Environmental justice issues facing Native American communities often are markedly different from those confronting other low-income, minority populations, due to three primary factors: the tribes' unique status as sovereign entities; resulting government-to-government consultation requirements, and federal trust responsibilities to tribes. The Native American Task Force (Task Force) was established to facilitate a collaborative approach among federal agencies in addressing some of the more intractable problems faced by Native American communities. This voluntary group, part of the federal Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (IWG), is made up of Native Americans and federal agencies that have major tribal programs and responsibilities.
The tribes' unique position requires that agency attorneys, program managers, and field personnel be more than simply empathetic to the plight of tribes; they must involve grassroots Native American communities in developing complex environmental solutions to remove or mitigate long-standing injustices and disparities in health, economic conditions, and cultural degradations on tribal lands.
Until recently, Native American communities had no clear consensus about how environmental justice could work on tribal land. To further this understanding, in 2000 the Task Force sponsored a Roundtable on Environmental Justice in Indian Country attended by representatives from tribes, federal agencies, academia, and the private sector. The goal was to explore the relevance and increase the understanding of environmental justice in Indian Country.
The report identified a great need for programs to educate federal government managers about their individual and agency responsibilities to tribes under treaty and statutory law, agency regulations, and executive order. Similarly, tribes also require training on available federal resources and the limits and responsibilities associated with federal tribal programs and grants. One of the report's most important concerns identified the perceived need for a "one-stop shopping" federal contact instead of putting together pieces from many government sources. Roundtable participants also suggested defining environmental justice on a case-by-case or tribe-by-tribe basis in order to preserve the unique cultural identity of each tribe and to facilitate governmental and tribal consultation in the context of federal trust responsibilities.
Some of the recommendations from the report suggest bringing together federal agencies and tribes in a variety of partnerships to promote quality of life issues in Indian Country. These were realized in the adoption of the following IWG revitalization projects:
- Producing clean energy from wind power through facilities owned and operated by Native American communities in the Plains states, prioritizing the protection of cultural practices, historical significance, and sacred places;
- Asking federal agencies, in partnership with tribal government, to undertake a voluntary cleanup of pollution on a reservation in southern Alaska caused by federal government and private industry activities during the last century;
- Developing a database (projected for a national program) by the federal government in consultation with tribes in Louisiana, Colorado, and New Mexico to identify important religious and cultural tribal sites to help government agencies avoid conflicts;
- Implementing a training initiative sponsored by a number of federal agencies in partnership with Native Americans and academic institutions aimed at multiple stakeholders in Native American communities to provide them with the tools they need to solve some of their environmental health problems; and
- Creating a Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Park and increasing tribal capacity for managing tribal lands and supporting self-determination, through partnership with the National Wildlife Federation, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Success of this collaborative approach will depend in large measure on the leadership of federal agencies and tribal offices who renewed tribal/federal partnerships first established in treaties over a century and a half ago.
The Task Force results are a valuable resource for all lawyers who may be confronted with matters involving significant negative impact on tribes or other low-income or minority communities. Additional information is available at www.epa.gov/compliance/resources/publications/ej/actionagenda.pdf and http://pico.library.musc.edu/np/nativeroundtable.html.
As published in Human Rights, Fall 2003, Vol. 30, No. 4, p.17.