Nicole Horseherder, the 2023 recipient the Heinz Award. (Photo by Joshua Franzos)

On Wednesday, September 20, Nicole Horseherder was awarded the Heinz Award for the Environment and will receive an unrestricted  $250,000 for her work as an energy justice leader working to protect the water, air, and land of the Navajo Nation.

Horseherder said it’s nice to be recognized, but it’s not why she’s been doing the work for more than 20 years. 

“I think I have won the trust of my people…my communities, and even leadership,” she told the Daily Yonder during an interview on a Sunday afternoon as she headed to a meeting to inform a community about hydrogen sources of energy. 

That’s something else Horseherder is known for: her advocacy for renewable energy sources. 

As co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Tó Nizhóní Ání (TNA), she works not only to protect aquifers, streams, and the land of Black Mesa, Arizona, but also to bring power to Indigenous communities suffering the environmental effects of decades of coal extraction.

“What’s going to happen is the companies are going to come in – the companies that want to develop hydrogen on the Navajo Nation are going to come in – and they’re going to try to present some information to the community and the community is basically demanding that they get this information,” she said about her Sunday meeting. “But the community has also asked our organization to come and help them make sense and help them understand the information in case the companies aren’t able to do that.”

Horseherder started TNA more than two decades ago, and it has remained a grassroots organization. She returned to her community in Black Mesa after college and learned that years of mining by the Peabody Western Coal Company had depressurized and drained the region’s aquifer. The aquifer was the only source of drinking water for the area and for her family’s livestock springs. Research revealed that the Peabody Mine was depleting the Navajo Aquifer of 3 to 4 million gallons of water per day for a slurry line to transport coal. It also exposed nearby residents to heavy metal-laden coal dust. 

Since the 1960s, coal mining agreements have exploited Indigenous land and water to benefit growing populations in Arizona, Nevada, and California. The coal extracted was lighting nearby cities, but people living on Navajo and Hopi lands lacked access to electricity due to the exclusion of Indigenous nations in the Rural Electrification Act of the early 1900s.

A community elder encouraged Horseherder and others to take up the cause. Around 2005, with partners like the Black Mesa Water Trust, TNA successfully shut down the Black Mesa mine, ending Peabody’s industrial use of the aquifer. In 2019, the Navajo Generating Station – the largest coal-fired power plant in the western U.S. and the largest source of nitrogen dioxide pollution in the country –  was shut down, partly due to TNA’s work. 

TNA is now focused on transitioning to renewable sources. As of 2022, three large-scale Navajo solar facilities are in place. Another is expected to be completed this year.

Community is at the center of the work she does, Horseherder said. 

 “There isn’t anything else that motivates us more than to connect with the communities and have that relationship and to help the communities make the best decision possible for themselves,” Horseherder said. “At the same time to reiterate the fact that the Earth needs us, the environment needs us, we have to start speaking for the environment. This is the world that we live in – whatever happens to the environment happens to us.” 

Teresa Heinz, chairperson of the Heinz Family Foundation, said in a statement that the country’s “dark history of exploiting our land, our finite natural resources and our people must end, and through her work with Tó Nizhóní Ání, Nicole is leading at a time of reckoning and renewal.”

Heinz said that with wisdom, grit, and grace, Horseherder is confronting those accountable and holding them responsible for correcting past wrongs. 

“She is a force to be reckoned with and a wonderful embodiment of the spirit of the Heinz Awards,” the chairperson added.

Recipients of the 28th Heinz Awards will be honored at an event in Pittsburgh in October. Other recipients include climate justice organizer and human rights lawyer Colette Pichon Battle, who is the co-founder and partner for vision and initiatives at the nonprofit Taproot Earth. 

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