Environmental justice is only the beginning

If the U.S. ever hopes to be in right relationship with the lands and waters it has seized, it must first restore its relationship with Indigenous peoples.

We are not in a healthy relationship with the natural world. Perhaps that much has finally become clear to the settler cultures in the West. Record-setting wildfires and a drought with little end in sight are physical warning signs of how toxic our relationship with our non-human relatives has become. These symptoms demand immediate evaluation and treatment. But in order to come up with the necessary solutions, the people and elected leaders of the West, and of the United States, and of the world, must accept a simple truth: None of this was inevitable. These conditions are the product of a series of choices rooted in the genocide, displacement and political marginalization of the land’s original peoples. 


Manifest destiny and technology-intensive modernity, amplified by the incentive of capital, have resulted in gross mismanagement and, in many cases, total destruction of forests, grasslands, rivers, lakes, wetlands, watersheds, ocean and desert biomes and countless other ecosystems — all within a few short centuries of European arrival. It is the direct result of the wars that settlers have waged against not only Indigenous people but the lands those people long inhabited. Countries like the U.S., founded on a value system that historically saw (some) humans as separate from and superior to other humans and to nature itself, now find themselves in an existential crisis. Under present conditions, it is difficult to envision a future beyond catastrophic change. The only steady truth is that our relationship with the land and the waters, like our relationships with each other, will remain completely out of balance until we move beyond platitudes and half-measures and meaningfully center the political, human and spiritual rights of Indigenous people. And this must apply not only to those who remain dead set on squeezing every penny out of these critical years, during which a different future might still be possible, but also to those who ostensibly stand with us. Until then, we will all have to watch the consequences play out in real time. 

A billboard by River Whittle was installed in Alamogordo, New Mexico, as part of @landback.art.

BECAUSE INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES have been marginalized and outnumbered by the settler culture that displaced us, killed us and degraded our homelands, some might think that the righting of these wrongs is a matter of environmental justice: a concept that teaches us that environmental degradation and toxic development disproportionately impacts marginalized populations, and that environmental racism explains these disparities. 

This kind of race-based analysis, while useful when applied correctly, compels us to think in terms of racial justice among human populations relative to environmental issues. For American Indians, however, the legal concept of environmental racism is not broad enough. To understand the ways that Indigenous communities historically have been and continue to be exposed to the environmental harms that come with centuries of colonial violence, one must first acknowledge the fact that Native nations maintain political relationships to the state. That is, they are not solely ethnic or racial minority groups; they are also sovereign nations. The relationship between the United States and Indigenous communities is defined by treaty rights and trust responsibilities, not race. 

Despite the legal principle of tribal sovereignty, which, in theory, is supposed to protect tribal lands, the U.S. continually violates the environmental integrity of those treaty territories by actively encouraging toxic developments like oil pipelines and mining operations. The nation’s legal and political systems routinely fail to protect sacred places and other cultural sites because American law refuses to recognize and cede power to the different worldviews of Indigenous spiritual traditions, which are based on entirely different sets of philosophical and value systems. 

The only steady truth is that our relationship with the land and the waters, like our relationships with each other, will remain completely out of balance until we move beyond platitudes and half-measures and meaningfully center the political, human and spiritual rights of Indigenous people. 

It is these different value systems and world-views, ultimately, that set Indigenous people apart from Eurocentric mainstream society — not race. These differences are rooted in religion. Europeans imagined and declared themselves superior to Indigenous peoples based on the fact that they were Christians and Native people were not. This religious and cultural superiority became cemented as the foundation of a legal structure that maintains a U.S. relationship of domination over Indigenous people today. 

This worldview was used to create a society that saw nature as a force to be dominated, conquered, or overcome. European and then American politicians, industrialists and farmers did not develop food systems constructed around the existing flow of nature, like the ones that Indigenous people had honed over millennia. Instead, they sought to graft Eurocentric agricultural and energy practices onto lands, waters and natural relatives drastically different from the ones they knew.  

The colonial impulse to “civilize” Indians was an extension of the impulse to “tame” the land. It was reflected in every structure and policy erected to expand the country’s control over both, from damming rivers and eradicating the buffalo, to the continued subsidization of today’s factory farm and fossil fuel industries. It only took a few hundred years of these ill-fitting Eurocentric approaches to bring us to where we find ourselves today: standing on the brink of human extinction, yet refusing to accept certain basic scientific truths of survival. The core truth is that we must learn to live within the constraints of the ecosystems we find ourselves in.    

A billboard designed by artist Votan Henriquez was installed in Edgewood, New Mexico, as part of @landback.art.


THERE IS STILL TIME, and more importantly, a way, for us to back away from the brink. But it will require the U.S. and its partner states to loosen their collective grip over the earth.

