NATIVE LANDS CONSIDERED NATIONAL SACRIFICE AREAS: “A closer look at the western religious origins of the term [sacrifice] is even more disturbing. The ‘sacrificial lamb’ or ‘scapegoat’ is symbolically understood to take on the weight of the community’s sins, and is then either exiled from the community or killed as an act of atonement.

In that sense, the designation of many Indian lands as National Sacrifice Areas is a disturbingly accurate recognition of present reality. Native communities are the scapegoats for Western consumer culture, bearing the burdens of the sins of the community. Indian communities have hosted toxic waste, a by-product of white middle class consumer lifestyles, without ever having benefited from those lifestyles.” – Jonna Higgins-Freese and Jeff Tomhave, in their article Race, Sacrifice, and Native Lands

As an ally to Native women environmental leaders throughout the Southwest, I have witnessed, first hand, that Native American grassroots and community groups are facing a multi-faceted fight when it comes to protecting their lands from continued environmental destruction and cultural genocide.

  • Increasingly the federal government and private industry is looking toward Tribal lands for new and existing sources of domestic energy, as well as ground zero for launching domestic “green” alternative energy initiatives. For centuries, corporations and the federal government have exploited Native communities for their own gain, therefore those entities pushing for this renewed effort to source alternatives in Indian Country must be held accountable to those communities who will ultimately bear the brunt of the expansion and development.
  • This effort to keep parties accountable is much harder than one might think. Tribal power over its own lands is a complicated matter, involving a “checkerboard” of intersecting, interwoven, complex relationships between federal, state and tribal policies.
    • Overall, it should be noted that more often than not, tribal governments answer to federal and state regulations, as opposed to the other way around.
    • Historically, the federal government has perceived Indigenous people of this land, first, as uncivilized “savages,” then when human rights were called into question, the perception shifted to recognizing their humanity, but deeming them infantile, so as to continue to exert power over them and their lands.
  • Unfortunately, the department of the federal government that most directly affects tribal sovereignty when it comes to environmental considerations is the EPA. The reason this is unfortunate is because research shows that the EPA “ …more often than not, opposes congressional attempts to pass tough environmental laws… spends more time and money figuring out how to exempt corporations from regulations than it does enforcing them and …. the EPA’s will to regulate is so weak that a proposed regulation must be under a court-ordered deadline (brought by an environmental group) before it will even be considered for the EPA administrator’s signature.[1
  • Investigation into the relationships between decision makers and industry has cast a negative light on many projects brought to Indian Country. For its part, the EPA has a long record of administrators leaving the department and entering into highly lucrative positions with hazardous waste management corporations and other industry players. Therefore, it is critical to provide support, when called for, to Native American partners in seeking to untangle the web of intricate policies so that the voice of the grassroots is heard as new decisions are made regarding Native land use.
  • With the onslaught of the recent economic downturn, both global and domestic, budget cuts to critical services that provide for some of the most impacted communities in this country are being enacted. The result is that impoverished communities are left disproportionately under-served by both governmental services and pro bono advocacy.
  • And lastly, as our government seeks to assuage Americans’ economic and national security fears, solutions are being sought in the heart of Native country – federal and private interests are looking to the vast amounts of untapped petroleum-based resources that lie beneath the lands of this country’s Indigenous peoples, as well as those purported to be sustainable, “green” alternatives.

Each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet… we will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” – President Barack Obama

Nuclear power is going to be an important part of our energy mix.. We will be building some [clean] coal plants… while we search for alternatives.” – Steven Chu, Nobel Prize winning physicist and Secretary of Energy.

  • The largest consolidated pockets of fossil fuels in the United States (35%) lie directly underneath or close to Native lands. So as this country’s leaders propose “clean” coal and nuclear energy as alternatives to foreign oil in order to address America’s energy needs and decrease national threats, Native organizations are readying themselves for an increased push to locate these alternatives in their communities.
  • Historically, corporations have sought to profit from the vast non-renewable energy resources such as fossil fuels and uranium located on Native lands.
  • In this quest for unending profits, corporations have inflicted not only environmental devastation on Native communities, but also detrimental health effects due to the extraction, processing and transmission of the energy.
  • From the Alaskan North Slope, to the mesas of the Navajo Nation, across the deep trenches of the Grand Canyon, and sweeping across the high plains of Nevada, resource extraction and processing has created innumerable adverse consequences including:
    • massive pollution clouds covering hundreds of miles;
    • toxic effluents in rivers and streams;
    • severe depletion of aquifers and water tables;
    • radioactive poisoning of miners and their families;
    • nuclear arms testing; industrial and nuclear waste dumps;
    • massive cyanide-heap leach pits from zinc, uranium, gold and other minerals.

