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Race, Sacrifice, and Native Lands

by Jonna Higgins-Freese and Jeff Tomhave

EarthLight Magazine #46, Summer 2002

Across the United States, non-native peoples’ interest in shamanic and indigenous-based spiritual practices is strong, as can be seen by the large number of sweat lodges, drum circles, dream catchers, references to quotes from Chief Seattle–even the fact that shamanism is the theme for this issue of EarthLight.

This interest in native eco-spiritual practices contrasts sharply with the actual state of the environment in native communities. For example, the most polluted site under the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Superfund program is at Tar Creek, Oklahoma. Toxic contamination from lead and zinc mines at Tar Creek has had significant impact on seven Indian tribes and three states. Acid mine drainage and wind-blown dust have poisoned many of the tribes’ sacred and ceremonial sites. The dust blows off the mine tailing piles, which stand like gray mountains hundreds of feet high above the flat plains. The underground mine system reaches into the aquifer, leaching heavy metals, and depositing them to the surface water of Tar Creek.

Tar Creek is only one example of how places and communities have been "sacrificed" for the American way of life. This sacrifice has been recognized by the US government in a National Academy of Sciences study, which concluded that some areas of the country could be used for national priorities irrespective of the resulting permanent environmental damage. Such places are designated "National Sacrifice Areas."

Many of these areas are on native land and are open to resource extraction and defense activities. The Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation and the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred to the Lakota Nations, have been officially designated as "national sacrifice areas." Seventy-five percent of the US national uranium reserve is on Indian land under the control of the major oil companies. In fact, most of the armaments and munitions that supplied American forces in both World Wars and Korea came out of the Tar Creek mine fields.

In secular terms, a sacrifice occurs when a person or group gives up something in order to achieve another, greater good. In this context, it is important to ask what "greater good" is being aimed for–and to note that no one should have the ability to give up another person’s land or health for any reason.

A closer look at the western religious origins of the term is even more disturbing. The "sacrificial lamb" or "scapegoat" is symbolically understood to take on the weight of the community’s sins, and is then either exiled from the community or killed as an act of atonement. In that sense, the designation of many Indian lands as National Sacrifice Areas is a disturbingly accurate recognition of present reality.

Native communities are the scapegoats for Western consumer culture, bearing the burdens of the sins of the community. Indian communities have hosted toxic waste, a by-product of white middle class consumer lifestyles, without ever having benefited from those lifestyles. Government officials and community leaders have even claimed that native communities are good hosts for such toxic materials precisely because of their concern for the Earth. This is not a problem of politicians far away, but of the way white privilege still provides benefits–including the leisure to study shamanic practices.

Given the history of exploiting the natural resources of native communities, it is important to be careful that native spiritual traditions are not appropriated and used in the same way. Any ecospiritual tradition that draws upon shamanic or indigenous practices must be careful not to become yet another way that native traditions are used to the detriment of the Earth and native people.

The first step is to overcome any tendency to romanticize native cultures or to see them as "spiritual resources" rather than complex, vibrant, living traditions within communities that have suffered grave abuse. As George Tinker has written, "Euro-Americans and their elected officials seem to engage in a behavior pattern well-known in alcohol and drug addiction therapies: denial. Too many churches and too many politicians have lived out such a denial, as if such eco-devastation and national injustice and immorality cannot possibly affect them, living in the protected comfort zones of American society. [In this context], it becomes all too easy to think of Indian reservations as ‘National Sacrifice Areas’." (1)

The truth of Tinker’s analysis was demonstrated recently when one of the co-writers of this piece, Jonna Higgins-Freese, led an ecotheology training for a group of Episcopal priests who have been designated as leaders within their communities. When they were shown a video about the environmental and health effects of the acid mine drainage at Tar Creek, one of them commented, "Well, this is interesting, but I wonder if it’s really effective to play the ‘race card’–is there a reason to make this into a race issue? Won’t people be put off by thinking of environmental problems in racial terms? And what’s the link to religion and spirituality?"

This is a clear example of denial, of the conviction that as long as we don’t use racial epithets or specifically and consciously set out to harm people of a particular race, the actual harmful outcome is irrelevant. It demonstrates a cultural conviction that as long as we don’t talk about the racial dimensions of environmental problems, they won’t exist. And it demonstrates the all-too-common belief that spiritual practice is individual and other-worldly–that it is separate from real communities, present realities, and the mess of politics.

What, then, are our responsibilities if we want to turn to shamanic ecospiritual practices as a resource? The first step is to overcome our denial and squarely face the truth of the way native people and people of color have been sacrificed and made scapegoats for the toxic by-products of the American consumerist lifestyle. Across the U.S., race is the determining factor for a number of environmental quality indicators.

