For thirty years, since the publication of Silent Spring and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the growth of the environmental movement has been fueled with sorrow for the decimation of Native Americans and nostalgia and reverence for their earthwise–if presumed vanished–way of life. White writers embellished Chief Seattle’s 1854 speech of farewell to his people’s sacred land with ecological homilies, making it the anthem of Earth Day 1992. The genocide and dispossession were popularized in films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves, bittersweet elegies sung by victorious, if guilty, whites. It’s unrolled like an obituary for someone who turns out to be very much alive.
For, as Winona LaDuke’s All Our Relations shows, a vital Native American environmentalism is linking indigenous peoples throughout North America and Hawaii in the fight to protect and restore their health, culture and the ecosystems on their lands. LaDuke herself is a member of the Anishinaabeg nation and was Ralph Nader’s Green Party running mate in 1996. These Native American activists take inspiration from their forebears’ responsible treatment of natural systems, based on a reverence for the interconnectedness of all life forms. Another new book stands in marked contrast to this assumed worldview–The Ecological Indian, by Shepard Krech III, a professor of anthropology at Brown who maintains that Native Americans were actually environmentally destructive and, if Europeans hadn’t hastened the demise of the bison (and depletion of natural resources), might well have brought that on themselves. But more on him later.
What the Indians lost, of course, still takes one’s breath away. Regional maps in All Our Relations show the current and former boundaries of indigenous lands, the location of industrial, nuclear and other development sites, and remaining resources. Glaringly evident is the extent to which lands ceded to the Indians in treaties have been cut back and fragmented, along with ecosystems from northern forests to the Everglades. While confinement to “little islands,” as Black Elk called reservations, was cruel enough, and often meant die-offs from disease and starvation, things grew worse as the islands shrank, revoked by “allotment” and opened to white homesteaders, or taken for national parks, roads, pipelines and power projects. “In 1875…the total reservation land base stood at 166 million acres, or 12 percent of the continental United States,” LaDuke says. By 1974 less than 44 million acres remained. Native America now covers only 4 percent of US land. The Worldwatch Institute reports that 317 reservations “are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts.”
Native Americans were displaced by farmers and ranchers and then by mining, when the barren enclaves selected for reservations turned out to be rich in minerals like gold, coal and uranium. About half the recoverable uranium within the United States lies in New Mexico–and about half of that is on the Navajo Reservation. The largest radioactive accident in North America occurred not at Three Mile Island but on the Navajo Reservation in 1978. On Dine, or Navajo, land, where Indians provided cheap labor for thirty years without safety regulations, radioactivity enters the air and water from more than 1,000 open slag piles and tailings, dust from which blows into local communities on windy days; drinking water, too, has been contaminated. Dine teenagers have a cancer rate seventeen times the national average. Some Dine face a February government deadline for relocation in a land dispute with the Hopi–but the prime site for relocation is in Sanders, on land contaminated by the 1978 spill. Washington State’s leaking Hanford Nuclear Reservation sits on Yakama land. In forty-five years, there have been 1,000 atomic explosions on Western Shoshone land in Nevada, and now the Shoshone are battling the federal government’s decision to use their sacred Yucca Mountain as a vast underground nuclear waste dump.