Indigenous people groups are the people who lived on the land first, they are native to the land, just like a plant or an animal belongs in that region. Despite this definition that indicates their belong on their land, they are the population that has most frequently been ignored when decisions are made about how their native land should be used. Much of this has its roots in colonial ideologies, which support western ideals and development of or extraction from land. Repeatedly in history, society has prioritized the interests of the colonizer, who are typically white, whose interests usually lie in utilizing the land without considering its consequences. In modern times, it is the government that has the power to regulate industry actions, and usually it prioritizes economic interests. Currently in the United States of America, only 40% of the population is aware that indigenous people still exist in the US. This lack of awareness is due to lack of representation, gaps in public education, and lack of media coverage surrounding indigenous issues. Additionally, native nations in the US have been quarantined into reservation land that was strategically given so that valuable land remained in non-native hands. This confiscation of valuable land even took place after treaties, like when the black hills were taken back because of gold, despite being promised to the Sioux Nation just a few years before. Because the reservation system was not designed for indigenous wellbeing and little public awareness, many native nations have fallen into poverty and poor health. Much of this has been worsened through resource extraction, deforestation, or pollution by private, non-native owned companies. These impact are often not known by the public and companies feel little need to remediate land because of limited enforcement from governmental agencies and native nations being a minority group. Because the land is being destroyed, the already less useful land cannot be used and these communities slip further into poverty. On a larger scale, detriment to the environment impacts everyone, so while it is the indigenous communities that receive the most negative impact, due to wind currents, the hydraulic cycle and other earth systems, pollution eventually makes its way to every corner of the planet. This means that mistreatment of indigenous people should be a priority to everyone. Many of these native nations have cultures that are deeply attached to nature, which means that when their ecosystem is disturbed it impacts them culturally or spiritually as well. For this reason, it is important that this issue is approached, not only through protection and revival of ecosystems, but more holistically, through programs that support all of the needs of the community. After many broken promises by the government, many of these communities have been left broken with little hope of achieving the rights that they deserve. In order for a program to be effective, it needs to empower the communities, prepare them to defend their rights and lands effectively, and provide programming that resolves current environmental problems.
A great model of what could be done in the United States is the Avianza Ceibo organization, which was further discussed here: https://uploads.knightlab.com/storymapjs/571bfc178948a4cfce4737fb63bc04a0/indigenous-environmental-justice/index.html. This is a program in the Northern Amazon region of South America that is made up of the indigenous people from four nations: the A’Kofan, the Siekopai, the Siona, and the Waorani. These nations were previously warring, but their fight for environmental justice has united them. The issues that they are addressing are: lack of clean water, defending their rights as indigenous people, mapping their territories, monitoring the ecosystem in which they live, increasing female involvement in community issues, and increasing electricity access through solar voltaic panels.
This model would be advantageous to follow because their struggles are different, but similar, to those experienced by native peoples in the United States. It is a common misconception that indigenous people are and always have been united. Native American Nations, like neighboring nations elsewhere in the world, have been in conflict and formed alliances throughout their history. That being said, they do share many of the same experiences of trauma from colonial actions and the movement west, which has bonded them today. Some of the most famous instances of indigenous unification in the United States have been the “Red Power Movement” in the 1960s and most recently the Standing Rock Protests. The Standing Rock Protests in Cannonball, North Dakota drew support from over 200 American and Canadian native nations, as well as non-native support. This was a movement that unified indigenous peoples of many different nations to fight for one cause, their indigenous environmental rights. It was a display of indigenous pride that had not been broadcasted to the public for decades and it reached the homes and minds of people globally. Because of their actions the Obama Administration halted progress on the pipeline. This was not a permanent ban, but most recently a federal judge has once again halted the progress that the Trump Administration had restarted. This would not have been possible without the voices of indigenous nations. The momentum and unification is clearly present and gives hope that some form of organization similar to Alianza Ceibo could be created. It is important to use this momentum to move forward.
