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Environmental Justice through Tribal Sovereignty

By Victoria Goff

This is the next article in a series of articles exploring the “principles” of Environmental Justice as they intersect with food or digital justice. Environmental Justice Principle No. 11 recognizes a special legal and natural relationship of native peoples to the U.S. government through treaties, agreements, compacts and covenants affirming sovereignty and self-determination.

Not many non-native people really understand or know much about tribal sovereignty. This ignorance makes sense though, when the only place where tribal sovereignty even begins to hint at entering into mainstream conversation is during different media campaigns by animal rights or environmental organizations protesting a tribe who held a whale hunt or who let their cattle graze the grass too close to the earth. The media campaigns usually sound something like “Natives get special rights!” or “Those ancient treaties were never meant to deal with the problems of today’s world!”

And to be real, treaties are often extremely difficult to understand in laymen’s terms. They are basically legal agreements that the United States holds with U.S.-based native peoples. But because each tribe has its own treaties and even its own legal relationship with the United States, legal scholars often have to unpack decades, if not centuries, of legal work to understand just one section of one treaty for one tribe.

Because the laws and treaties dealing with native peoples are often incredibly legally complicated, very often the “solution” offered by various animal rights or environmental organizations to the problems they have with native peoples (like the fishing out of season or cattle grazing) is to just get rid of the treaties all together — to force native peoples’ to “come into the 21st century” and “stop playing cowboy and Indian” (as President Ronald Reagan so famously stated). In the media, this might look like the recent PETA campaign to end whale hunting in Alaska by asking followers to sign a petition to the government to “rethink” the treaty that makes whale hunting legal for native peoples.

But while just negating treaties is often the “easier” route for activists, negating tribal treaties heads the relationship between the government and tribes down a devastating road that has repercussions for all of us. Specifically, while each tribe has its own treaties with the United States government, it is tribal sovereignty, or the legal recognition of each tribe as its own nation, that allows tribes to enter into treaties with the United States, which forms a type of protection of the environment that is often a more effective method of environmentalism than what even environmental organizations have to offer.

Let’s unpack that idea with some examples. While many environmental organizations actually try to “protect” the environment by advocating for the restriction of tribal fishing rights in Northern Michigan (and in other states where fishing rights historically have been a contentious issue, like Wisconsin and Minnesota), it is the tribe’s right to hunt and fish on the land that actually protects the land. As Native American scholar Andrea Smith notes in her book “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide,” when different tribes crafted the treaties with the United States, they didn’t simply push for the right to fish and hunt on their lands — they also insisted that the land actually had resources on it to begin with.

It is this idea that has been crucial in the defense of the land against violence by corporations or even the United States government. If their tribal lands have been polluted by mining companies so terribly that there’s no dear left to hunt, or the water has been poisoned so badly that there’s no fish left to catch, than the treaty is in violation and the tribe has the right to pursue legal measures.

As we’ve seen with various fishing battles, that also means tribes also have the right to stop the potential harming of resources on their lands — that is, they have been able to stop mines from being built at all by pointing to their legal right to resources. Another example: as native peoples began the work of more fully explain exactly what it would mean for the environment if mining corporations actually got their way, non-natives changed their alliances and eventually, the pro-mining state of Wisconsin (which also had a pro-mining governor) refused to allow mining corporations to begin mining on native lands. The recognition of tribal rights and the reinforcement of tribal sovereignty actually increased environmental quality, rather than decreasing it.

But more often than not, non-native people just don’t know what is actually at stake when PETA does its latest protest of a whale hunt or environmental organizations protest tribal cattle grazing. Most non-native people don’t even know the right questions to ask to demand accountability from the organizations claiming to be fighting for justice.

Creating community centered media is essential to confronting the general lack of knowledge most have about the issues surrounding native communities, and native peoples have been leaders in doing just that. Mainstream news may never publish one article explaining what tribal sovereignty is, but tribal peoples across the world have used their own collective power to create their own media anyway.

Perhaps the most notable of these communities are the Zapatistas in Mexico, who by choosing to bypass the mainstream media almost entirely and instead focus on a growing indie media network, managed to build worldwide focus on how globalization and NAFTA harms the people of their community. This, in turn, led to practical support from people across the world as the Zapatistas led resistance movements against increased paramilitary forces that were attacking their communities.

It may be a bit more difficult to find media created for and by native peoples than just picking up a local paper, but it is essential that all non-natives do this work. It will not only educate non-natives on issues sorely lacking in the mainstream, but it will help us to learn how to ask the right questions when the latest media campaign against native peoples crop up. Questions like, Who is benefiting from this campaign? Are these campaigns about preventing “special privileges”? Or are they about continuing the long-standing genocidal policy against native peoples by the U.S. government? And even more to the point, who benefits the most from native peoples not having “special privileges”? Is it you and I? Or corporations?

Victoria Goff is a communications coordinator at Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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