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Native Americans and the Land

Wilderness and American Identity

The Use of the Land

Native Americans and the Land Essays

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Indian Country Today

Shepard Krech III
Professor of Anthropology and
Director, Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University
©National Humanities Center

Today, many American Indians live on the same lands occupied by their ancestors centuries ago, even if the lands often represent a fraction of the original territory. Many native people do not enjoy even this restricted continuity because sometime in the past Europeans and European-Americans desired the lands the ancestors possessed at the time, and moved them to places then regarded as peripheral or undesirable. Through time, native people made these new places theirs, filling them with remembered historical events and imbuing them with cultural, and often sacred, meaning. Increasingly in the twentieth century, industry together with paternalistic and bureaucratic governmental caretakers lacking or not interested in, or not applying or enforcing, environmental controls, have exploited these lands and their resources, as have native people themselves.

One major narrative about American Indians, their resources, and their lands in Indian Country—those parts of North America where Indian people live on reservations and reserves, or in villages and other communities—stresses that American Indians are like other marginalized indigenous people lacking means and power, and bearing the brunt of externally directed industrial development. There is truth in it. For example, in one notorious case, beginning in the 1960s the New York based Reynolds Aluminum plant and General Motors industrial landfill (that later became a Superfund site) almost destroyed Akwesasne, the St. Regis Mohawk reserve straddling the St. Lawrence River, with mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other pollutants. Dairycattle, white pines, birds, bees, and fish died and a toxic cocktail of effluents imperiled Mohawk health. A quarter-century of regulation and decontamination has been necessary for fish again to be free of deformities and sores—although still unfit to eat—and for eagles, minks and other animals to return to the land.

Now this is a horrible story, as are others like it. However, it is not the only story to be told and, indeed, it is misleading to regard native people as completely passive and without agency in their own history. Consider, for example, a second case, on the surface equally horrible, in which Navajo and Hopi tribal councils agreed in the 1960s to allow Peabody Coal Company to strip-mine coal from their lands. With this coal, utility companies generated approximately two percent of the nation’s electricity—for American cities, not native people. Pollution cut sunlight by 15 percent downwind in Flagstaff, Arizona. At the source—the arid reservations—stripped lands have been deeply scarred and will take centuries to recover. Uranium mining simultaneously affected Navajos with active tailings, one large spill, ground and animal contamination, and irradiated workers.

Despite these blights, Navajos and Hopis have not been of a single mind on these issues. Navajos have expressed a range of opinions. Some Hopi Indians favor strip-mining, arguing that the most important part of their guiding philosophy and prophecy is to know “how to use the gifts of Mother Earth.”

This case should give us pause. It seems to complicate, if not cut against the grain of, some of today’s most eloquent voices on land and resource issues in Indian Country. These voices speak to the need to act out of regard for the sacredness of life. They argue that native people have taken care of the land for hundreds if not thousands of years, or that an indigenous way of thinking characterized by ecology, conservation, sustainability, and balance, has always stood in contrast to an industrial way promoting a toxic form of environmental racism. Many of the voices are native, but many others are not.

At first glance, regardless of the role of polluting industry or inept bureaucratic abettors, many native people have acted, or have sought to act, as respectful stewards of the earth and its resources. For example, in Minnesota, native people have improved common tern nesting sites, counted breeding birds, restored wetlands, and developed programs to teach young people about caring for the land. In Nevada and Idaho, they joined with conservation organizations or governmental agencies to bring back trout and wolves. In Rhode Island, they rejected a hazardous waste incinerator as inappropriate for Indian enterprise. Indians in California purchased land that had been heavily logged, intending to remove logging roads, stabilize eroded stream banks, and establish a native-plant nursery. In the West, a number of tribes have tried to prevent ranchers and others from killing buffaloes roaming beyond the boundaries of Yellowstone (to prevent the spread of the disease brucellosis) and to sign them over to the care of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative.