The organization for American native nations should have more than one goal, like the Alianza Ceibo. These goals should include environmental protection and remediation, protecting their rights and cultural practices, native empowerment, and improving infrastructure in indigenous communities. Though this sounds like a daunting number of goals for an organization, they are all crucial to the betterment of life on reservation land. Each part plays a role in the success of the other goals, meaning that the momentum currently seen in the media needs to be focused on completing these goals. The pace of these changes is dependent on government agreement and funding. Because of the reservation system, many native nations have high rates of poverty, which may limit the success of their actions. Money can be the difference between success and failure of an organization, which makes it important that this organization has financial backing. Because support for the Standing Rock Protests were tremendous, it is likely that there will be enough support for an alliance to protect and ensure native nations their environmental and human rights. The current administration, the Trump Administration, is focused on deregulation and prioritization of corporate interests, especially oil and gas. This will be disadvantageous for this movement because regulation of industry is one of the methods that may help to improve indigenous wellbeing. However, the public does have power in a democracy and if the movement can get the backing of the majority, governmental change will occur. Additionally, self advocacy can be viewed as dangerous because police violence is known to be more severe in minority, people of color communities and native nations experience this as well. However, this risk has been willingly taken in the past and the very reason to fighting is for greater rights and wellbeing of their people who may otherwise be impacted by oppression currently or in the future.
Those that need to be involved in this organization are indigenous people, themselves, with the financial aid and some alternative forms of aid (like materials or legal counseling) potentially from outside sources. It is important that indigenous nations have ownership of their fight for equal rights. Their involvement is also crucial in assuring that the most urgent issues are addressed first. These actions should include using the law to improve their circumstances as well as proposing new legislation. Legal actions may be focused on preventing businesses and corporations from causing new or more destruction, but it may also be focused on access to or repossession of sacred land that has been lost. Next should be remediation projects in order to revive the land that has been destroyed by resource extraction and land use. Not only will this allow them to use this land in the future, but it will help mitigate the impacts that the pollution and deforestation is having on the health of their populations today. Additionally, there should be movement to improve the quality of life on reservations. Many homes on reservation lands do not have access to clean drinking water and many other amenities that may be considered standard in the United States. This would be a great opportunity to implement sustainable practices because they are not confined to old infrastructure and it would better the standard of living of these populations. Lastly, similar to the goals of Alianzo Ceibo, this program should work to increase native pride and unity through defending their rights, protecting their histories, and saving their lands. Because the alliance would be organized by indigenous communities and change conducted by these people, there would be pride in their accomplishments, motivation for future action, and overall better well being among indigenous communities in the United States. Through the unification of some native nations, others outside of the alliance will also benefit because increased visibility and policy changes can set a precedent for future indigenous environmental and social justice.
The measurement for the success of this alliance will be multi-faceted. It can be measured quantitatively through the number of new water collection systems or water purification systems that are installed on the reservation, the amount of land remediated, the number of houses that are provided electricity in a sustainable manner, etc. It can also be measured more qualitatively by the quality of life that is experienced on and off reservations by indigenous people. Though qualitative, it can be measured through quantitative indicators of higher standard of living, such as life expectancy, cancer rates, and mental health.
The best action regarding the issue of indigenous environmental justice is the unification of native nations to defend their rights and implement change. The goals should include environmental protection and remediation, protecting their rights and cultural practices, native empowerment, and improving infrastructure. This should be done through legal actions as well as physically remediating land and improving infrastructure. It is incredibly important that these communities are also broadcasting their voice and increasing support through media attention. Most of all, it is important that this is their movement and not controlled by outside individuals. It is important for them to form alliances to support their cause, but it should remain authentic to their goals and culture. Growing this alliance may be slow or difficult, but self advocacy for indigenous rights is the most sustainable mode for action.
** Because I am not an indigenous, nor do I live on a reservation, I have kept the goals of this project fairly general. Historically, some interventions have been poorly executed on reservations because outsiders thought they knew what native nations needed. I have seen this first hand when visiting Pine Ridge Reservation, SD. In towns on the reservation, such as La Plant, one can see an abandoned YMCA and evidence of Habitat Humanity, which are both successful organizations, but did not meet the needs of the people living there, thus they failed. For this reason, I have included general goals like “environmental protection and remediation, protecting their rights and cultural practices, native empowerment, and improving infrastructure in indigenous communities”, but I have not specified exactly what infrastructure project should be completed first. Social justice, even regarding the environment, should include input from the community of what is the greatest need. Native people in the United States are a people group that has consistently been overruled by non-native control, it is important that these actions listen to their needs.
“Research Findings: Compilation of All Research.” Reclaiming Native Truth, June 2018. https://www.reclaimingnativetruth.com/research/.