Native American Environmental Justice: A Summary
The problem of injustices of an environmental nature are felt with particular focus by marginalized groups. A summary of the specific response of native environmental justice (EJ) within the United States is approached here, first by reviewing the literature, then by providing examples of projects, and lastly by briefly assessing the challenges using the lens of globalization. The techniques, challenges, and projects regarding tribal governments and federally unrecognized natives could provide options for solutions if they are taken seriously. Native groups offer answers outside of the standard Western EJ methodologies. In seeking justice for marginalized groups worldwide, environmentally, these approaches may work on a larger scale to make those changes happen.
Environmental justice (EJ) is a narrower portion of the environmental movement, defined in the Britannica Online Academic Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica as the “social movement seeking to address the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards among the poor and minorities”.  The EJ movement can be narrowed even further when looking at the unique challenges and solutions surrounding indigenous populations, and even more narrowed still when turning attention to those populations within North America or the United States, specifically. Historically, indigenous populations within the United States have been systemically exploited through colonization, and as such, have been handed a legacy of environmental injustices upon their people and lands. A summary of this microcosm of the aspect of EJ is approached here, first by reviewing the literature regarding native environmental justice, then by providing examples of native environmental justice projects, and lastly by briefly assessing the challenges of native environmental justice within the face of globalization.
A review of the literature surrounding native environmental justice in North America, and specifically, the United States, reveals the historical and contemporary environmental racism that indigenous groups are subjected to. A basic definition of environmental racism, as stated by Wendy Jepson in the Encyclopedia of Environment and Society is the “intentional or unintentional racial discrimination in environmental decision-making, systematic exclusion of people of color from the mainstream environmental movement, negligent enforcement of environmental protections, laws and regulations along racial lines, and disproportionate distribution of environmental burdens on racial and ethnic minorities where they live, work, and play”.  Each of these points are forced onto indigenous North Americans and have been since colonization came to the continent. When turning an eye to the past, Paul C. Rosier points out that native groups often “paid a stiff price for gold, uranium, coal, or oil booms that weakened their political power and left a toxic legacy of environmental health problems that have affected multiple generations”.  While tribal governments have been increasing tribal lands through buying them using revenue from gaming, in the present, Jamie Vickery and Lori Hunter write about how indigenous North Americans are at an increasing level of risk for oncoming climate change. Vickery and Hunter also write about the need for cultural understanding in how individual tribal governments are addressing environmental issues on their lands, as opposed to the previous approaches of inferring.  The clear majority of the literature establishes the widespread past and current issues of environmental racism being leveraged against indigenous communities and acknowledges that this trend continues firmly into present day.
Despite the continued trend of environmental racism against native North Americans, there are signs of tribal governments working toward environmental justice within their sovereignties. These projects work toward securing the future for these lands and their people as well as providing an example of what projects are possible within smaller governments outside of the direct pressure of a massive federal system and lobbying process to anchor the projects down.
In the example of the Swinomish of Washington state, the reservation had been previously used as a place to dispose of hazard waste that eventually grew to the size of seven acres of land. Under the dumping site was the reservation’s sole source of fresh water, as the area is surrounded by salt water otherwise. Ultimately, 4.5 million dollars and two decades were spent on the cleanup process, ending officially in 2002. The waste ended up in that location due to the spot being owned privately owned non-federal trust land, even though it was part of the reservation. A company contracted by Texaco and Shell placed the waste in a pit on the site in the 1950s and 1960s. Zaferatos points out that, “neither the federal government nor the tribe had a role in reviewing or approving the dumpsite”.  Swinomish government did end up working with federal agencies, namely the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). By doing so, this established a precedent for federal agencies helping to reverse damages done to tribal lands was set, as well as the notion of reaffirming tribal sovereignty, including making decisions in the name of native environmental justice. In this case, it was the action of correctly injustice, actively sought by the tribal government, that set the example.
Other examples include utilizing wind power in place of, or in supplement to, non-native power supplies. In 2009, Jimenez listed sixteen tribal project for just wind power alone, with another five pending. They spanned states across the nation, from Alaska to the Dakotas, and took advantage of the abundance of wind available in access to both federal and non-federal electricity grids. These projects provide environmental justice by replacing or correcting past policies that were environmentally detrimental to native groups, allow for “green” jobs on reservations and other tribal lands, and give an advantage in the oncoming climate change issues that will be facing the indigenous Americans.  These projects give a face to the name of native environmental justice. However, with the world shifting thoroughly into a globalized economy in the late 1900s and early 2000s, new challenges and opportunities are apparent in regard to whether the methods of achieving environmental justice that indigenous people create can be scaled up for the benefit of exploited populations around the world as a whole. Additionally, the true question lies in whether the rest of the world is willing to listen to indigenous solutions, given the systemic history of silencing their voices.
