The Intersection Between Tribal Sovereignty and Environmental Justice

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By: Kristen Millstein, Communications Intern
In the summer of 2016, I traveled to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I was in high school and had not spent significant time outside my California bubble. Pine Ridge was like a different world. While there, I learned from tribal leaders about the continual violation of their sovereignty and the trauma caused by a history of massacres and loss of sacred land. At the time, I looked at these atrocities through the lens of colonization. It has only been since I joined CHEJ as an intern that I began to look at these issues as environmental justice issues as well. Treaties were often violated because white colonizers found something valuable on tribal land–either agricultural opportunity, mineral wealth, or lumber, and greed for these natural resources continues to drive violation of tribal sovereignty. The resulting industries have done irreparable damage to the environment and Indigenous communities.
Pine Ridge Reservation has a poverty rate as high as 80% by some estimates and is 59th out of 60 counties in South Dakota for overall health outcomes. The region is clearly struggling, and it’s harrowing history is the primary culprit. Pine Ridge was once part of the much larger Great Sioux Reservation, established by treaty in 1868. This treaty was broken only six years later in 1874, and tribes continued to lose land over the next several decades as the U.S. government violated treaties to access gold, lumber, and other natural resources. The remaining tribal land is only a small fraction of their rightful land. Despite these already great losses, attacks on tribal sovereignty and land rights continue.
High profile protests like the ones surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to recent activism against encroachments on tribal sovereignty. Indigenous activists also fought hard against the Keystone XL Pipeline despite fierce opposition by law enforcement, and scored a major victory when President Biden revoked the pipeline’s permit and halted construction. Pine Ridge activists are currently embroiled in a fight against the proposed Dewey-Burdock uranium mine that will threaten the water supply as well as countless cultural sites. 
Each of these projects has been vehemently opposed by tribes on the grounds of damage to human health and the environment and violation of tribal sovereignty. But under our current system, agencies are not required to make their plans contingent on the consent of tribes, rendering their input effectively meaningless. Changing this provision and requiring ongoing, informed consent of tribal governments for projects that encroach on their land or threaten their cultural heritage would represent a major shift in the U.S. government’s relationship with tribes. It would be a victory for tribal sovereignty and for environmental justice. The Supreme Court ruling that declared about half of Oklahoma to be under tribal jurisdiction and the cancellation of the Keystone XL Pipeline by the Biden Administration are steps in the right direction and a sign that there may be an opportunity for real progress, but the threats are not over. We must continue to support Indigenous communities in their fight to preserve their culture, heritage, and environment against attacks on their sovereignty.
Photo Credit: JYM via Facebook

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