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Indige nous people around the world historically have been referred to by a range of names, including those of their own traditional distinctions, as well as those colonially imposed (such as “Indians” for Native Americans). First Nations is a relatively novel term, coming to prominence in Canada during the 1970s, to refer to indigenous or native peoples. The term has been applied more generally to all pre-colonial peoples of both the Americas and Australia, though the term is by no means uncontroversial. The degree to which the term is tied to a notion of sovereign “nationhood” and the requirements of historical primacy (who is “first”), both make the term politically complex. Nevertheless, the experiences of native people, especially relative to environmental rights and experiences, is remarkably common throughout the world.
First Nations have long suffered the disproportionate effects of environmental damage. According to the Worldwatch Institute, 317 reservations in the United States are threatened by environmental hazards ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts. In the United States, more than 300 Native American reservations have been targeted for landfills, incinerators, and other waste facilities. In New York and Canada, the Mohawk have suffered damage from polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were legal and used extensively by General Motors and other companies until the mid-1980s.
As demand for energy supplies increases, so does pressure on tribes that live in areas with vast amounts of resources. Many First Nations are terribly poor, so the promise of employment from mining or payment for allowing the government to strip the land or locate wastes or toxins is compelling.
Another environmental issue facing Native Americans is location of nuclear wastes. Reservations in the United States have been targeted for 16 nuclear waste dumps. Yucca Mountain in Nevada is scheduled to become the next High-Level Nuclear Waste (HLNW) site, despite the potential impact on the western Cheyenne who call the area home. Radioactive waste dumps also affect aboriginal people in South Australia and the First Nations of islands near Taiwan.
Testing of military weapons has also lead to environmental damage. In the last 45 years, more than 1,000 atomic explosions have occurred on western Shoshone land in Nevada, making it “the most bombed nation on earth.” Over 3,000 nuclear weapons are stored on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and unexploded bombs are all over. The army accidentally shelled one area of the island four times between 1987 and 1990.
Environmental cleanup, often slow and underfunded in general, is even worse on indigenous lands. The Indigenous Environmental Network says that most indigenous governments are 22 years behind in their development of environmental infrastructures.
In addition to toxic wastes on the land, Native Americans and First Nations face the pollution of their water, which consequently threatens fish, an important food source. In the Pacific Northwest, virtually every river is home to native peoples. Salmon is a major source of nutrients, but over 107 stocks of salmon are already extinct and 89 are endangered due to high levels of mercury and other toxins.
Many environmental problems involving First Nations are the result of overuse. In 1999, the Eastern Navajo filed suit with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to block uranium mining on their lands. There are more than 1,000 slag piles from abandoned uranium mines on Dine (Navajo) land, releasing radioactivity into the air and water. The Seminole tribe of the Everglades has seen their land and sacred animals, including the panther, significantly diminished due to overdevelopment of south Florida. In the Amazon area, one-quarter of the forest, home to indigenous peoples, has been demolished since 1900.
Too often, First Nations have little or no voice in matters of environmental pollution and degradation of their land. While wealthier people are able to cry “Not in My Backyard,” most tribes have a contentious and murky relationship with the government. In many countries native peoples retain some sovereignty yet are also governed by the state, so their ability to use courts for redress is somewhat confused.
Yet some progress has been made. The 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) recognized the importance of environmental justice for indigenous peoples. In the United States, President Bill Clinton issued Executive Order 12898, drawing federal attention to environmental justice in minority and low-income populations. Native groups have worked together to defeat proposals that would bring greater environmental damage. For instance, in the 1980s the Blackfeet Indians worked with a coalition of green groups to fight off two oil firms seeking to explore the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
- Regina Austin and Michael Schill, “Black, Brown, Red, and Poisoned,” in Andersen, K. Logio, and H. Taylor, eds., Understanding Society, 2nd ed. (Wadsworth, 2001);
- Grinde and B. Johansen, Ecocide of Native America (Clearlight Publishers, 1995); Winona Laduke, All Our Relations (South End Press, 1999).