Dozens of IBEW electricians from across the country spent parts of April and May setting poles and stringing wire across the vast terrain of the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest to bring electricity to some of the 15,000

        — about a third of all residences there — that have never been hooked up to the power grid. More IBEW members are already signed up to take part in the second phase of “Light Up Navajo” in 2020.

       Photo courtesy of American Public Power Association via Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. (Click the arrows to advance photos.)

       Kevin Cranford, left, and James Cotten dig a hole for a pole in Kayenta, Ariz., in May 2019. The linemen traveled to the region as part of a team of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 members from the Sacramento Municipal

       Utility District.

       Photo by John Storey, courtesy of Local 1245.

       Members from Phoenix Local 387 at Arizona Public Service include journeyman Julian Todacheenie, third from left, who grew up in the Navajo Nation without power.

       Lineman Corey Smith in a SMUD line truck, one of the vehicles that he and his Local 1245 brothers drove to Arizona from Sacramento, Calif.

       Photo by John Storey, courtesy of Local 1245.

       Some of the Navajo Nation’s stunning landscape, as captured by Worcester, Mass., Local 486 member Brian Foley.

       Another landscape photo from Worcester, Mass., Local 486 member Brian Foley. “It was absolutely beautiful there,” he said.

       Local 1245 lineman Chris Worth frames a pole.

       Photo by John Storey, courtesy of Local 1245.

       Rough terrain was one of the challenges for IBEW crews, such as this one from Arizona Public Service.

       Photo courtesy of APPA via NTUA.

       The team of Local 1245 linemen from SMUD, from left: James Cotten, Chris Worth, Corey Smith, Trenedy Faddis, Kevin Cranford, along with Darrell Curley from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

       Photo by John Storey, courtesy of Local 1245.

       Chris Cox was one of four Rockford, Ill., Local 196 members from Rochelle Municipal Utilities who headed to the Navajo Nation two weeks before other crews to help NTUA with a test run of the Light Up Navajo program.

       Photo courtesy of APPA via NTUA.

       The Local 1245 SMUD crew at work.

       Photo by John Storey, courtesy of Local 1245.

       Worcester, Mass., Local 486 member Brian Foley’s view of some of the estimated 1,000 poles that visiting utility crews working with NTUA linemen erected across 50 miles of Navajo Nation territory in April and May 2019.

       Linemen Jayme Baranek and Mario Lizarraga, foreground, prepare to install a pole. They were among 30 members of Phoenix Local 266 from the Salt River Project who took part in the 2019 phase of Light Up Navajo.

       Photo courtesy of APPA via NTUA.

January 7, 2019

In the sacred story of the birth of the Navajo Nation, the first holy people rose through three worlds before emerging into the splendor of their homeland in what would become the American Southwest. They called it the Glittering World.

Their landscape sparkles against brilliant blue skies, bookended by sunrises and sunsets that turn towering red rock formations, canyons, mountains, lakes, forests and high desert into majestic works of art.

But inside thousands of the homes dotting the Nation's 27,000-square miles, it is dark.

No lights. No working refrigerators or microwave ovens. No TVs, computers or cell phone chargers. No modern conveniences beyond what some residents minimally fuel with small generators a couple of hours a day.

Roughly 15,000 of the 55,000 families living on the reservation never have had electricity. Their homes comprise 70% of all dwellings in the United States without it.

But last spring, thanks in large part to IBEW members, the lights went on in 233 of those homes. Hundreds more will be hooked up later this year during the second phase of a mammoth project called Light Up Navajo.

It has been life-changing for the Navajo people and linemen alike.

"When they turn the first switch and they can finally use the microwave, the mini fridge, they're crying, we're tearing up," journeyman lineman Matt Scirpoli said. "I'm so proud I could be part of it."

Eager to Volunteer

Scirpoli, of Worcester, Mass., Local 486, was among dozens of IBEW members around the country who traveled in spring 2019 to the Navajo Nation to work alongside electricians from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

The territory, larger than West Virginia, sprawls across the adjoining corners of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Roughly 190,000 residents — about two-thirds of the Navajo population — live on the reservation at any given time.

Density averages 4.2 houses per square mile. But many are spread farther apart, making the work of installing utility poles and stringing wire more labor-intensive and time-consuming than is typical for line crews.

Utilities and municipalities, such as the City of West Boylston in Massachusetts, where Scirpoli works, paid regular wages and travel expenses to send eager volunteers, many of them staying two weeks. Linemen happily worked to exhaustion, 12 to 14 hours a day, usually six days a week.

Just driving between the secluded worksites could take two hours or more, sometimes to service a single home. Scirpoli's crew installed 26 poles and 18,000 feet of wire at one isolated property. His Local 486 brother Brian Foley, a journeyman lineman from Sterling, Mass., helped put up hundreds of poles along a 12-mile stretch to bring power to a cluster of 30 homes.

