she emphasized the obligation the federal government uniquely holds to tribes through treaties. Additionally, although improvements have been made, Andrews-Maltais said, the federal government has not properly met tribal obligations. She referred to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ reports titled “A Quiet Crisis” from 2003 and “Broken Promises” from 2018 as examples, both of which outline the federal government’s failure to adequately fund the social and economic well-being of indigenous communities.
For BOEM, specifically regarding offshore wind farms, Eng said they are working with federal, tribal, state, and local partners and academia to identify issues related to offshore wind projects and related areas. Eng underscored that environmental protection is a priority, and “indispensable” in BOEM’s decisionmaking, based on “the best available science and law.”
“We are dedicated to responsible stewardship, which includes protection of America’s ocean environment and marine life,” she said.
However, the tribe still has concerns regarding the environmental impact the construction could have. The ocean is interconnected, and impacting one area can affect others, according to Andrews-Maltais. She said construction could cause siltation to cloud sunlight from marine plants. This in turn could reduce the habitat for some marine animals.
Washington said in the Aquinnah Wampanoag tradition, animals are considered brothers and sisters who gave up sharing a common language with humans. “They give their lives for us so we can live,” she said. “So now we are responsible for speaking for them, and that’s a very, very difficult thing for [most people to understand].”
A species Washington brought up that she was particularly concerned about was herring, a culturally important fish. Washington worries its migratory route could be impacted. “The arrival of herring, for our people, came in the spring,” Washington said. “It signified spring, signified that things will turn around after winter, when your food sources haven’t really been abundant.”
Andrews-Maltais added that the time frame given by agencies, whether it be 90 days or 180 days, is not enough to give a proper answer about the impact on species, because some of them may have migratory patterns that change occasionally.
Another challenge for the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe is the structure of the federal government. They coordinate not only with BOEM, but also have to work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration regarding offshore wind. “We have to worry about every aspect in all 360° of these projects,” Andrew-Maltais said. “They’re only responsible for their little silo. That’s part of the challenge. It’s hard for them to break out of that silo culture to be able to incorporate what we’re saying, as the whole or the totality of the projects’ impacts as we’re seeing them.”
The chairwomen stressed that the tribe is looking at the situation in its “totality,” and cannot separate the various parts of the offshore wind farm projects.
Andrews-Maltais said there were also times when companies were insensitive to indigenous people’s history, such as Mayflower Wind, which changed its name to SouthCoast Wind Energy LLC in February.
“Mayflower is not a happy place for us,” she said of the ship that carried the Pilgrims. “It was not a happy voyage for the indigenous people of this hemisphere.”
Despite the lingering difficulties, Andrews-Maltais said the tribe is still hopeful, because there have been improvements with the federal government’s efforts to bring indigenous communities to the negotiating table, compared with the days of Cape Wind, and before.
The Biden administration has committed to strengthening its relationship with indigenous communities, and Andrews-Maltais said other federal leaders had also stepped up. She says that former BOEM Director Amanda Lefton came to the table with tribal leaders, and current BOEM Director Elizabeth Klein is looking at where past administrations went wrong, while being open to dialogue with tribes to amend unresolved issues.
Additionally, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico, and the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, has supported protection of areas important to indigenous communities.
“Secretary Haaland is sensitive to what it is that we’re saying and what it is that we’re protecting,” Andrews-Maltais said. “In other parts of the country, she has gone over and above what any prior secretary has been able to accomplish with regard to protecting and preserving and restoring sacred sites, ceremonial sites, sites that are important to the regions and whatnot. So she’s been doing that consistently since she came on board.”
Andrews-Maltais acknowledged that other members of the tribe may have a different opinion regarding the offshore wind farms, which arose during the legal fight against Cape Wind. More recently, several members of the tribe, including Washington, questioned Revolution Wind’s benefits to the Island when BOEM came to Martha’s Vineyard last October regarding the project’s draft environmental impact statement.
Although pushing back on aspects of offshore wind projects, Andrews-Maltais emphasized that the tribe is not against pursuing renewable energy. However, Andrews-Maltais said, the tribe hopes for alternative renewable energy options that won’t be as detrimental.
Washington also said the tribe did not want to “stand in the way” of progress for renewable energy, but a “balanced” approach was necessary. Additionally, she said while the wind turbines are a route to face climate change, she called it a “Band-Aid” solution.
“A key piece missing here is human behavior,” Washington said. “Now, I understand you may not like it, and it’s rare for a politician to even mention that, but we can put wind [turbines] all along the land and in the ocean; if we don’t change our behavior, it’s not going to matter. We were the ones that caused this problem. We are the problem … We need to deal with this underlying issue if we want to survive and we want to give Mother Earth time to heal.”