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Tribal Access to a Healthy and Clean Environment

Native American tribes have often implemented stricter restrictions on Environmental Protection Agency laws to keep air and water clean.

During the 1960s many environmental activists and scholars became aware that a disproportionate amount of waste, poor water and bad air were found in minority and poor communities. A movement arose not merely to equitably divide the distribution of waste, poor water, and bad air, but rather to ensure that every community had access to a healthy and clean environment.

In the early 1970s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created by the Nixon administration and implemented the president’s plan of New Federalism, which stressed cooperation among federal and state agencies, and more access to local communities for voice and participation in planning and decision making. The EPA adopted a plan to implement national policy for improving and maintaining healthy and clean environments to all American communities.

For most issues of environment implementation the EPA worked through cooperative agreements with state governments. Since the environmental movement was aware of and influenced by traditional Native American concepts, the EPA was willing to address the environmental issues confronting Indian country lands.

The Self-Determination policy also arose during the 1970s and tribal governments were starting to manage government grants and contracts. The EPA decided that tribal governments could regulate environmental programs and create environmental codes. At times, state governments wanted their own environmental standards to prevail in Indian country, but the EPA supported tribal governments. The EPA wanted the tribal governments to have the opportunity to manage their reservation environments in ways and with standards that were informed by tribal cultural traditions.

With legal, bureaucratic, and legislative support of the EPA, tribal governments won a series of significant cases and challenges. In the 1980s, the EPA introduced the view that tribal governments could be treated as having powers similar to state-governments for purposes of environmental programming, legal codification, and setting environmental standards.

The Northern Cheyenne won the right to designate the air around their Montana reservation as Class I air, the most stringent level of clean air under the Clean Air Act. The Northern Cheyenne wanted nearby, non-Indian and Indian, coal-gasification projects to maintain the highest clean air standards. The Cheyenne were able to argue that contaminated air from burning of coal significantly affected the health and welfare of the reservation community.

Other communities have implemented the Clean Water Act, such as the Pueblo of Isleta to ensure higher than state government standards for clean water on the Rio Grande. The pueblo used the water for ceremonies and the health of the river was central to their ceremonial cycle. The EPA and tribal governments cooperated to win significant health and welfare protections for tribal communities.

Without the support of the EPA, no tribal communities have court won cases where they had to show that actions by local non-Indians threatened the well-being of tribal life and government to the extent of justifying tribal government regulation over non-Indian and non-reservation groups.

The example of the EPA illustrates how different federal programs are administered in many other fields. Tribal communities are not only greatly concerned with environment, but also address health, justice, policing, government, education, spirituality and other community actions. Cooperative federalism requires government agencies to take stronger positions for the protection and implementation of tribal aspirations in education, justice, government, language, culture, health and human welfare.

Strong commitments are needed from federal agencies to understand and support tribal sovereignty through their programs, regulations, legal actions, and recognition of Indian self-government capabilities, such as “state-like” powers. Tribal communities need federal partners, otherwise tribal communities are left to address most of their challenges with few resources and few allies, and often do not succeed.

The EPA worked toward its own national goals, but saw that partnerships with and recognition of tribal self-government powers complemented and implemented plans for cleaner and healthier national and tribal environments.