For many decades after they were forced onto reservations in the late 1800s, Native American tribes had virtually no control over their land and environment.
today, 15 of the more than 500 tribes in the United States run
their own air-quality programs under the federal Clean Air Act.
Twenty tribes run water-quality programs approved by the
Environmental Protection Agency, under the Clean Water Act. And
more tribes are in the process of establishing their own
Congress created the environmental
laws in the early 1970s, to establish national air and water
quality standards and regulate pollutants. Both laws at first
ignored the tribes, and empowered only the federal government and
But Congress has amended the laws, allowing
tribes to apply for similar status as state governments —
what’s known as TAS, which stands for Treatment As State. To
win this status, a tribe must clear a series of hurdles and be
judged “reasonably” capable of consistently
administering an environmental program. Then a tribe can monitor
and enforce its own air and water standards, issue permits and
wield subpoena and investigative powers over any potential polluter
on the reservation.
Establishing a tribal program takes
money, expertise and years of work, typically with assistance from
the EPA. Only four other tribes have successfully classified
themselves as “Class I airsheds” — which puts
them on par with national parks and wilderness areas — since
the Northern Cheyenne reached that milestone in 1977: the
Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the Flathead Reservation
in northwest Montana; the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes on the Fort
Peck Reservation in northeast Montana; the Yavapai-Apache on the
Camp Verde Reservation, Arizona; and the Spokane Reservation in
Other tribes with top air and water programs
include the Gila River Tribe in Arizona, the Navajo, the Yakama in
Washington, and the Isleta Pueblo near Albuquerque (HCN, 2/2/98: A
tiny tribe wins big on clean water).