"We were running pole lines across the desert to serve just a few houses," Foley said. "The best day we had was 35 poles."

Some utilities sent workers to the region in company vehicles to supplement the NTUA crews' equipment. Still, there weren't enough bucket trucks to go around, and linemen found themselves scrambling up and down poles. It was more climbing than most of them had done in years, but it came with a fringe benefit.

"If you got up on a pole on a mesa, the views were amazing," said journeyman lineman Todd Johnson of Rockford, Ill., Local 196. "The landscape varies so much. There's a lot of openness, a lot of sand, a lot of rock mesa, also in areas it was a little bit mountainous."

Johnson and three of his IBEW brothers at Rochelle Municipal Utilities were on scene in March, two weeks earlier than other crews.

"We were kind of there to test things out," he said. "There were maybe a few minor bugs, but nothing that didn't get worked out in a hurry, like not always having enough material on site."

He and other volunteers had nothing but praise for the meticulous, highly skilled NTUA linemen they worked alongside. "They're very well trained," Johnson said. "They have a fantastic apprenticeship program. If someone can't make a class, they bring a tutor out to them because this place is so vast."

A Different World

Lineman Corey Smith in a SMUD line truck, one of the vehicles that he and his Local 1245 brothers drove to Arizona from Sacramento, Calif.
Photo by John Storey, courtesy of Local 1245

On their own, tribal crews hook up an average of 474 homes a year. "If NTUA stayed its course, 50 years from now we'd still be connecting people," NTUA General Manager Walter Haase said.

Haase's long career in energy management began as a summer helper with Chicago Local 134, where some of his many family members in the building trades are members.

A past chair of the American Public Power Association, Haase has been speaking to utilities for years about the hurdles to fully powering the impoverished Navajo Nation, from exorbitant costs to years of red tape. Meanwhile, many Navajo families are enduring Third-World conditions.

"We all forget what it's like not to have electricity or running water," Haase said. "Navajo families use coal right out of the mine or wood from the forest to heat their homes and cook their food, and neither one is a very healthy environment. If you don't have electricity, you don't have refrigeration. You have no electricity to move water.

"They have 250-gallon plastic water tanks on a pickup or trailer and at least three times a week they drive an hour, hour and a half, to get water," he said. "The same time, they're going to the store. There are no Walmarts or Targets. In most cases they're going to a gas station with a convenience store. And they're going to have to buy ice, which only lasts for a short period of time."

As Haase made the rounds of APPA conferences, stunned utility leaders offered to help, planting the seeds for what's become Light Up Navajo.

"APPA has a mutual aid program that sends electric crews to areas hit by natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes," he said. "It was suggested that the same model could be used to deploy crews to the Navajo Nation."

Linemen who made the trip left Navajo families with more than electric power, Haase said.

"In my opinion, the more important thing than these people getting electricity, was that they got to see that other American people cared enough about them to stop what they were doing in their lives and come help them."

'It Really Humbles You'

Chris Cox was one of four Rockford, Ill., Local 196 members from Rochelle Municipal Utilities who headed to the Navajo Nation two weeks before other crews to help NTUA with a test run of the Light Up Navajo program.
Photo courtesy of APPA via NTUA.

IBEW volunteers witnessed the hardships Haase described and many more.

"It definitely opened my eyes," journeyman lineman Chris Worth said. "They're telling stories of driving two hours a day to get ice or food, and you're thinking about the complaining we do about driving to Safeway in traffic. It really humbles you."

Worth was one of five members of Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 who headed to Arizona in late April from the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, traveling in trucks SMUD lent to the cause.

The houses they serviced were pre-wired — some of them modular homes that came with wiring; others traditional Navajo hogans with thick earthen walls that had to be adapted. "Some of these houses, they'd had the wiring installed a long time ago," said journeyman Corey Smith of the Local 1245 crew. "One woman was in tears, telling us, 'We've been waiting for nine years.'"

Without minimizing the frustration their regular customers feel when the power goes out, IBEW linemen couldn't help but return home with a new perspective. Confronted by a man irate about a maintenance outage a few months later, Smith said, "I was thinking, 'Dude, you have no idea.'"

It was a lesson Worth repeated for days with his teenage daughter. "Probably a week's worth of lectures," he said with a laugh. "Here we have everything right at our fingertips. She doesn't understand how much harder life is for the Navajos, how nothing is really convenient."

Huge Challenges

Linemen Jayme Baranek and Mario Lizarraga, foreground, prepare to install a pole. They were among 30 members of Phoenix Local 266 from the Salt River Project who took part in the 2019 phase of Light Up Navajo.
Photo courtesy of APPA via NTUA.

