Native American Environmental Issues Essay, Research Paper
Native American Environmental IssuesTraditionally Native Americans have had an immediate and reciprocal relationship with their natural environments. At contact, they lived in relatively small groups close to the earth. They defined themselves by the land and sacred places, and recognized a unity in their physical and spiritual universe. Their cosmologies connected them with all animate and inanimate beings. Indians moved in a sentient world, managing its bounty and diversity carefully lest they upset the spirit “bosses,” who balanced and endowed that world. They acknowledged the power of Mother Earth and the mutual obligation between hunter and hunted as coequals. Indians celebrated the earth’s annual rebirth and offered thanks for her first fruits. They ritually addressed and prepared the animals they killed, the agricultural fields they tended, and the vegetal and mineral materials they processed. They used song and ritual speech to modify their world, while physically transforming that landscape with fire and water, brawn and brain. They did not passively adapt, but responded in diverse ways to adjust environments to meet their cultural as well as material desires. The pace of change in Indian environments increased dramatically with Euroamerican contact. Old World pathogens and epidemic diseases, domesticated plants and livestock, the disappearance of native flora and fauna, and changing resource use patterns altered the physical and cultural landscape of the New World. Nineteenth-century removal and reservation policies reduced the continental scope of Indian lands to mere islands in the stream of American settlement. Reservations themselves were largely unwanted or remote environments of little perceived economic value. Indian peoples lost even that land as the General Allotment Act of 1887 divided reservations into individual holdings. By 1930, this policy contributed to the alienation of over 80 percent of Indian lands — a diminishment of land, resources, and biotic diversity that relegated Indians to the periphery of American society. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Native Americans controlled mere remnants of their former estates, most in the trans-Mississippi West. Relatively valueless by nineteenth-century standards, their lands contained unseen resources of immense worth. This single fact informs nearly all Native American environmental issues in the twentieth century. Land, its loss, location, and resource wealth or poverty, the exploitation and development of that land, and changing Indian needs and religious attitudes all define the modern environmental debates. By the beginning of the twentieth century, agriculture and grazing had fundamentally changed the face of Indian lands. In Oklahoma and on the high plains, Indians and agents cleared, plowed, and planted large areas in a succession of monoculture crops. Overcropping marginal lands, drought, the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, isolation, and the vagaries of the American market economy led to the wide-scale abandonment of Indian agriculture after World War II. Likewise, the adoption of domestic animals radically changed the landscape and biotic diversity of reservations, In the 1930s, the government instituted drastic livestock reduction and reseeding programs on southwestern reservations. Range scientists introduced new plant and animal species into fragile ecosystems, but were unable to solve problems of overgrazing on the drought-ravaged Navajo and Papago reservations. On a cultural level, the programs backfired by ignoring Native explanations and ecological methods, resulting in increased Indian economic dependence. Since then, tribes have had to deal with overgrazing and erosion, invasive noxious plants, reclamation, and improper land use. Given past experience, tribes are beginning to weigh the relative utility of leasing lands to non-Indians against developing their own operations which might be more sensitive to sustainable agricultural alternatives. In the early twentieth century, some reservations contained extensive forests that made them attractive targets for exploitation. To protect these forests government officials outlawed Indian burning as a means of environmental management — clearing forest underbrush to reduce the potential for destructive crown fires while improving game animal habitat and useful vegetal materials. Government-managed timber sales brought some economic development and prosperity to the Yurok, Karuk, Hupa, and Klamath of California and Oregon; to Western Apaches in Arizona; and to Chippewas and Menominees in Minnesota and Wisconsin. But gross mismanagement of sustained yield programs led to reckless clearcutting, erosion, and the loss of forest habitats on all these reservations. In the Black Hills of South Dakota and near Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake, lumbering operations in national forests threatened sacred sites. The process continues today as the Bureau of Land Management chain-clears pinon-juniper forests in Nevada to improve the grazing potential of the land for white permit holders, destroying traditional Western Shoshone resources and gathering areas without Indian consent. Modern hunting, gathering, and fishing rights