Native Americans and Environmental Justice

What is Environmental Justice?

The term environmental justice is used to describe the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards in the United States, in which “poor people and people of color bear a greater share of the pollution than richer people and white people.”[1] While, this term was not officially signed into an Executive Order by President Bill Clinton in 1994, there have been many major contributions that have helped to shape the development of what is considered the Environmental Justice Movement.[2] Today, communities of grassroots activists are continuously fighting for their rights to things such as health, clean air, and access to clean water, as well as bringing the voices of many marginalized people to the larger public and government to push an agenda with environmental justice at the forefront.[3]

Source: "Environmental Justice Comes to the Fore," Northwest Earth Institute, accessed 6 December 2016,
Source: “Environmental Justice Comes to the Fore,” Northwest Earth Institute, accessed 6 December 2016,

The grassroots efforts are perhaps one of the most defining aspects of the environmental justice movement. They are significant, in that they present a perspective that addresses the challenges that a community is facing, from the community members themselves, and solutions that are by and for the people they would serve. The Environmental Justice Movement is unique in comparison to other environmentally aware and focused movements because it creates a space for “fundamental social and environmental change through redefinition, reinvention, and construction of innovative political and cultural discourses and practices.”[4] Additionally, grassroots efforts “transform the marginal communities from passive victims to significant actors in the environmental decision-making processes.”[5] This is not to say that these grassroots efforts were not happening before the Environmental Justice Movement was established. However, the movement gave way for these grassroots activists, who have had to experience the unequal environmental issues and have been resisting them for many years, to have a larger platform in which to share voices and be involved in formal decision making processes.

The video below provides supplementary context to environmental justice and the Environmental Justice Movement. It is an interview with Dr. Robert Bullard, one of the most prominent scholars and authors on the topic of environmental justice.

[Above] “Robert Bullard – The Genesis of Environmental Justice,” (2011). Courtesy of A Fierce Green Fire, Video Link.

How have Native Americans contributed to the Environmental Justice Movement?

Tripodero, “Flag of the American Indian Movement,” 27 May 2010, Image Link.

One of the most relevant examples of this resistance happening before the Environmental Justice Movement became popular has to do with Native Americans. Native American struggles have majorly contributed to the Environmental Justice Movement.[6] Native Americans have “struggled for self-determination in land use decisions,” since European colonialism over 500 years ago.[7] According to many scholars, this makes Native Americans the “first victims of environmental racism,” and has played a major role in defining a large part of what environmental racism entails.[8] Native American activism from the late 1960s and early 1970s exist as the “precursor to today’s organizing around environmental issues by Indians on and off reservations.”[9] The American Indian Movement (also known as the Red Power Movement) that emerged around this time period, and “were often focused around land and environmental exploitation.”[10] Additionally, much of the American Indian Movement is significant for “involvement in major events of civil disobedience and conflict.”[11]

One of the biggest attributes of the mainstream Environmental Justice Movement that resulted because of Native American struggles, were the concepts of self-determination and resistance.[12] Native Americans contributed their “experiences of centuries of struggle for self-determination and resistance to resource-extractive land use.”[13] A defining slogan developed for the Environmental Justice Movement, “We speak for ourselves”, reflects the “centuries-old Native American idea of sovereignty.”[14] While, this slogan had several meanings and interpretations in the overall Environmental Justice community, for Native Americans it signified their historically shaky relationship to government.[15]


How are Native Americans contributing now to the Environmental Justice Movement?

The Indigenous Environmental Network, formed in 1990, demonstrates the significant contributions that Native Americans have made to the Environmental Justice Movement.[16] The Indigenous Environmental Network is “an international coalition of more than forty grassroots Indian environmental justice groups based in Bemidji, Minnesota.”[17] It was originally formed because of a small group of activists who wanted to “strategize on how to beat a toxic waste incinerator proposed for their community.”[18] Now, the Indigenous Environmental Network is still present in fighting a multitude of environmental justice issues that involve Native Americans.[19]

These are just a few ways that Native Americans have contributed to the Environmental Justice Movement. As we move into learning more about the different water-related case studies, it is evident that these are continuous efforts. Native Americans are finding new ways to resist and fight the environmental oppression that systematically puts their overall health and livelihoods at risk. The  video below shows an interview from Tara Houska, a Tribal Rights Attorney, after the Flint Water Crisis that gained massive media attention in early 2016. Houska discusses the issues that many Native Americans are and have been facing with regard to access to water, that have not gained significant attention from the general public. More forms of current Native American resistance efforts and environmental justice efforts will be discussed in the “resistance” sections of the case studies.

[Above] “America’s Other Water Crisis,” (2016). Courtesy of Not Your Mascots, Video Link.



[1] Cole, L, & Foster, S, From the Ground Up, (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001), 10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 14.

[5] Ibid, 14.

[6] Ibid, 26.

[7] Ibid, 26.

[8] Ibid, 27.

[9] Ibid, 26.

[10] Ibid, 26.

[11] Treuer, Anton, The American Historical Review of…Davis, Julie, Survival Schools: The American Indian Movement and Community Education in the Twin Cities, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 2014.

[12] Cole, L, & Foster, S, From the Ground Up, (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001), 26.

[13] Ibid, 26.

[14] Ibid, 27.

[15] Ibid, 27.

[16] Ibid, 27.

[17] Ibid, 135.

[18] Ibid, 135.

[19] Ibid, 135.