Yet as many cases as there are like those just mentioned, there are others that seem to fit alternative voices from Indian Country privileging something other than sacredness—often to do with jobs and economic security. For example, Miccosukee Indians proposed building sixty-five houses in Everglades National Park against the objections of the Park Service and environmentalists whispered that they were poor stewards of the land and therefore undeserving of special rights as Indians. Alaskan Inupiats killed hundreds of caribou in the 1970s, used only part of the kill, left bloated carcasses behind, and were accused by white hunters (who had acted in virtually identical fashion themselves) of placing the herds in jeopardy. In Wisconsin, Chippewas reportedly let thousands of fish spoil in warm weather, and farther west, some Crow Indians and Indians from Wind River, the joint Shoshone-Arapahoe reservation in Wyoming, in separate incidents killed many elk and reputedly took only choice cuts for themselves, or meat and antlers for sale, leaving the rest to rot. Utes have lobbied for a dam and reservoir—over strong objections from the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund—perhaps to transport low-sulpher coal through a coal slurry pipeline to power plants at some future time. Mi’kmaq fishermen plan to take advantage of a 1999 Supreme Court decision and trap lobsters during the season closed to non-natives and, prior to the decision, to them. The Makah infuriated animal rights activists focused on sea mammals not treaty rights when they killed a gray whale in 1999.

There are many cases like these. They and the opposing voices, not surprisingly, are invariably in conflict with the first set, the tension between the two playing out in political and other arenas, and erupting at times in open disputes between those who favor indigenous–way actions and those who do not. They certainly have complicated actions in the face of resource projects large and small. For instance, the huge coal-mining projects roiled Navajo and Hopi politics for years, exacerbating splits between anti-development traditionalists (to whom environmentalist outsiders have been drawn) and pro-development progressives, and also led to demands for indigenous control over—if not a halt to—the extraction of resources. The different voices belong to native people, the different actors are native people and this makes generalizing about contemporary Indian positions on land and resources or contemporary Indian voices extremely difficult.

Differences of opinion and action exist in almost all arenas. Take, for example, the sharply contested debate over the disposal of waste. Each year, Americans produce over 300 billion pounds of garbage and other forms of trash and waste—including nuclear. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, waste companies increasingly approached Indian tribes for waste sites and discovered that some tribes responded positively. Several even took the initiative offering their lands to waste-disposal companies for dumps, often over vociferous disapproval. The Campo Band of Mission Indians, concerned about high unemployment, invited San Diego County to use their small reservation for a dump for two decades, despite opposition from non-Indian neighbors livid over potential groundwater pollution. Likewise, over strong objections of neighbors and other Indians, the Oklahoma Tonkawas expressed interest in storing radioactive waste on their reservation. Yakimas in Washington, Mescalero Apaches in New Mexico, and Chickasaws and the Sac and Fox Nation in Oklahoma followed suit.

Environmentalists, neighbors, and tribal members all opposed these and other projects. At times, they have joined forces, as in 1991, when Greenpeace lent monetary support for 500 activists from almost 50 tribes to assemble at the Protecting Mother Earth Conference, to fight against the storage of nuclear waste. The Conference rejected the suggestion from the Council of Energy Resources Tribes, an Indian consortium promoting energy development, that tribes could strike resource deals bringing needed income and preserving tribal control and sovereignty, and resolved instead never to strike deals with polluters and to combat what it called environmental racism.

Landfill and waste storage issues have split Indian communities. Both Mississippi Choctaws and Rosebud Lakotas of South Dakota argued heatedly over landfills favored by tribal councils but opposed by tribal members skeptical of economic benefits and concerned about environmental impact. In the Choctaw case, tribal opponents of a hazardous-waste dump persevered against all odds over their pro-development, highly successful and powerful chief, Phillip Martin.

Many tribes have rebuffed nuclear waste. In the early 1990s, Cherokees helped close a nuclear processing plant in Oklahoma, and the Yankton Sioux formally resolved to ban all waste storage on their reservation in South Dakota. Yakimas protested potential environmental contamination at the federal nuclear weapons plant at Hanford, Washington. In Minnesota, the Mdewakanton Sioux joined forces with environmentalists to combat Northern States Power’s plan to store nuclear waste at a nuclear-power plant it had constructed just off their Prairie Island reservation. A number of groups have threatened action against nuclear waste transportation and fought companies eyeing new uranium mines; in Idaho, Shoshone-Bannocks halted a truck carrying spent nuclear fuel attempting to cross their reservation lands.

The most visible case involving spent nuclear fuel has concerned the Mescalero Apaches of New Mexico. In the early 1990s, the Mescaleros expressed strong interest in storing nuclear waste from some thirty utility companies on their reservation for up to forty years. This tribe has had a strong pro-development record and successfully built a casino, ski and hotel resort, and artificial lake. Mescalero leaders saw nuclear storage as a way to solve continuing unemployment problems and a housing shortage. However, the issue split the tribe internally, as several votes have made clear. Opinions range from a pro-development tribal council to a silent minority emphasizing the importance and sacrality of tribal lands, yet participating little in tribal affairs. Swayed by arguments about the sacred nature of their lands and by apocalyptic dreams of iridescent leaks, and upon urging of environmentalists and New Mexico’s governor, legislature, and senators and congressional representatives, tribal members voted in 1995 against nuclear waste storage. Within two months, following an intense lobbying effort reputedly by people who controlled access to reservation housing and jobs, and after contemplating as much as $1 billion over 40 years, the voters reversed themselves. Some were angry with environmentalists and others with outsiders who accused them of selling out their tribe. One said, “These outsiders are ignorant… How dare they tell us how to live and what is good for us?” 

These waste storage cases reveal many of the significant fault lines in contemporary resource issues: they split Indian tribal members who favor the project from others who do not, as well as from outside Indians, environmentalists, and non-Indian neighbors. There are other similar high-profile cases: for example, the native corporations in Alaska responsible for clearcutting forests not-in-their-backyard, to beach edges and stream banks, to the dismay of some native people as well as outsiders wishing to preserve the Tongass. Or the Kaktovik Inupiat, who have argued in favor of drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), the second largest wildlife refuge in the nation, over the objections of the Gwich’in, Wilderness Society, Natural Resources Defense Council, Audubon Society, and other environmental and conservation organizations, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

There is no single narrative about these contemporary issues, and to excoriate the larger society as one absolves Indians of all blame (which some find tempting given the traumatic consequences of some of these cases) is to sacrifice evidence of Indian participation in, or control over, what happens on their land and to their resources. There is no need to victimize Indians or strip them of agency in their lives except when their actions fit the image of them widespread in the public imagination as absolute paragons of ecological virtue. Frozen in this image (called the Ecological Indian), native people should take only what they need and should use all that they take, and if they must participate in larger markets far better it be to profit from hydroponic vegetables, fish, or other “traditional” products than for oil, coal, trash and like commodities. As one journalist remarked, “native people are supposed to be keepers of the earth, not protectors of its poisons.” They are held to exacting standards that, with minor exceptions, neither they nor their non-native accusers have ever met.

Shepard Krech III is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University. He was a National Humanities Center Fellow in 1993-94 and 2000–01 and serves on the advisory team for Nature Transformed. His recent publications include The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999), Collecting Native America, 1870–1960, co-edited with Barbara Hail (1999), and “Ecology, Conservation, and the Buffalo Jump,” in Stars Above, Earth Below: American Indians and Nature, ed. M. Bol (1998). He is an editor of the forthcoming International Encyclopedia of Environmental History (Routledge, 2003).

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To cite this essay:
Krech III, Shepard. “Indian Country Today.” Nature Transformed, TeacherServe®. National Humanities Center. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <>


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