based on nineteenth-century treaties have created a number of problems between Indians, sportsmen, and state and federal governments. In the early twentieth century, under pressure from commercial and sports fishermen, state and federal officials limited Indian off-reservation hunting and fishing. These regulations hit Native fishermen in the Northwest particularly hard. They were competing with a growing number of commercial operations and losing Native fishing sites to dams. In the 1960s, Indian activists staged “fish-ins” to publicize the situation, and tribes took their case to court. In United States v. State of Washington (1974), Judge George Boldt reaffirmed the rights of Northwest tribes to harvest fish under provisions of the 1854 Treaty of Medicine Creek, without interference by the State of Washington. The Boldt Decision restored a measure of Indian control over their environment and natural resource use. Today, these tribes have built a world-class fishery management system, allowing them a sizable subsistence and small commercial catch. Likewise, the Mescalero Apaches, Pyramid Lake Paiutes, Wind River Shoshones, and Arapahos have developed scientific and culturally sensitive programs for managing their faunal resources. Across the country, hunting and fishing rights continue to stir public debate. In Wisconsin, ugly confrontations between whites and Chippewas over off-reservation hunting and spearfishing continue even after court decisions quantified Indian treaty rights at 50 percent of the annual harvest — a level Indians have never approached. On the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in Utah, Northern Utes and terminated mixed-blooded people fight over reservation hunting, fishing, and use privileges. White sportsmen and environmentalists question Native rights to kill bald eagles, bowhead whales, Florida panthers, or other endangered species guaranteed under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 — both of which have environmental consequences by protecting Native cultural and religious practices. The acts have safeguarded and allowed Indian access to sacred non-reservation areas and resources, and injected a level of legal tolerance to Native religious practices that revolve around resource use. Since the majority of Indian reservations are in the arid West, it is understandable that water has been a central environmental issue. By 1900, whites actively competed with Indians for this scarce resource. At Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, white settlers diverted water from the Milk River. When ordered to stop, they argued that the Indians had not made prior appropriation use. In 1908 the Supreme Court ruled in Winters v. United States that in establishing reservations, Congress implied and reserved the priority water rights necessary for present and future use. Encouraged by the Winters decision, the Indian Bureau used Indian funds to construct elaborate irrigation systems to protect Indian water and improve the agricultural potential of tribal and allotted holdings. Irrigation promised to chage the landscape and increase Indian self-sufficiency, but the systems suffered from poor construction, improper use and maintenance, and often ended up in the hands of white settlers who bought up the best Indian lands.
Twentieth-century reclamation, irrigation, and big dam projects have had unforeseen consequences for Indians and their lands. As part of the Newlands Project in 1905, the government dammed and diverted the Truckee River for white irrigation. The Lahontan trout, the Pyramid Paiutes’ chief source of subsistence, became extinct, and the diversion of water nearly killed Pyramid Lake. During the New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps and Indian Emergency Conservation Works program completed numerous, if not always successful, water and erosion control projects on western reservations. Since the 1930s, dams on the Columbia River and its tributaries have impeded the migration of salmon and other anadromous species, flooded sacred sites and Indian fisheries like Celilo Falls, and ruined upstream spawning grounds. On the Missouri River, the Pick-Sloan Plan for damming and flood control proved disastrous for Indians of the Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, and Fort Berthold reservations. They watched the waters cover rich agricultural lands, villages, and sacred sites in the name of progress. Similar things happened in the 1960s and 1970s with Senecas and the Kinzua Dam, and Eastern Cherokees and the Tellico Dam. Today, these dams raise important environmental issues of water flow through places like the Hualapai and Havasupai reservations in the Grand Canyon, of aquatic species preservation and Indian fishing rights, and the ownership and sale of water. While the Winters Doctrine assured Indian water rights, it never quantified those rights. The issue of how much water tribes can legitimately use and sell has become critical in the arid West, especially for tribes in states member to the Colorado River Compact. The pending completion of the Central Utah and Central Arizona projects promises a massive redistribution of water in the arid West and a test of Indian water rights. Future water marketing by Shoshones, Utes, Paiutes, Navajos, Tohono O’odhams, and