Between May and September 2015, National Public Radio carried three stories about environmental problems in the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation covers 27,000 square miles (larger than 10 U.S. states) but only houses 250,000 residents. Many of those residents are descended from peoples who lived on the land at least as early 1400 A.D. Historically the Navajos were mobile, as were many native peoples, in part because the inhospitable climate required constant movement to find seasonal water and food. U.S. government policies in the 19th and 20th centuries confined the Navajo to reservations, at which point most adopted a sedentary life style focused primarily on herding and ranching.
However a sedentary lifestyle in a desert can be a risky proposition. Recently it has been made much harder by two environmental crises – climate change and a pollution spill. Growing drought and increasing temperatures are both pushing the land past its ability to sustain life. The vast majority of the problem is caused by problems beyond Navajo control – 250,000 people (including a large percentage below the poverty line) do not use enough water or energy to promote climate change. However, their limited economic choices mean most continue to herd cattle and sheep, even though overgrazing is causing serious erosion and great sand dunes.
A recent accident at a former mine in Colorado is making the situation worse. Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally spilled three million gallons of toxic waste in to a river that Navajo farmers and herders use to water their crops and herds. Some farmers now have to travel up to 70 miles each way to get clean water.
In our environmental history class, we have read about Native American environmental traditions in many geographic areas and cultures. Native cultures varied quite a lot from each other. But most Native Americans worked and shaped the land in ways that respected ecological relationships and environmental interdependence. Extensive trade networks did exist among Native Americans before European colonial arrival. However, cultural prohibitions against accumulation and spiritual values that placed humans in a broader relationship with nature kept natural exploitation within generally sustainable limits. European-imported diseases, seizure of Native lands, and cultural disruption would encourage many Native Americans to increase their pursuit of trade goods and more disruptive environmental practices. But the Native ideal of working with nature – and seeing it as a spiritual force – did not completely disappear. When asked for his response to the toxic waste spill, one Navajo told a reporter, “These folks here are hurt,” he said. “They’re connected to the land. They’re connected to the water. We can’t be compensated for that. We can’t be compensated for all the prayers that was given to that water of life.”
One Navajo man is taking Navajo environmental problems into his own hands. Because the Navajo nation has few people, dirt roads and limited government funding, trash pickup is limited in many areas. Littering and dumping are major problems. Mr. Tyler Tawahongva is cleaning up dump site sites and collecting recyclables to keep the environment cleaner. He too draws on Navajo (and Hopi – another area tribe) traditions to explain his work. “Traditionally, we have been recyclers. We used everything, you know, from our hunting, whatever we gathered – everything was used. So that was a form of recycling.”
In these stories we can see how history and current events are linked. Past events and historical traditions shape where Native Americans live, the limited economic and environmental options they can exercise, and the shape of their reactions to current events.
For more information, see:
Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, 3rd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013): chapters 1 and 2.
Navajo Nation Government, Official site http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/history.htm
Navajo Nation Witnesses Changing Landscape: Growing Sand Dunes http://www.npr.org/2015/05/28/410204964/navajo-nation-witnesses-changing-landscape-growing-sand-dunes
Native American Goes Back to His Roots to Solve Garbage Problem on Reservation: http://www.npr.org/2015/09/03/437291764/native-american-goes-back-to-his-roots-to-solve-garbage-problem-on-reservations
Navajo Farmers Feel the Weight of Colorado Mine Spill http://www.npr.org/2015/08/17/432600254/navajo-nation-farmers-feel-the-weight-of-colorado-mine-spill