Human Rights · Social Justice · Wear Your Voice Magazine

How Environmental Racism Affects Indigenous Communities in the United States

Sacred Stone Camp by Tony Webster via Flickr

*First published by Wear Your Voice Magazine, September 26, 2017.*

Environmental racism is a term that first began its use in the environmental justice movements of the 1970s and 1980s, primarily to address concerns about Black communities being negatively affected by the US government’s social policies. As the environmental justice movement grew, the term environmental racism came to connote all minority and communities of color who across the USA were equally and disastrously affected by policies involving their access to clean air, water, and non-contaminated land.

While the term environmental racism has only existed for the past few decades, its reality has existed since the beginning of white settler colonialism in the United States and Indigenous communities have been particularly victimized by environmental racism.

From 1872-1873 the US military went on a targeted campaign to kill millions of buffalo in order to starve Indigenous populations and force them to comply with the newly developing reservation systems. These plots of reservation lands displaced Indigenous communities from their ancestral homes and were often inhospitable environments without easy access to water, food, and other natural resources that made self-sufficiency virtually impossible. Even today, Indigenous peoples in America continue to survive ongoing and often daily assaults on their rights to livable spaces.

One of the key debates in discussions regarding environmental racism is the question of intent. In many communities, environmental racism is not necessarily occurring on purpose due to social, federal, or governmental policy, such as the after effects of so-called white flight. But when it comes to Indigenous communities, environmental racism is almost purely by design on the local, state, and federal levels despite discrimination against these communities being illegal and against standards of international human rights laws.

Reservation lands are often used by big businesses for the transportation of and also dumping of toxic wastes, which poison what little ground water there may be and make these areas even less habitable than they already are. Some of the bigger cases of toxic waste dumping and the social repercussions on Native communities have even been brought by various tribes such as the Navajo and Hopi Nations to international fora such as the United Nations and World Health Organization since there is so little being done by America’s own government to protect Indigenous peoples.

The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has been involved in a very public battle with the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project that threatens the tribe’s few remaining unspoiled ancestral lands. Much of the media coverage on this issue has appeared to move on even though the fight to stop the DAPL project is far from over, and the region is already suffering from environmental consequences from oil spills due to lines that have completed construction.

While President Obama did halt the construction of DAPL, under Trump’s regime the pipeline has been completed and is now fully functional, with a first small oil spill to prove it. A large spill would affect access to clean water for the 17 million Indigenous Americans who live in the area.

Standing Rock is a textbook example of environmental racism in action: The reason that the pipeline traveled through Indigenous lands specifically is because the residents of majority-white cities such as Bismarck petitioned for the DAPL to be built away from their homes due to safety concerns, and they won.

But unfortunately, the Standing Rock tribe and their reservation are far from the only Indigenous communities in the USA whose environments are currently under attack by big business, corporate greed, and even local and federal government policies. The Skull Valley Goshute Reservation in Utah is currently faced with the double-edged sword of storing toxic wastes on their reserve. While the program would bring millions of dollars of revenue to the struggling reservation, it puts all residents and the environment at risk of contamination. In this instance, environmental racism forces people to choose between much-needed economic opportunity and their health, which is a choice no one should ever have to make but often does.

Further, there are dozens of tribes who are not federally recognized that end up being victimized by a variety of corporate and governmental policies for the simple fact that they are not considered “official” Indigenous populations on paper.

Environmental racism targeting Indigenous communities does not only affect lands, livelihoods, and access to clean water: there is a spiritual and religious component unique to these particular groups of people since many ancestral and traditional practices are tied to specific areas of land and environment. Having toxic waste dumped on sacred grounds, or sacred grounds being seized by the government without access granted to its original caretakers adds a singular kind of horror to the environmental racism Indigenous communities across America already face. This isn’t only the specific targeting of Indigenous peoples as experiments to which they have not consented, but it also speaks to a kind of cultural and religious erasure particularly affecting Indigenous Americans.

Environmental racism doesn’t only threaten lives, longevity, and futures, but it is often also an attempt to fundamentally eliminate Indigenous culture and traditions from American demographics. Environmental racism in the case of Indigenous Americans must be acknowledged as an insidious form of genocide.

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