Sacred Lands from Sacrifice Zones?

Himdag: Indigenizing Decision Making and Revitalizing Abandoned Mines in Indian Country

By Oral Saulters and Laurie Suter

“In Native American oral tradition, the reverence which humans have for the Earth is a story told many times, in many places, in many languages; if you would know the Earth for what it really is, learn it through its sacred places”

N. Scott Momaday

Photo By: Laurie Suter, Baboquivari Peak

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Environmental Racism and Justice

In the wake of decades of exploited Native American communities living in sacrifice zones next to dangerous levels of environmental contamination; where Indigenous groups fight against mining on and near natural places of spiritual sacred lands; what can be learned from tribal communities to disrupt the legacy of colonization? In the current piece, we shed light on the ways we can address environmental racism and implement social policies that restore and honor these sacred lands by learning from tribal nations and Indigenous peoples.

Native Americans, also called American Indians, are the Indigenous peoples of the United States. Before European colonizers arrived in 1492, pre-contact native populations of over 60 million thrived throughout this continent, specifically in response to the unique environments they inhabited which provided a close relationship with, reverence towards, and respect for the land. Europeans found the native people living creative and fascinating lifeways adapted to many different environments; deserts, forests, along oceans and on grassy prairies. Yet, due to the American history of nullification of treaty rights, inadequate support for Indigenous self-determination, ineffective federal policies, and a dearth of research led by Native communities, Native Americans have experienced systematic tribal health traumas and adverse ecological impacts. For instance, many Native communities inhabit “fenceline communities,” or “sacrifice zones,” where chemical, industrial, and military pollution endanger the health of those in the community.

While some progress has been made in addressing the health-related disparities among Native peoples, sacrifice zones reveal the harmful and ongoing effects of environmental racism against Indigenous communities.

For example, a century of hard rock mining has left over 500,000 abandoned mines in nearly every state of the United States (U.S.). The vast majority of these abandoned mines affect Native American lands. For instance, throughout the United States, after valuable minerals were identified on native lands, the U.S. government provided widespread access for mining from 1842–1955 impacting native sustenance lifeways everywhere. This resulted in the exploitative looting of “Turtle Island” (Turtle Island is a name for Earth used by some Indigenous peoples based on a creation story and is synonymous with “North America”) without any consultation or compensation to the Indigenous peoples. Still today, the locations and precarious conditions of these abandoned mines have a devastating effect on the health, safety, and wellbeing of local inhabitants. According to 2015 Census data, of 6.6 million Native Americans, an estimated 600,000 live within 6 miles of an abandoned mine.

Another example is the Black Hills; the sacred lands for the Great Sioux Nation. Following the Battle of Little Big Horn, the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty guaranteed the Sioux people “undisturbed use and occupation” of the Black Hills; however, these treaty rights were ignored to allow for gold mining. Today, heavy metals from these mining activities contaminate the same floodplains where Native peoples gather fruit for sustenance and herbs for medicinal, traditional, and ceremonial practices. These contaminated floodplains are direct exposure pathways to environmental toxins for individuals in these local communities. While government agencies have started to recognize the connections between the historical marginalization of Native American peoples and current environmental injustices, few policy initiatives that address environmental risks or health hazards include Indigenous knowledge and traditions.

“Tribal communities have ties to the environment that are much more complex and intense than is generally understood by risk assessors” — Oren R. Lyons

In 2016, President Obama signed the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act, which updated the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and procedures for standard risk assessments. Risk assessments for new chemicals in commerce are required to evaluate, “potentially exposed or susceptible subpopulations,” which are defined as those, “who, due to either greater susceptibility or greater exposure, may be at greater risk than the general population of adverse health effects from exposure to a chemical substance or mixture.” Although risk assessments calculate health hazards posed by contamination, they do not adequately address the cultural and spiritual values unique to Indigenous societies.

For instance, it is often easier for risk assessors to use assumptions about exposure by using default rates, rather than fully quantifying sources of contamination. Mining wastes pose multivalent threats to tribal communities that may not be obvious to others. Yet, the USEPA is only beginning to evaluate tribal dietary, lifestyles, and ceremonial exposures for use in their processes for environmental cleanup of mine sites. Thus, cumulative health risks frequently remain ill-defined without proper understanding of chemical exposures in Native American groups. When a mining site is contaminated with hazardous substances that pose health and safety risks, potential mechanisms for mitigation and relief include the “Superfund” and “Brownfields” programs. Superfund sites are on the list of the worst polluted sites in the United States and are bound by litigious processes requiring U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) oversight as well as long tedious remediation periods.

Alternatively, many abandoned mines can be revitalized as Brownfields sites. A Brownfield is a property which the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse potential may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant, and includes mine scarred land. The Brownfields program and supporting resources increase flexibility in visioning, planning, assessment, cleanup, and reuse potentials. Leveraging tribal Brownfields can be a dynamic platform for improved land restoration, indigenous economics, local capacity building, intergenerational equity, and diverse partnerships. Federal initiatives from the Biden Administration, including Executive Orders and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, represent a $1.5B historic investment in the highly successful Brownfields program and acknowledge the importance of Nation-to-Nation relationships.

We can see the fruits of this investment! Thousands of acres of once-abandoned mines are now wildlife preserves, green spaces, and slowly reviving parklands with the help of Brownfields funding. The USEPA initiative, “Re-Powering America,” supports the collaboration and partnerships of Native groups, mining companies, renewable energy developers, and conservationists to work together to remove hurdles and create the incentives to make renewable energy projects, such as “Mining the Sun,” a reality for abandoned mine lands.

In essence, Indigenous knowledge systems and traditional medicine can be a source of solutions, offering a revolutionary and restorative way forward in thinking about land-related health justice.

For instance, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) refers to Indigenous knowledge of relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. In the O’odham language, Himdag embodies the Tohono O’odham path to wellness, healing, and balance. Himdag incorporates cultural practices including: values, language, arts, kinship, games, environment, mobility, and medicinal plants; all of which connote a sense of holistic, lifelong journey; a pathway; and a balance of mental, physical, and spiritual health.

While supporting tribal land revitalization is not simple, recognizing the pivotal role of Indigenous cultures in land use planning and policy decisions throughout Indian Country is more important than ever toward revitalizing abandoned mines in Indian Country.

  • Center and elevate Indigenous knowledge — disrupt conventional white supremacist assumptions (the entitled right of the individual over the collective for near-term gain as homo economicus), with Indigenous paradigms (reciprocal restoration with responsibility to ancestors, relatives [including non-human], and future generations).
  • Preserve Native languages — language is the expression of invaluable wisdom, traditional knowledge and safeguards protection of cultural identity and heritage.
  • Value oral traditions — through oral narratives, the stories and lessons of kinship with the land come from the people who have lived for generations in closely coupled social ecological systems demonstrating profound understandings and pragmatic adaptive management regimes.
  • Evaluate Sustenance Lifeways — inclusive in risk assessments and cleanup standards.

There is much to be learned from the indigenization of decision processes to regenerate sacrifice zones into sacred sites. Braiding Indigenous knowledge systems with scientific best practices as drivers for appropriate policies and programs is key. By strengthening connections to culture, heritage, and traditional lifeways, toward community resilience, positive transformations can be realized. This convergence and re-centering of Himdag can lead to holistic, healthy, inclusive, and just communities everywhere!

Oral Saulters is the Chair of the National Tribal Brownfields Working Group.

Laurie Suter is the Mineral Resources Administrator for the Tohono O’odham Nation.

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