Native American People, Environmental Health and Justice Issues

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Native Americans face a number of environmental hazards and health issues that have been imposed upon Native lands from the outside. In her examination of cancer among Native peoples in the US, Weaver (2010) noted that in general Native Americas have the poorest health among all US population groups. The poor health of Native Americans should not simply be seen as a consequence of life choices made by Native people (e.g., smoking, alcohol and drug use), but as the result of the structural conditions that impact life on reservations. This includes the many negative environmental conditions that have been produced on Native American reservations through mining of uranium, coal, and pollution of Native lands by other industrial processes such as those that have contaminated Native lands with PCBs.

Considered in this broader context, Brooks has argued that pollution of Native American lands amounts to a new form of genocide. As she notes, “In the past, buffalo were slaughtered or corn crops were burned . . . threatening local native populations; now the government and large corporations . . . create toxic, lethal threats to human health . . . this type of genocide . . . is the consequence of activities . . . carried out on and near the reservations with reckless disregard for the lives of Native Americans.”

Historically, Native Americans were granted land rights through treaties. Those lands were, at the time the reservation treaties were construction, considered less valuable lands. Over time it was discovered that the lands given to Native American contained important minerals, and numerous efforts to reclaim those lands and allows corporations access to those lands were undertaken (Lynch and Stretesky, 2012). In addition, under these new “agreements” Native lands became part of the toxic waste storage mechanism, and as Robert Bullard et al (2007) noted, “the new dumping grounds” for toxic wastes, and were treated as nuclear landfills, and used for commercial toxic waste and garbage incineration. Use of Native lands in this way, a prevalent problems during the 1980s and 1990s, was a results of the relative powerlessness of Native Americans and the ability of the government and corporations to use their power to and the lack of Native American power to turn Native lands into resource and waste bins.

Numerous studies indicate the extent of the environmentally related problems Native American people face. Examples of this link between externally imposed environmental conditions and Native peoples health include the following. Orr et al.’s (2002) study of birth defects for populations living in close proximity to hazardous waste sites in California found that the largest impacts were experienced by Native Americans. Malcoe et al (2002) found that soil and lead dust pollution from mining waste poses a more significant health concern for Native Americans tan other groups (Malcoe et al. 2002). Anderton (1997) found that Native Americans were more likely to live in close proximity to Superfund sites (i.e., toxic waste sites that pose a significant risk to human health and are designated to receive federal cleanup funds). Bullard et al. (2007) found that Native American were 1.8 times more likely to reside near a commercial toxic waste facility. Gowda and Easterling (2000) discovered that environmental injustice that Native lands were targeted for nuclear waste disposal sites.

Further Reading
For further examples of specific issues faced by Native American communities, see these related entries in this dictionary:

Environmental Pollution in the Akwesasne Nation

The Church Rock Nuclear Spill

Native People and Uranium Mining in the Four Corners Region

Native Americans and Uranium Mining in the Upper West

Native Americans and the Valdez Oil Spill.


Anderton, Douglas. 1997. Environmental Equity in Superfund: Demographics of the Discovery and Prioritization of Abandoned Toxic Sites. Evaluation Review 21: 3–26.

Brooks, Daniel. 1998. Environmental Genocide: Native Americans and Toxic Waste. The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 57: 105–13.

Bullard, Robert, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. Grassroots Struggles to Dismantle Environmental Racism in the United States. [accessed February 7, 2014].

Gowda, Rajeev, and Doug Easterling. 2000. Voluntary Siting and Equity: The MRS Facility Experience in Native America. Risk Analysis 20: 917–30.

Lynch, Michael J., and Paul B. Stretesky. 2012. Native Americans, Social and Environmental justice: Implications for Criminology. Social Justice 38, 3: 34-54.

Malcoe, L., R. Lynch, M. Keger, and V. Skaggs. 2002. Lead Sources, Behaviors, and Socioeconomic Factors in Relation to Blood Lead of Native American and White Children. Environmental Health Perspectives 110: s2: 221–31.

Orr, Maureen, Frank Bove, Wendy Kaye, and Melanie Stone. 2002. Elevated Birth Defects in Racial or Ethnic Minority Children of Women Living near Hazardous Waste Sites. International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 205: 19–27.

Weaver, Hilary. 2010. Native Americans and Cancer Risks: Moving toward Multifaceted Solutions. Social Work in Public Health 25: 272–85

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