Native American Land: Who Really Controls It?

Currently, there are a total of eight Native American tribes in North Carolina. They make up only 1.2% of the total NC population, so it isn’t a surprise that they face a lack of representation, especially in environmental issues (“Environmental Justice Issues for Indigenous NC Communities”).

In fact, there are many Native American tribes in North Carolina that aren’t even recognized by the state. The Eastern Band of Cherokee nation is the only federally recognized tribe, which means that they are considered a sovereign nation and have the authority to allow what businesses they want on their land. This status also means that because these other tribes are not federally recognized, they do not have a say in what happens to the land they live on. Exploring Southern history and expansion, especially in terms of ecological concerns, “cannot be understood apart from Indian relations” (Rogin).

Recently, the Cherokee tribe has faced issues with Duke Energy, with whom they have had longstanding conflict. In September 2009 Duke Energy insisted on building a substation near a sacred site of the Cherokees (“Cherokees Fight Duke Energy Substation near Sacred Site in North Carolina”). Duke Energy’s actions have received a lot of backlash from the tribe, which has resided in the area for generations. This is just one example of many ways in which land has been negatively affected and indirectly polluted by people who don’t reside there. This type of power dynamic between underrepresented native groups and big businesses characterizes southern history.

Figure 1

“Duke Energy is the largest publicly owned gas and electric utility business in the United States”, which gives them have enough power to build pipelines or substations where they see fit even if it may impact smaller communities (“History of Duke Energy Corporation — FundingUniverse”). In the early stages of Duke Energy back in the 1890s, the corporation was interested in the possibility of introducing hydroelectric energy in North Carolina. The company was backed by early investors, such as W. Gill Wylie from South Carolina, who was already harvesting energy from the Piedmont as well as the Appalachians mountains and rivers in the area (Durden). This is also an area where many Native American tribes historically resided.

As has been the case throughout the nation, Native Americans in North Carolina have been uprooted from their own land as part of their history. The colonial’s infringement on Natives “destroyed an ecological balance that [Native American] culture and hunting had preserved for centuries” (Rogin). They were removed from the West Appalachians because it was considered to be amongst the most valuable land during colonial times. At the time, colonial economy had greatly depended on the Indian fur trade. Colonial demands for fur endangered the beaver population in that area and caused the tribes who relied on that resource to go further west to follow it (Rogin). They were indirectly being removed from their land because their resources were being exploited. Furthermore, natural habitat and food were destroyed during wars when the colonials were fighting for land that wasn’t rightfully theirs.

The land of the Native Americans, particularly the Appalachians in North Carolina, has historically been taken away from them, not only because it has value and provides a source of wealth, but also in order to break down their identity, making it easier for larger and more powerful entities to exploit them. These tribes have a special sort of relationship and knowledge from past ancestors about the land that they reside on and so can provide a great deal of information. Ecological destruction has been written in the past of the natives.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is another company under Duke Energy that has quieted the voices of Native Americans by planning to build a pipeline from Virginia to North Carolina near and/or through their communities. The purpose of this pipeline is to safely transport natural gas to “generate electricity as well as to heat homes and run local businesses” (“Atlantic Coast Pipeline”). There are around 100 counties in NC, but half of the counties that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is choosing to go through are counties in which natives reside. The pipeline will run through the Lumbee River, which is near the Lumbee people’s land and is an important river for their community (Fig. 2).

Figure 2

The environmental impact on the river during construction of the pipeline would greatly affect the Lumbee people. The ecological concerns include damages that will effect drinking water, natural habitat, and agriculture. These tribes already have ecological concerns due to global climate change, which is negatively affecting their natural and cultural resources including surrounding habitats and lakes. The Lumbee River is experiencing drastically low lake levels due to climate change. The plan for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would only aggravate the situation more by creating soil erosion and making the lake more vulnerable to pollution (“Southeast Regional Climate Hub”).

The tribes of North Carolina have had problems with large energy companies building pipelines and fracking on or near the land the live on. In fact, in 2014, there were plans for fracking to take place on the sovereign lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokees, which they vehemently protested. Their Chief declared, “our environmental protection is paramount to the survival of our people” (Theresa). Fracking is an ecological concern that the Native Americans rightfully fear will impact their community. Not only does fracking have an environmental impact, but it also brings up health concerns that these communities are not often equipped to handle. The carcinogenic chemicals often used in fracking can escape and contaminate underground water, release methane and other pollutants into the air and risk soil contamination (Finewood and Stroup). Many of the chemicals and pollutants released from fracking could affect the skin, eyes and other sensory organs, as well as the respiratory and GI systems. About half of the pollutants could affect the nervous, cardiovascular and endocrine systems (Finewood and Stroup). There is also a chance that these chemicals can result in cancers and other mutations. So, along with affecting the sacred land of the Native Americans, these companies are also directly affecting the physical health of the tribes.

As the past and present has proven, Native American’s sovereign rights have constantly and consistently been violated by the state of North Carolina. From colonial times to the present times of Duke Energy, Native American’s land has been unrightfully exploited. Furthermore, these ecological exploitations also effect the personal health and well beings of the Natives.

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