Once called environmental racism, "environmental justice" is typically perceived to be an urban issue, and for good reason. In 1987 the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice issued the landmark study "Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States." The study found race to be the single most important factor (more important than income, home ownership, property value, etc.) in the location of abandoned toxic waste sites.

The study also found that:

1. Sixty percent of African Americans live in communities with one or more abandoned toxic waste sites.

2. Three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in predominantly African American or Latino communities and account for 40% of the nation’s total estimated landfill capacity.

3. African Americans are heavily overrepresented in the population of cities with the largest number of abandoned waste sites.

In 1998, a cursory EPA survey of tribal lands found over 180 off-reservation air pollution sources, scores of federally built schools and houses with lead paint and asbestos, and over 1,000 leaking underground storage tanks impacting the health and environment of Indian tribes. Smokestack dioxins impact the tribes of the Northeast and Great Lakes. Military dumpsites dot the landscape surrounding Alaska Native Villages. Bombing ranges continually threaten western tribes.

Until recently, there has not been empirical data documenting the various environmental threats which impact Indian communities and tribal peoples. However, Jeff Tomhave, the other co-writer of this piece, is currently shepherding a three-year research project unprecedented in its scope. The project marks the first time ever that tribes are being asked to supply information as to what they know or suspect to be hazardous waste contamination from manufacturing, municipal landfills, mining, and defense and energy activities on or near their land (see for more information on the tribal hazardous contamination study).

Nationally, only about 44 percent of African Americans own their homes compared to over two-thirds of the nation as a whole. Homeowners are the strongest advocates of the "not in my backyard" positions taken against locally unwanted land uses such as the construction of garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, sewer treatment plants, recycling centers, prisons, drug treatment units, and public housing projects. Generally, affluent white communities have greater access than communities of color when it comes to influencing land use and environmental decision making. The ability of individual families to escape a health-threatening physical environment is directly related to affluence.

For tribal communities, home ownership is a foreign concept. Tribes don’t actually own their land; the federal government does. Without land as collateral, private lending doesn’t extend to tribal communities. The idea that tribal people could mount a public campaign against an unwanted land use is next to impossible. The idea that tribal people would move, even if they could, away from the last remnant of their land is similarly improbable.

However, simple awareness of the problem is not enough. As George Tinker says, "we need to move beyond the mere naming of ecological devastations that are affecting Indian peoples and other indigenous and poor peoples today . . . . Changing individual patterns of behavior has failed us as a strategy. We need more holistic and systemic solutions" (Tinker, page 166).

Any eco-spiritual tradition that draws upon native traditions or shamanic practices should properly include justice and alliance-building as central elements of the spiritual practice. Many people have a deep love for Native cultures and a sense that the history of their treatment in the U.S. is shameful and wrong. We must move beyond guilt to practical action–to become allies with Native people as they work for justice.

One way to engage in such action is to support tribal organizations that engage in work to protect the health and environment of Indian communities. Effective Self Determination Solutions (ESDS) is one such organization. ESDS is based on the age-old knowledge that the best form of charity is to help people help themselves. ESDS deploys multi-disciplinary teams (law, science, health, finance, and media) to work with individual tribes at a time until the tribe’s specific environmental problem is solved. These individual tribes benefit because they attain the skills, experience, and resources necessary to protect their own health and environment in a culturally appropriate way that benefits tribal and non-tribal people alike.

Many native spiritual practices include the recognition that every place on Earth is sacred. Our spiritual practices–including work for environmental justice–must also be locally based.

We can begin with examining our daily lives and noticing the connections between what happens here and what happens far away. For example, the proposed permanent nuclear waste storage site at Yucca Mountain has recently been in the news; the site is near the Western Shoshone tribe, and they are concerned about its potential health impacts. All of us use electricity; some portion of it likely comes from nuclear power plants. From an ecospiritual perspective, we must actively support and promote alternatives to nuclear power, including energy conservation and renewable energy.

Finally, any healthy ecospiritual practice should include engagement with these issues in our own communities. Look around at the people who live in your community. Find out what issues are of concern to them and ask whether there is an environmental link–are there unusual rates of asthma or other illnesses? Is the problem simply that there is inadequate health care, so that it is impossible to know if disproportionate health problems exist? Are there brownfields or abandoned toxic waste sites near these communities? If so, ask yourself what you can do to be an ally to these communities as they address the problem. To do so should be as central to our ecospiritual practice as drumming or attending sweat lodges.

1. George E. Tinker, "An American Indian Theological Response to Ecojustice," Jace Weaver, ed., Defending Mother Earth: Native American Perspectives on Environmental Justice, Orbis: Maryknoll, 1996, 166-167.

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