Within the academic and scientific realms, there is a growing recognition that Indigenous people all over the world hold important keys to healthy environments. Studies increasingly show that cultural diversity is intimately linked to biological diversity when traditional ecological knowledge guides land use. Protecting Indigenous peoples and their territories is necessary for shielding vulnerable ecosystems from ongoing degradation through industrial development, and it is Indigenous knowledge systems that provide protective mechanisms. The data is clear. What is cloudy is the political will of the nations that steered us onto this destructive path, and even the will of those who ostensibly share the goal of seeing a thriving planet.              

Conservation has long been the language we use to describe the need to protect the natural world, and this is generally the way that governments frame their approaches to protecting 30% of the nation’s lands and oceans by 2030, aka the 30x30 plan. There are good reasons, however, to question conventional conservation, given the ways it is often practiced. And the best way to understand these shortcomings is to trace them back to their roots. 

“It is, of course, absurd to assume that the Indians fired the forests with any idea of forest conservation in mind. … It is probably a safe prediction to state that should light-burning continue for another 50 years our existing forest areas would be further curtailed to a very considerable extent.” 

So wrote Aldo Leopold in 1920, when he was an early-career forester employed by the U.S. Forest Service. Leopold’s views — then considered cutting-edge silviculture — reflected an approach to forest management that viewed trees solely as a commodity in service to the capitalist state. Called “wise use” at the time, this policy also reflected the United States’ approach to American Indians: that Indians were ignorant savages who couldn’t possibly know anything important about managing landscapes they had been living on for thousands of years.   

A century later, the folly of Leopold’s views and the Forest Service policies they inspired have come back to haunt all of us. We know now, as Native people knew then, that the government’s decision to end Indigenous burning practices would lead to the kinds of problems we now face in the West with extreme wildfires. Water diversion, the over-drafting of aquifers and persistent drought from climate change exacerbate the danger. In a way, Leopold was right: Indian people did not manage their landscapes for the purpose of maximizing profits under the guise of “conservation.” Their traditional knowledge was the foundation that ensured healthy, sustainable ecosystems for both human and nonhuman life in relationships defined by reciprocity and responsibility. 

A century later, the folly of Leopold’s views and the Forest Service policies they inspired have come back to haunt all of us.

Institutional land conservation began in the U.S. in the 19th century at a time when the nation was engaged in brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns against Indians to make way for settlers. The creation of the national park system, often referred to as “America’s best idea,” came at the expense of Native people and became the model for conservation globally. Under what is now called “fortress conservation,” as Indigenous peoples, human rights groups and scholars have pointed out, Indigenous peoples face land dispossession and other rights violations in the name of environmental protection, perpetrated by state governments and often supported by Big Green organizations. 

Late in his life, when he wrote his famous treatise on land ethics, Leopold realized that a view of land that did not recognize the interconnection of humans with what he called biotic communities was foolish. As a white settler, however, his biggest blind spot was the country’s relationship to Native people and their relationships with the natural world. He couldn’t see that at the root of Native cultures were intelligent land-management practices that guaranteed long-term survival in healthy ecosystems.

In the U.S., we are only just beginning to have honest conversations about the country’s true “original sin,” colonialism, with its twin pillars of slavery and Indigenous genocide and land theft. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s struggle against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016 became a lightning rod for environmental activists all over the country, many of whom learned for the first time about their country’s carefully sanitized history. Then, the appointment of Laguna Pueblo citizen Deb Haaland as President Joe Biden’s secretary of the Interior provided an entirely new kind of platform for un-erasing Native issues, especially given her demonstrated commitment not to perpetuate the whitewashing of U.S. history. And now, the #landback movement is organized, funded and speaking truth to power in unprecedented ways.

Land return does not mean that everyone who is not Indigenous to what is today called the United States is expected to pack up and go back to their ancestral places on other continents. It does mean that American Indian people regain control and jurisdiction over lands they have successfully stewarded for millennia. This includes the return of public lands; 48% of all the land in the Western states is public land, taken from Native people in ways that profoundly betray the United States’ image of itself as a democratic and just nation. It also includes the numerous ways Native people can be included in governance and decision-making in land trusts, conservancies, co-management and other kinds of collective land-stewardship arrangements. 

Restoring lands to Indigenous control is not reparations or racial justice; rather, it is environmental justice in the most expansive sense of the term. It is a major step in redressing relationships that have not been right since first contact. And history shows that no one knows how to manage their ecosystems better than the Original People who have tended these landscapes intelligently since time immemorial, from the Wabanaki in Maine to the Gwich’in people of Alaska, and from the Karuk and Yurok in Northern California and the Kānaka Maoli in Hawai’i. If ensuring the sustainability of healthy ecosystems for future generations of all Americans is the goal, then Indigenous land back is a win-win for everyone. And the guarding of tribal sovereignty is central to all of it.   

A billboard created by the artist Cannupa Hanska Luger was installed in Mandan, North Dakota, as part of @landback.art.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos and an independent educator and consultant in American Indian environmental policy issues. She is the author of As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. Gilio-Whitaker currently serves on High Country News’ Board of Directors. 

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