While the devastation was wide-spread, the majority of our energy sources were still located outside of the US, but with the new push for increased domestic sourcing, Native American communities are bracing themselves for “yet another cycle of destruction characterized by the devastation of sacred sites, the drying up of aquifers, micro-climate changes, and the poisoning of our air and soil with toxins,” according to Clayton Thomas-Meuller, Native Energy organizer for Indigenous Environmental Network.

  • Decision makers are proposing mythical alternatives like “safe and clean” nuclear energy and “clean coal” – while both are purported to mitigate the US carbon footprint, neither have been proven to significantly reduce other environmental and health impacts:
    • Extraction of coal and the resulting waste effluent have shown to have detrimental impacts on the health of workers and communities;
    • Mining, processing and disposal of uranium for nuclear power has been shown to cause outrageously high rates of cancer in both workers and surrounding communities, not to mention that fact that nuclear waste will persist for thousands of years.

With other “green” alternatives come other issues that have yet to be addressed with regard to whether or not these alternatives are truly “green,” sustainable or beneficial to the communities within which they will be sited. For example:

  • Consideration of alternatives such as wind, solar or biomasss must also address things like expansion of power lines to carry this new alternative energy from Native lands to US cities.
  • To build this expanded energy grid, large tracts of forest must be cut down, not to mention the fact that sacred, ancestral areas dot the Native landscape, so negotiation of grids bisecting these traditional lands must be done responsibly and respectfully.
  • Additionally, hydro-electric as an alternative source of energy has been proposed, but implementation of this method must address the negative effects of damming rivers that zigzag Native lands and provide critical sources of irrigation for agriculture and subsistence fishing.
  • In late January 2009, the DOE issued a Request for Information seeking input from Tribal people and other interested parties on the barriers to expanding renewable energy enterprises in Indian Country. While this could be a step forward, I am concerned that this negative framing will force Native people into a defensive position, as opposed to a collaborative partnership with the federal government and private industry

Younger generations of Native youth who are stepping up to lead much of the resistance to the corporate destruction are refusing to operate primarily from a place of defense, as was the case for many social movements in previous generations. Instead, many Native youth on the frontlines of these issues are not only addressing the negative impacts of conventional sources and methods of energy extraction, but they are forwarding viable solutions – solutions that are coming directly out of the communities to be impacted by this new push for “green” alternatives. For example:

  • The 28 tribes on the White Earth reservation, located in the Western North Central United States, have recognized a plentiful renewable resource, the wind, that daily sweeps across their lands. They are working collaboratively to harness the wind for “green” energy in ways that are sustainable and appropriate for the health and economic well-being of their communities.
  • Also, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a coalition of Dine and Hopi communities, has created the Navajo Green Jobs campaign in partnership with many other grassroots organizations throughout the Southwest. The aim of this campaign is to conceive of and create green jobs on Native lands, which will create economic opportunities for Native people; economic tribal self-sufficiency and sovereignty; encouragement of and support for Native entrepreneurship; perpetuation of energy efficient projects like weatherizing housing, green construction and sustainable water projects; as well as continuing education and green job training for Native people.

As this growing market demand for domestically-sourced alternative energy finds its way to the doorsteps of Native communities, support must be rallied for Native American grassroots environmental leaders who are working diligently to make sure that outdated and dirty conventional methods are put to rest and that the alternatives are healthy, sustainable and honor the humanity of their communities.

Research compiled while serving as the Southwest Environmental Justice Coordinator at Women’s Earth Alliance, 2009.

(C) 2009 By Shannon Laliberte Parks. All Rights Reserved. Please Obtain Permission to Copy.


[1] Why EPA is like it is and what can be done about it by William Sanjour; http://www.precaution.org/lib/why_epa_is_like_it_is.19920201.pdf

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