other groups raises critical economic and environmental issues for Indian peoples and the entire region. In addition to water, the mineral wealth of some modern western Indian reservations has proved both a blessing and a curse. Beginning as early as 1900 with the discovery of oil on Osage land, non-renewable resource development to ease reservation economic dependency has unleashed the most environmentally destructive forms of exploitation, threatening tribal land, water, air, and health. Government mismanagement has compounded these problems. Coal and uranium mining on the Navajo reservation has destroyed large areas of land, polluted water and air, and caused untold long-term health problems. The 273-mile-long Black Mesa coal-slurry pipeline sucks 1.4 billion gallons of water every year out of the arid region, lowering the water table and literally undermining Hopi water sources. Coal from Black Mesa fires the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Arizona, casting a haze over the Grand Canyon and Four Corners region. Despite the efforts of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes to balance use and protection of natural resources, mining, oil, and gas exploration scars thousands of acres of Indian land. In Alaska, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (1971) and the subsequent North Slope energy boom with its drilling sites, pipelines, and access roads has transformed the landscape, threatening migratory mammals and waterfowl and contributing to changes in Native Alaskan land use and ownership patterns. Off-site pollution is a major problem for Native Americans. When tankers like the Exxon Valdez spill their cargoes of crude oil, they pollute thousands of miles of coastline destroying both Native and white resources. Pollutants from mining and processing plants migrate into reservation air and water. Cyanide heap-leach mining in Montana is polluting water on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Radioactive pollution and toxic waste from the Hanford nuclear weapons plant threatens all tribes who depend on the Columbia River salmon for their livelihood. The Mdewakanton Sioux of Prairie Island, Minnesota, fear the health impacts of a nuclear power plant built on the edge of their small reservation, while Western Shoshones protest the use of their land as a nuclear test site. Industrial waste dumps surround the St. Regis Indian Reservation, fouling the St. Lawrence River. Poorly treated urban waste and agricultural effluent threatens nearby reservation environments. Today, groups like the Standing Rock Sioux and Northern Cheyenne are beginning to enforce federal laws protecting their land, water, and air from such pollution. Recently, governments and industries are looking at reservations as potential disposal sites for solid, hazardous, and nuclear wastes. In 1990 the Pine Ridge Sioux rejected proposals by subsidiaries of O&G Industries to build a landfill, but the neighboring Rosebud Sioux council approved a 5,700 acre facility, “big enough to take care of all the waste in the United States.” Under the proposal, they would receive one dollar per ton of trash, an economic bonanza for the depressed reservation unless, as some Sioux and environmental critics warn, the dump becomes a toxic nightmare. The pressure for some type of economic development and employment on underdeveloped and resource-poor reservations has led the Campo of California to agree to a 600-acre landfill, and the Kaibab-Paiutes of Arizona and the Kaw of Oklahoma to accept hazardous waste incinerators. Presently, the Mescalero Apaches, Skull Valley Goshutes, and others are debating the location of nuclear waste storage facilities on their lands. Their decisions may pose long-term environmental problems that could outweigh the short-term benefits. In recent years, tribal development and land use has put some Indians at odds with environmentalists. This fascinating turn of events emerges as modern Indians begin placing needs over older cultural regulatory patterns, shattering white stereotypes of Indians as “the original conservationists.” Early environmentalists found inspiration in Native American actions and attitudes. Those who followed perpetuated many of the grosser stereotypes of Indians as beings who left no mark on the land, essentially denying them their humanity, culture, history, and modernity. In the 1960s and 1970s, Indians became symbols for the counterculture and conservation movements — Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear in television ads as he looked over a polluted landscape; an apocryphal speech attributed to Chief Seattle became the litany of true believers. The issue continues to be hotly debated. Indians were never ecologists — something that refers to a highly abstract and systematic science — but they were careful students of their functional environments, bound by material and cultural needs and constraints, striving for maximum sustained yield, not maximum production. They possessed an elaborate land ethic based on use, reciprocity, and balance. Those attitudes persist today and contribute to the debate within and between Indian communities, corporations, environmentalists, and governments about the future of Indian peoples and environments.
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