The stories of primitive conditions invariably lead to questions about why NTUA isn't doing more, and doing it more quickly, Haase said. Time and again, he explains the stark realities in a community with a per capita income of $10,700 and a 46.5% unemployment rate.

He said the 40,000 Navajo households with electricity are billed an average of $630 a year. That's after paying a share of the $30,000 to $40,000 it typically costs NTUA to extend power lines to a single home.

Hooking up the final 15,000 would tally about $1 billion, including new infrastructure — underscoring just how valuable the donated labor is.

"Even if we borrowed the money at zero% interest, the average residential bill would go to over $6,000 a year," Haase said. "That's the financial reality. We get criticized, 'Why don't you just pay to connect everybody?' but if I did that, I'd create a manmade disaster on the Navajo Nation."

Despite NTUA subsidies and other tribal assistance, many families can't afford to get the process started. The paperwork for environmental impact studies and federal rights-of-way — the U.S. government holds title to all land on the reservation — runs thousands of dollars and can take two years or more. Meanwhile, families have to pay to have their homes wired. And even then there's a long waiting list.

IBEW volunteers were awed by the dignity and kindness of the Navajo people in the face of such adversity, and their generosity with what little they had.

"They'd give us big hugs, and all kinds of gifts — mugs and shirts and memorabilia — not that that's what we were out there for. They were just so excited," said Nolan Brimhall of Phoenix Local 387, who has long interacted with the tribal crews in his years at Arizona Public Service. "They'd get birthday cakes and invite us to dinner. They fed us like kings."

The cakes weren't for anyone's particular birthday, Brimhall said, but were what families could pick up on a grocery run that represented a celebration.

The love showered on Brimhall's crew came with an extra measure of trust that he credits to his Local 387 brother at APS, Julian Todacheenie, who grew up with his grandparents on the reservation without electricity or running water.

"It was cool to have Julian out there with us," he said. "He was able to communicate in the native tongue, and I think we got to experience a little more — we got to go to some areas, including some deep and sacred canyons, that not everyone did."

Todacheenie graduated from the NTUA apprentice program and joined Local 387 about 20 years ago. He's watched his children grow up with modern conveniences and technology he couldn't have imagined, but said his own childhood was culturally rich, and he never felt like he was missing anything.

"Back then, very few families had utilities," he said. "It was no big deal. My grandparents had learned to manage workarounds and they taught us. Growing up off the grid was normal."

Even so, his late grandfather was thrilled a few years ago when he finally got power at his ranch house — at age 93.

"He was excited about having power to run the refrigerator, the television, all that good stuff we take for granted," Todacheenie said. "He enjoyed the luxury of electricity for about a year before he passed."

'A Dream Came True'

Worcester, Mass., Local 486 member Brian Foley’s view of some of the estimated 1,000 poles that visiting utility crews working with NTUA linemen erected across 50 miles of Navajo Nation territory in April and May 2019.

Every lineman went home with memories of palpable joy when families turned on lights and appliances in their homes for the first time.

Worth recalled a boy, perhaps 14, who, like thousands of children on the reservation, had been using candles and a miner's headlamp to study. The boy was thrilled when his home filled with light, but it didn't sink in immediately.

"He said, 'I'm going to do my homework' and without even thinking, he put his headlamp back on — even though he'd just flipped the switch," Worth said. His mom said, 'Honey, you don't have to do that anymore.'"

Johnson, of Local 196, was touched by one child's special request when his family's refrigerator began humming with power. "The first thing the kid said was, 'We can have popsicles now!' And that was the first thing they went out and bought," he said.

The families they helped gathered for weekly appreciation dinners at community centers called chapter houses, standing to tell stories about their lives before electricity. Emotions sometimes got in the way of their words.

"A 90-year-old woman — she'd never had power in her life — tried to express her gratitude," Local 486's Foley said. "She couldn't really speak; she could only cry. Like a dream came true to her."

The visitors were bowled over by the sacrifices many Navajo families make to afford their share of the high costs involved in getting power.

"The family with the popsicles, the mother got up and talked about how she and her family had to move away to put up wind turbines so that they could save money," Johnson said. "They had to leave their children with their grandparents so that eventually they could get lights on in their house."

Moved by what he saw and heard, Johnson said he is donating $5,000 toward the Light Up Navajo coffers and challenging utilities and fellow linemen to join him.

"It blows me away to think that all these people, in the United States in 2019, don't have electricity," he said.

Brimhall, of Local 387, said bringing light to the Navajo people "was somewhat of a spiritual experience."

"The way they approached you and talked to you, they were so grateful," he said. "Something we do on a normal day is something that's totally changed some of these people's lives."