'The First Environmentalists'
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.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the trustee of the Indian lands, and its policies have notoriously disfavored the beneficiaries. On Northern Cheyenne lands, coal was strip-mined, permanently scarring the land, at fixed leases for between 15 and 35 cents a ton when the market value stood between $4.67, in 1968, and $18.75, in 1975. A lawsuit filed in 1996 seeks $10 billion in missing trust-fund payments for oil, gas and timber leases owed to 500,000 Native Americans for up to a century. Yet in many cases, the records have disappeared. Industrial pollution and agribusiness robbed indigenous Americans of their traditional diet--fish and the Hawaiians' kalo plant, as well as buffalo. A study of Mohawk and Akwesasne women's breast milk showed a 200 percent greater concentration of PCBs than in the general population, thanks to the granddaddy of all Superfund sites, in Massena, New York, which still leaks PCBs and heavy metals into upstate land and water. Environmental destruction has thus meant particular heartbreak for Native Americans. LaDuke's book conveys a deeply felt sense of "the relations all around--animals, fish, trees and rocks...what bind our cultures together."
In his story "The Way to Rainy Mountain," N. Scott Momaday describes the last attempt at a Kiowa Sun Dance, in 1890. "They could find no buffalo; they had to hang an old hide from the sacred tree." Almost 50 million buffalo were wantonly slaughtered in a government policy calculated to bring the fiercely independent Plains tribes to their knees, observes LaDuke, a strategy confirmed by Native American scholars Donald Grinde and Bruce Johansen in their new Ecocide of Native America. Krech's argument is that Native American overhunting had already doomed the buffalo and that the "final stage" of white hunters, supported by the incursion of five railroads into the buffalo range, only hastened the inevitable end.
Krech's twenty-six-page chapter on buffalo devotes a scant three pages to hunting by whites. While he admits that in the final stage, whites were probably killing five buffalo to the Indians' one, he explores government policies no further than a nonjudgmental mention of how "the Department of the Interior linked the disappearance of the bison to the civilization and eventual assimilation of Indian tribes." He omits the US Army altogether. Others, too, deny military culpability; in a November 1999 article in the New York Times, Dan Flores, a history professor at the University of Montana, calls it an apocryphal story of Army policy, hanging on the thin thread of an undocumented speech by Gen. Philip Sheridan to the Texas legislature.
Perhaps Flores should have consulted Buffalo Nation by Valerius Geist, professor of ecology at the University of Calgary. "Sheridan's was not the only voice. There are many indications that this was covert U.S. policy," Geist says, noting that before Sheridan came west, his "scorched-earth" tactics against the Confederacy had been made famous late in the Civil War. "And it's no coincidence that, in 1875-76, attempts by Congress to save the bison were not signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant. He would not oppose Sheridan, who had been his protégé," Geist writes. Buffalo Nation quotes other bison eradicationists of the time, including Representative James Throckmorton of Texas and Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano.