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Cleaning Up the Environment, Starting With Reservations

“Take only what you need and use everything you take,” my dad would say as we hunted game in the woods or walked the riverbank casting a line. He explained that our way has always been to be careful custodians of the gifts bestowed by the Creator. As I grew up, I heard many elders talk about our responsibility as protectors. I never questioned the truth of these statements. Growing up, I was proud of our role as “the protectors of our Mother Earth.”

Then came the day of question. As I attended a ceremony in the high country surrounded by nature’s undisturbed beauty I cringed at the sight of abandoned cars and pickup trucks leaking oil and antifreeze onto the ground. I was rattled by the cascade of household trash that flowed into to the glittering creek below as the crystal clear creek waters swirled around deteriorating tires and car batteries. Then came the words starting the ceremony— “As Native People we are protectors of our Mother Earth”—that were so easily spoken in the midst of this contradiction.

Green Volkswagen Beetles are always there; you just don’t notice them until you look. In the same way, once I started questioning how we care for our environment, I started noticing broken glass and trash outlining our reservation roadways, random dumpsites old and new, abandoned cars, plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups and plates, and junk-strewn yards in more than a few places on our reservations.

I started to feel a sense of urgency about the issue. By the time I was an adult, all illusions about nature being a “horn of plenty” had vanished. It was absolutely clear the abuse of our resources imperil every aspect of our environment - all things living, the air we breathe and the water we drink. The echoing words of my elders prompted me to start separating recyclables out of our household trash. I have a long way to go before truly feeling like the protector I am supposed to be, but even this effort saves the equivalent of one mature Douglas fir every year (in recycled paper and cardboard), prevents plastics from polluting water sources and endangering birds or marine animals, and saves energy through efficient reuse of aluminum.

I am hardly the only Native American who has grown to realize the importance of cleaning up our environment, starting with our reservations. Many tribal communities around the country are working hard to strengthen our role as protectors of the environment.

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The Redding Rancheria Tribe and the Hoopa Valley Tribe have engaged in massive cleanups of open dumps and waterways, removing about 45 tons of trash and recycling over a ton of metal. Hoopa Valley Tribal Chairman Leonard Masten recently took the bold step of banning old mobile homes from being brought onto the reservation, not only were they an eyesore but dangerous to the environment and tribal citizens. The Pinoleville Pomo Nation took another approach to cleanup, making toolsheds and greenhouses out of abandoned buildings, converting tires into ramps and creating planters for a community farm out of abandoned plumbing fixtures.

Tribal members at the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians in California have reduced the total waste produced on their reservation by 26% through a community-recycling program that engages tribal youth and benefits youth programs. In addition to recycling paper, plastic, metal and glass, the program collects green waste for use as mulch in the Tribe’s community garden. 

Twenty Nevada tribes are working together to develop recycling programs that generate revenue. While some tribes rely on grants from the EPA for support with open dump cleanup, disposing of hazardous household waste, planning solid waste management plans, and building transfer stations, some tribes are achieving equally positive results on their own. Regardless of where the money comes from, the success of these programs depends on each individual to live up to the lessons of our elders by not littering or dumping illegally, cleaning up where we can, and by participating in whatever recycling programs are available.

If we talk the talk then we must put those words to action. Taking action means ensuring our young people see the meaning attached to our words. As individuals, we can encourage reservation businesses and offices to provide separate containers for recyclables and to recycle their waste; encourage our leaders to apply for funds to get rid of abandoned cars and other trash; organize cleanup events; encourage our children and youth groups to participate in the greening of schools, playgrounds, and other community areas; discourage littering and promote recycling.

Drug cartels and others with ill-intention see our litter and trash as a sign we don’t care, a sign that we are open for their business. To others it just says our words are empty.

Walter Lamar, Blackfeet/Wichita, is a former FBI special agent, deputy director of BIA law enforcement and is currently president of Lamar Associates. Lamar Associates' Indian Country Training Division offers culturally appropriate training for Indian country law enforcement and service professionals with both on-site and online courses.