Backyard Talk

Indigenous People and Environmental Genocide

By: Shaina Smith, Organizing Intern
The relationship between Native Americans and the United States has always involved genocide and theft. An estimated 5 to 15 million indigenous people already inhabited the land when European settlers first discovered America. By the late 1800s, only 237 thousand people remained. During this period of colonization, the United States took more than 1.5 billion acres of land from Native Americans. To force people onto land and then to contaminate the air, soil, and water of that land is environmental genocide. Environmental genocide by the United States government and corporate polluters is done through both legal and nonlegal methods.
The concept of environmental justice was created to acknowledge the disproportionate burden marginalized communities face from corporate polluters. Government and industry often ignore indigenous people, making it all the more important that they have a critical voice in the environmental justice movement. 
Vi Waghiyi of Alaska Community Actions on Toxins (ACAT) faces what she calls “environmental violence” in her community because of contamination from a former US military base at Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island. Vi is a Yupik grandmother from Savoonga, a native village in St. Lawrence. Once abandoned in the early 1970s, the military left behind at least 220,000 gallons of spilt fuel, heavy metals, asbestos, solvents, and PCBs known to cause cancer. These pollutants contaminate the soil and groundwater, which especially harms the nearby Yupik community of Savoonga who have for generations relied on traditional subsistence agriculture. A 2002 study found that Native people who hunt and fish near Northeast Cape have almost 10 times as many PCBs in their blood compared to the average American. Many residents suffer from PCB-associated health problems, such as cancer, low birth weight, and miscarriages. 
Rebecca Jim of Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) Agency Inc, lives in a Cherokee community plagued by environmental and economic exploitation from the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Over many years, US authorities forced tribes onto land in Northeast Oklahoma in Ottawa County. Once it was discovered the land was rich in lead and zinc,  the BIA illegitimately leased land for mining and extraction starting in the early 1900s. The BIA claimed Native people were incompetent to manage their wealth and kept many from seeing their earnings. Though the mines were no longer in production, they contained debris contaminated with heavy metals. The BIA encouraged tribal land owners to make use of the waste, resulting in poison being spread throughout the county. By 1994 tests had found that 35% of children in the area had high concentration of lead in their blood.  Prolonged lead exposure can damage the immune system, nervous system, blood system and kidneys. It can also potentially cause birth defects, learning disabilities, decreased mental ability, and reduced growth in children. 
From the moment the first European settlers reached America, indigenous people have suffered physical and cultural genocide. Politicians who claim to empathize with indegenous people are still not doing enough to stop people from being poisoned. Kaniela Ing, a Native Hawaiian and former State Representative, noted during his time in office how even progressive politicians are pulled to the right by corporate lobbyists. “A system that relies on appealing to the good nature of politicians is never going to work,” Kaniela observed. “We never really learned how to do democracy right.” At best this violence results from negligence and inaction, and at worst it’s no more than the continuation of centuries of genocide. It’s imperative that the US government listen to Native voices, show greater urgency in clean-up efforts, and compensate those who’ve been harmed.