By Tony Khing
One of the functions of heritage months is bringing awareness to different cultures.
Awareness has been a priority for Reno Franklin, who serves as PG&E’s tribal liaison. So when Franklin says, “Every month is Native American Heritage Month for me,” he’s being sincere.
“It’s an opportunity to share with our coworkers the responsibility we have to tribal governments and tribal citizens,” said Franklin, who became PG&E’s first tribal liaison two years ago. “My goal is to ensure PG&E serves the needs of our tribal customers and tribal governments that are in our service area. That was first and primary on my list.”
PG&E's tribal liaison Reno Franklin with his daughters Kayla and Kylie.
Franklin, who’s a tribal member of the Kashia band of Pomo Indians, helps PG&E understand the needs of the more than 60 federally recognized tribes and 40 non-federally recognized tribes in the company’s service area.
He’s been an elected official within his tribe for 21 years. Franklin has chaired the State Tribal Health Board and the National Indian Health Board. He has served under three presidential administrations (Obama, Trump and Biden) as a member of the advisory council on historic preservation. “We advise the president and Congress of the best ways to preserve the heritage of the nation,” he said.
In addition, Franklin is considered a subject matter expert on tribal consultation by the Department of Justice and Department of Defense.
Working with Franklin is Denise Shemenski, the deputy tribal liaison, who came to PG&E after spending nearly three decades with the State of California in various Office of Emergency Services, Homeland Security and Cal FIRE positions as well as in the Office of Tribal Coordination.
“We must change our thinking about how we do business with tribes and gain an understanding of tribal leadership,” said Shemenski, who’s a member of the Apache and Blackfoot tribes. “We need to pay attention to their history and their communication protocols and rituals. We will continue to educate and improve our leadership to work and conduct business in these different environments so we can be successful in our engagement with all California tribes.”
Thanks to the work of Franklin and Shemenski, PG&E’s communication with tribes before and during Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) and other outages has improved. Shemenski said tribes now have “ample time to prepare before these events occur.”
Franklin added that tribes now have someone they can call at PG&E in emergency situations such as if they need water and a generator because a power outage knocked out generators that power their water systems. The tribes can also call PG&E if they need other supplies to ride out storms or outages.
PG&E's deputy tribal liaison Denise Shemenski joined the company after a long career in various capacities with the State of California.
“It’s just us listening to their needs, emergency situations and non-emergency situations that come up and helping them prepare and them telling us what they’re going to need,” said Franklin.
PG&E has reached out to the tribes in other ways. Over the summer, the company worked with youth and leaders from tribes in Mendocino County to build solar suitcases, sources of backup power for reservations to use in case of emergency or outages. Not only did the tribes get some reliable emergency power sources, students were introduced to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
Recently, PG&E did some land restoration work in Shasta County for the Pit River Tribe. Franklin said the company gave the tribe back some land that’s culturally important to them. “They were super excited to see it happen,” he said.
But that’s not all. Franklin remembers when PG&E was planning on doing some vegetation management work, but PG&E’s maps didn’t mark where tribes were located. Thanks to Franklin’s help, the company identified the tribal lands and which tribes were going to be affected by the company’s work. This knowledge enabled the company to inform the tribes of the work and the potential for outages.
PG&E has made progress in its relationships with tribes in California. But Franklin and Shemenski feel the work has only just started.
“We’ve done a heck of a job turning around and improving,” said Franklin. “We’ve had buy-in from every level, like from a lineman who’ll find something that looks like a tribal artifact, call me and ask what they should do. I’ve talked to (PG&E Corporation Chief Executive Officer) Patti Poppe about our tribes and their needs.”
“We, as a company, need to understand every tribal entity is very unique,” said Shemenski. “Each have their own priorities, cultures and traditions. Those will impact the way they interact with non-tribal entities, such as PG&E. We must understand and respect the inherent rights that come with federally recognized tribes.”
“Tribes suffer from this affliction called anonymity. Most people think we’re dead or don’t exist. A lot of them still think we live in teepees,” said Franklin. “We don’t.”
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