Globalization threatens worldwide indigenous cultures through colonialism in ways that far outstrip the exploitation of people within the colonizing culture. Throughout the last five hundred years, the damage done in the name of the oppressors has created plenty of environmental injustice to fight against, both globally and in the more narrow scope of the United States. However, globalization also has another side to the coin. The plight of indigenous governments working to achieve projects to combat climate change and environmental damage can gain a broad audience in this new global arena.  Once those projects are witnessed and indigenous voices are heard, however, are they taken seriously or ignored outside of other native voices? Through their evaluation of environmental justice research surrounding issues specific to native North Americans, Vickery and Hunter state that native environmental justice stands out from other forms of EJ because of the unique challenges facing indigenous people. One of the major differences lies in that “[s]tandard EJ indicators may not apply to indigenous experiences of environmental injustice, given cultural distinctiveness”.  They point out that measuring environmental injustices, for example, are not quantified using methods or descriptions of the people themselves, but rather are measured using the viewpoint of Western science and opinion. The unwillingness to understand the larger impact upon those subjected to these injustices leads to a lack of inclination to embrace the solutions offered by those same groups. In addition to simply being dismissed as opinions, these concerns and their solutions are unable to be truly measured for effectiveness using the limited Western approaches.  This shows a lack of willingness as well as a lack of ability on the part of non-native environmental justice approaches. Non-native seekers of environmental justice must shift their paradigm in order to ally with native EJ seekers in order to effectively aid one another in the cause.
Unlike other groups working on environmental justice, tribal governments are caught in a dual-existence of being their own sovereignties, but only if recognized within federal law. While the sovereignty allows for more stringent standards of environmental protection, and the EPA is obliged to enforce these standards, indigenous groups that are not recognized federally may have the same cultural requirements for their lands, but lack the enforcement of the federal government, as well as the recognition of their environmental projects as being legitimate.  This contributes to the ignorance surrounding both the recognition of, and justice for concerns regarding native environmental injustices. Needing the recognition of the federal government to seek legal recourse for environmental issues only polarizes and exploits indigenous populations without that federal status even further.
As our world faces increasing pressures in regard to our environmental impact upon it, the groups of humans who will feel the impact most, and already are experiencing it, will be those in marginalized populations. Among those, indigenous peoples face a particularly daunting future, especially within the United States. While mainstream opinion would like to think that our nation is a level playing field, it only takes a brief glimpse into society to see otherwise. The techniques, challenges, and projects regarding tribal governments and federally unrecognized natives could provide options for solutions if they are taken seriously. This particular groups’ challenge is recognized within research literature. Additionally, a minor amount of research is needed to uncover current and past events of native environmental justice being done. We have the ability within our globalized world to learn about these potential solutions. The next step is to act. Native groups offer answers outside of the standard Western EJ methodologies. In seeking justice for marginalized groups worldwide, environmentally, these approaches may work on a larger scale to make those changes happen. The blockage in taking action is our inability or unwillingness to abandon those cultural, colonial ideals that demand that Western solutions are the most appropriate and efficient for the problem.
Arney, Jo. "Environmental Justice." Britannica Online Academic Edition, 2017, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
Hosmer, Brian C. "Indigenous Communities, Nation-States, Extranational Sovereignties and the Challenge of Environmental Justice in the Age of Globalization." Environmental Justice 5, no. 5 (2012): 264-69.
Jepson, Wendy. "Environmental Racism." In Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, edited by Paul Robbins, 589-590. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007. doi: 10.4135/9781412953924.n363.
Jimenez, A., R. Gough, L. Flowers, and R. Taylor. Wind Power Across Native America: Opportunities, Challenges, and Status. May 4, 2009. PDF Presentation, Chicago.
Rosier, Paul C. "Environmental Justice in the New Global Economy: Three Case Studies." Environmental Justice 5, no. 5 (2012): 221-23.
Vickery, Jamie, and Lori M. Hunter. "Native Americans: Where in Environmental Justice Research?" Society & Natural Resources, 2015, 1-17.
Zaferatos, Nicholas. "Environmental Justice in Indian Country: Dumpsite Remediation on the Swinomish Indian Reservation." Environmental Management 38, no. 6 (2006): 896-909.
 Jo Arney. "Environmental Justice." Britannica Online Academic Edition, 2017, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
 Wendy Jepson. "Environmental Racism." In Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, edited by Paul Robbins, 589-590. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2007. doi: 10.4135/9781412953924.n363.
 Paul C. Rosier. "Environmental Justice in the New Global Economy: Three Case Studies." Environmental Justice 5, no. 5 (2012): 221-23.
 Jamie Vickery, and Lori M. Hunter. "Native Americans: Where in Environmental Justice Research?" Society & Natural Resources, 2015, 1-17.
 Nicholas Zaferatos. "Environmental Justice in Indian Country: Dumpsite Remediation on the Swinomish Indian Reservation." Environmental Management 38, no. 6 (2006): 896-909.
 A. Jimenez, R. Gough, L. Flowers, and R. Taylor. Wind Power Across Native America: Opportunities, Challenges, and Status. May 4, 2009. PDF Presentation, Chicago.
 Brian C. Hosmer. "Indigenous Communities, Nation-States, Extranational Sovereignties and the Challenge of Environmental Justice in the Age of Globalization." Environmental Justice 5, no. 5 (2012): 264-69.
 Vickery and Hunter. "Native Americans: Where in Environmental Justice Research?"