American Indian Environmental Office

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American Indian Environmental Office

The American Indian Environmental Office (AIEO) was created to increase the quality of public health and environmental protection on Native American land and to expand tribal involvement in running environmental programs.

Native Americans are the second-largest landholders besides the government. Their land is often threatened by environmental degradation such as strip mining , clear-cutting , and toxic storage. The AIEO, with the help of the President's Federal Indian Policy (January 24, 1983), works closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prevent further degradation of the land. The AIEO has received grants from the EPA for environmental cleanup and obtained a written policy that requires the EPA to continue with the trust responsibility, a clause expressed in certain treaties that requires the EPA to notify the Tribe when performing any activities that may affect reservation lands or resources. This involves consulting with tribal governments, providing technical support, and negotiating EPA regulations to ensure that tribal facilities eventually comply.

The pollution of Dine Reservation land is an example of an environmental injustice that the AIEO wants to prevent in the future. The reservation has over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines that leak radioactive contaminants and is also home to the largest coal strip mine in the world. The cancer rate for the Dine people is 17 times the national average. To help tribes with pollution problems similar to the Dine, several offices now exist that handle specific environmental projects. They include the Office of Water, Air, Environmental Justice, Pesticides and Toxic Substances; Performance Partnership Grants; Solid Waste and Emergency Response; and the Tribal Watershed Project. Each of these offices reports to the National Indian Headquarters in Washington, DC.

At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Biodiversity Convention was drawn up to protect the diversity of life on the planet. Many Native American groups believe that the convention also covered the protection of indigenous communities, including Native American land. In addition, the groups demand that prospecting by large companies for rare forms of life and materials on their land must stop. Tribal Environmental Concerns

Tribal governments face both economic and social problems dealing with the demand for jobs, education, health care, and housing for tribal members. Often the reservations' largest employer is the government, which owns the stores, gaming operations, timber mills, and manufacturing facilities. Therefore, the government must deal with the conflicting interests of protecting both economic and environmental concerns. Many tribes are becoming self-governing and manage their own natural resources along with claiming the reserved right to use natural resources on portions of public land that border their reservation. As a product of the reserved treaty rights, Native Americans can use water, fish, and hunt anytime on nearby federal land.

Robert Belcourt, Chippewa-Cree tribal member and director of the Natural Resources Department in Montana stated:

"We have to protect nature for our future generations . More of our Indian people need to get involved in natural resource management on each of our reservations. In the long run, natural resources will be our bread and butter by our developing them through tourism and recreation and just by the opportunity they provide for us to enjoy the outdoor world."

Belcourt has fought to destroy the negative stereotypes of conservation organizations that exist among Native Americans who believe, for example, that conservationists are extreme tree-huggers and insensitive to Native American culture. These stereotypes are a result of cultural differences in philosophy, perspective, and communication. To work together effectively, tribes and conservation groups need to learn about one another's cultures, and this means they must listen both at meetings and in one-on-one exchanges.

The AIEO also addresses the organizational differences that exist in tribal governments and conservation organizations. They differ greatly in terms of style, motivation, and the pressures they face. Pressures on the Wilderness Society , for example, include fending off attempts in Washington, D.C. to weaken key environmental laws or securing members and raising funds. Pressures on tribal governments more often are economic and social in nature and have to do with the need to provide jobs, health care, education, and housing for tribal members. Because tribal governments are often the reservations' largest employers and may own businesses like gaming operations, timber mills, manufacturing facilities, and stores, they function as both governors and leaders in economic development.

Native Americans currently occupy and control over 52 million acres (21.3 million ha) in the continental United States and 45 million more acres (18.5 million ha) in Alaska, yet this is only a small fraction of their original territories.

In the nineteenth century, many tribes were confined to reservations that were perceived to have little economic value, although valuable natural resources have subsequently been found on some of these land. Pointing to their treaties and other agreements with the federal government, many tribes assert that they have reserved rights to use natural resources on portions of public land.

In previous decades these natural resources on tribal lands were managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Now many tribes are becoming self-governing and are taking control of management responsibilities within their own reservation boundaries. In addition, some tribes are pushing to take back management over some federally managed lands that were part of their original territories. For example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Reservation are taking steps to assume management of the National Bison Range, which lies within the reservation's boundaries and is currently managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service .

Another issue concerns Native American rights to water. There are legal precedents that support the practice of reserved rights to water that is within or bordering a reservation. In areas where tribes fish for food, mining pollution has been a continues threat to maintaining clean water. Mining pollution is monitored, but the amount of fish that Native Americans consume is higher than the government acknowledges when setting health guidelines for their consumption. This is why the AIEO is asking that stricter regulations be imposed on mining companies. As tribes increasingly exercise their rights to use and consume water and fish, their roles in natural resource debates will increase.

Many tribes are establishing their own natural resource management and environmental quality protection programs with the help of the AIEO. Tribes have established fisheries, wildlife , forestry, water quality , waste management , and planning departments. Some tribes have prepared comprehensive resource management plans for their reservations while others have become active in the protection of particular species . The AIEO is uniting tribes in their strategy and involvement level with improving environmental protection on Native American land.

[Nicole Beatty ]



American Indian Environmental Office, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. USA 20460 (202) 564-0303, Fax: (202) 564-0298, <>

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American Indian Environmental Office