Native Americans Continue to Fight Environmental Racism

Alyssa Coustenis


Water Protectors of the Standing Rock Reservation Opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline

We Are Your Voice describes  environmental racism as a word used to describe environmental injustice and discrimination. This term began in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was mostly used when discussing african american communities and the negative effects that U.S policies had on their access to clean air, water, and land. As the movement around environmental racism grew, the term began to be applied to minorities all over the country who were also negatively  affected by these policies.

Even though the term for environmental racism came into play within the last 30 years, it has been happening since the 1400’s when America began to be colonized.  Environmental racism has drastic effects on Native American populations.


Dead buffalo

In the late 1800’s the U.S government ordered the military to systematically kill off buffalo. This was because of how resilient the Natives were about being sovereign and the government gave them no choice but to move to newly made reservations. By killing millions of buffalo, the Native Americans could no longer sustain themselves as it was a huge portion of their food, clothing, and material source.

Native Americans were forced to leave areas that they had been for thousands of years. They had to leave land that is sacred to them and move to these reservations that had little access to water, hunting, and farming. This made them reliant on the government for survival.

Opinions around the term environmental racism float around the idea that it either is intentional or unintentional. A big reason why  environmental racism exists is a result of social differences in the United States. For example, white flight is a phenomena that leaves communities segregated. Minority communities are easily targeted by powerful corporations because they have less access to vital information and less say in what is done with tax money.  

An article by the Scientific American covered a story about corporations have had and


Toxic wast dump

continue to use reservations to transport and dump toxic waste. Such as the disposal of nuclear waste, hazard chemicals, and road kill. This materials break down and seep into the ground, contaminating what groundwater is left in these areas. Tribes like the Navajo and Hopi Nation have brought these injustices to a national and international level to the U.N and World Health Organization but their voices went unheard because they are a small group of people and became forgot about in the saturated news.


PJ4A more recent fight that hit the national news was between the Sioux Tribe and the Dakota Access Pipeline. The members of the Standing Rock Reservation are opposed to an oil pipeline that endangers their untouched ancestral lands and their only source of clean water. The people of this land have already lived through the first oil spill from this project on their territory and are not letting their voices go unheard.

The New York Times found that the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline was stopped under President Obama but President Trump allowed for it to be continued. As of right now the pipeline has been completed, along with its first oil spill. A major spill would contaminate water for millions of Native Americans on the reservation.

In order to reduce backlash from all the media attention, the Dakota Pipeline published propaganda on their website. This propaganda was listed under “misconceptions” on their page. This page is full bias information and information omitting history. It is very technical and attempts to make people believe no laws or treaties have been broken. Directs quotes included:

  • The majority of protesters are not there to protect water, as they claim, but are PJ5actually extremists opposed to any and all use of fossil fuels.
  • Many of the protesters on-site are not Standing Rock Sioux, but outsiders with a different more extremist agenda that is simply opposed to the use of all fossil fuels.
  • They have provoked multiple dangerous and criminal confrontations with law enforcement, and caused significant damage to property, which have led local agencies to ask for extra federal help

PJ6According to the Michigan Journal of International Law, the pipeline does not directly come into contact with the Standing Rock Reservation, it is on land that was reserved for the tribe. Many times the government will offer a tribe money for stolen land and many times tribes do not want the money but instead, they just want land back to them that was promised.  The pipeline comes into contact with the reservation’s only source of water. This is where many people fish, hunt, and drink. It also is taking place on sites where their ancestors are buried which holds much sacredness to them and land they should rightfully own.

The truth about this propaganda is that majority of the protesters on site were in fact PJ7Standing Rock Sioux, along with indigenous tribes from all over the nation. In Native American culture water is considered very sacred, along with the land that surrounds them. It is where their ancestors lived, survived, and created many of the traditions that are instilled in them today. The Progressive covered this topic and found that The U.S government took the Dakota Pipeline side of this battle allowing for its construction to continue because his project will create billions of dollars for the oil company and employ people for up to 15 months. They even passed a law, charging hundreds of people with felonies for fighting the breaking of a treaty.

PJ 8According to Indian Country Today, another example of environmental racism aimed towards Native Americans took place in the 1960’s on the Allegany Reservation. This time it broke a treaty of Canandaigua.  This was a treaty that promised peace between the Seneca Nation and the U.S Government. It promised that the land given to the Seneca’s will belong to them forever. This treaty was broken in the 1960’s to protect flooding for industrial companies in Pittsburgh.

A dam was constructed on their land and flooded over ⅓ of their territory. Over 700 native families were forced into government housing as thousand of acres of their hunting grounds and sacred land was put under water. Ancient burial grounds were also dug up during this time. The remains of one of the most prominent figures in Seneca Nation history, Chief Cornplanter, was moved from his grave.

Again this is due to the U.S not considering the culture of Native Americans. Outsiders do not understand that to Native Americans, the air we breath, the water we drink, and the land we walk on is just as sacred to them as a church or a mosque. Native Americans take pride in protecting these elements not only because of the spiritual connection they have with them, but because they have been on the dark side of history where they were stripped of their culture.

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