Native Americans face environmental threats, experts say
Published: Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
Two Native American community members spoke to an audience of SMU students and faculty Monday night in McCord Auditorium. Environmental and cultural issues were the primary topics of discussion as the speakers stressed the need for contemporary people to help protect Native American habitats.
Calvin Grinnell, a historian for the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation, began his speech by sharing some of his tribe’s meaningful rituals.
The mood quickly changed, however, when Grinnell introduced the 1910 Homestead Act—just one of the problems that his people have faced over time. The act opened the Northeast to white homesteaders and vastly impacted the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation making them the minority on their own reservation.
Although it was a struggle to adapt to this abrupt change, Grinnell maintained a positive attitude when he proudly declared that for the first half of the 20th century his people were a self sufficient and prosperous tribe.
While he mentioned various environmental issues such as truck traffic, oil and chemical spills, Grinnell focused his discussion on the changes that are taking place in order to preserve the land and his tribe’s culture.
Grinnell also mentioned various groups that are taking action, including various oil companies who are forming focus groups and providing training in order to prevent oil spills. People are also working to protect water resources from being polluted.
The issues that Grinnell presented and the actions that he discussed to prevent future problems and preserve the environment impacted students in the audience and captured their attention.
“It’s clear that we need to make a conscience effort to be more careful because our actions not only affect us, but they can also jeopardize the way of life for many people around the world,” freshman Sammie Oliva said.
Kerry Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, spoke after Grinnel. She shared a less hopeful approach about the struggles she has experienced as a member of the Navajo Nation.
Thompson discussed uranium mining, which first began on the Navajo reservation after World War II, as the primary environmental issue Navajos face.
The mines have polluted their water, air and soil, and miners have become sick from radiation exposure. Although there have been several attempts, Thompson said her people have struggled to ban the uranium mines from their land. No effective progress has been made and the Navajo continue to live with contaminated water.
“It was interesting to listen to these tribal member’s perspectives because I feel like we take a lot for granted. They continue to face problems due to environmental issues and I think it’s important that everyone makes an effort to try and help,” sophomore Cameron Stratton said.
Thompson stated that the Navajo people continue to live in substandard conditions with no access to water or electricity. She resentfully explained that they have had to release their lands to exploitative industries while simultaneously trying to preserve their culture and religious autonomy.
“At every level, our environmental issues are also our cultural issues. The two cannot be separated. We’re often required to compromise our beliefs and values for much of the things our country takes for granted,” Thompson said.