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Native American Heritage Month: The decades-long struggle for environmental justice

Today’s environmental news is filled with talk of climate change, deforestation, and pollution, as we witness reports of unseasonable weather and higher rates of unnatural disasters. Yet, there is another environmental concern that many witness as part of daily life that is not commonly discussed: environmental injustice. Environmental injustice is defined by The Environmental Justice Movement as “the disproportionate exposure to environmental harms in low-income and/or minority communities.”  Environmental injustice is a pandemic that spans from large organizations to small communities near and far. 

In fact, the term environmental justice was coined in 1982 in Warren County, NC—about 90 miles from Duke University— by African American citizens protesting the unfair and discriminatory treatment they experienced as a result of dumped waste from local hog farms. Decades later, these issues have only expanded with the growth of the hog industry. In the past 30 years, North Carolina, the home of 2,217 hog farms and an estimated 9 million pigs, has become the second largest pork producer in the nation. And as 10 percent of North Carolina’s population lives within a half mile radius of a hog farm—the majority of them African American, Hispanic, or Native American—the need for an environmental justice movement stands timelier than ever. 

But as we begin this November, many are unfortunately unaware, amidst the continued environmental injustice experienced by these communities, that it is Native American heritage month.  Many Native American groups in this very state suffer the consequences of environmental injustice. The Cherokee tribe, for one, has faced longstanding conflict with Duke Energy. In September 2009 Duke Energy insisted on building a substation near a sacred site of the Cherokees, who have resided in the area for generations. Being the largest publicly owned gas and electric utility business in the United States, Duke Energy has been able to build pipelines and substations as they please, despite the detriment to minority communities. 

As has been the case throughout the nation, Native Americans in North Carolina have been uprooted from their own land as part of their history. The land of the Native Americans, particularly the North Carolinian Appalachians, has historically been taken away from them, as if their ancestors, customs, and values were not tied to that very soil. 

This continued degradation of their identity has left them vulnerable to the exploitations of entities with greater material power. According to Ericka Faircloth, the Water & Energy Justice Organizer for the Clean Water For North Carolina campaign, “any polluting project that is placed in a community of color without proper engagement of the community is an environmental justice issue.” In the case of the Atlantic Coast pipeline, community members of Robeson county were never informed that the pipeline would end in their neighborhood.

Thus, Duke Energy’s on-going construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is yet another strike upon the Native American communities of North Carolina. The company touts the purpose of the pipeline that will stretch through communities from Virginia to North Carolina as a means to transport gas to generate electricity for homes and local businesses. This, however, does not account for the Native Americans spread out in about 50 North Carolina counties.  

Ericka Faircloth, who is very involved in indigenous rights and facilitating collaboration between minority communities, explained that lower income and minority groups are often exploited by large companies. “Take for instance an area like Robeson County, many folks are low income. It and neighboring Scotland County are two of the poorest counties in the state, and also some of the poorest in the nation.The land in these low income areas is cheap, therefore it attracts big companies…[which are]  attracted to areas with populations of people who do not have the resources to fight back.” 

Originally the pipeline was meant to run through Southern pines and Cary, areas where people would have greater financial resources to resist the detrimental impacts of the Atlantic Pipeline. Now the pipeline is slated to run through counties—some of which are 90 percent Native American in population—including Hoke, Scotland, Robeson, and Columbus. These counties house Lumbee River, an important river for the Lumbee tribe that is already experiencing drastically low lake levels due to climate changes. Thus, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will only aggravate the situation more by creating soil erosion and making the lake more vulnerable to pollution. Inasmuch, this is both an environmental and humanitarian challenge.

Unfortunately, the Atlantic Pipeline is only one example of the myriad of environmental health threats imposed upon the Native American communities in this state in recent years. As recently as 2014, there were plans for fracking to take place on the sovereign lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokees. 

Not only would the carcinogenic fracking chemicals pollute the soil, underground water, and air, but also negatively affect the respiratory, gastrointestinal, nervous, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems of the people residing in these areas. Evidently, large companies have been able to rob the Native American communities of not only their land, identity, and rights, but their health as well. 

So, if we want to truly honor Native American heritage this month and at all times, we cannot continue to condone the environmental injustices inflicted upon these communities. As Duke students, we have the privilege of access to a healthy environment: clean water, fresh air, green spaces, hikable forests. We must recognize that this is, indeed, a privilege, especially as environmental degradation of corporations like Duke Energy persists. Here at Duke, there are a variety of environmental organizations providing us with opportunities to actively promote environmental justice. Joining Duke’s UCapture program to offset carbon emissions or volunteering at Duke Campus Farms to get in touch with local food systems are two of many examples.

The biggest step you can take involves learning more about the issues that matter to you and taking action according to what communities need. As Erica Faircloth advises “If you choose to get involved, talk with the people in these communities, LISTEN to them, hear their concerns….ask what needs to be done, how you can be helpful.” 

The first step towards change is understanding, and spreading awareness. Justice can only be brought about after clearly identifying injustice. 

Kendall Jefferys and Autumn Burton are members of the Green Devils Environmental Justice Team.

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