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Special Report: Pollution, Poverty, People of Color
Communities across the US face environmental injustices
Head in any direction on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and you will reach gushing rivers, placid ponds and lakes – both Great and small.
An abundant resource, this water has nourished a small Native American community for hundreds of years. So 10 years ago, when an international mining company arrived near the shores of Lake Superior to burrow a mile under the Earth and pull metals out of ore, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community of the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa had to stand for its rights and its water.
And now, as bulldozers raze the land and the tunnel creeps deeper, the tribe still hasn’t backed down.
“The indigenous view on water is that it is a sacred and spiritual entity,” said Jessica Koski, mining technical assistant for the Keweenaw Bay community. “Water gives us and everything on Earth life.”
The Keweenaw Bay Indians are fighting for their clean water, sacred sites and traditional way of life as Kennecott Eagle Minerals inches towards copper and nickel extraction, scheduled to begin in 2014.
Tribal leaders worry the mine will pollute ground water, the Salmon Trout River and Lake Superior, and strip the spiritual ambiance from their historical sites. Meandering through the Huron Mountains before spilling into Lake Superior, the river is home to endangered coaster trout as well as other fish that the tribe depends on for food.
The Keweenaw Bay community’s L’Anse Reservation, home to 1,030 people, is both the oldest and the largest reservation in Michigan and sits about 30 miles west of the river. The struggle of this small community in remote, sleepy northernmost Michigan mirrors that of its native ancestors.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, there are 565 recognized Native American tribes. About 5.2 million people identified themselves as Native American or Alaska Native in the 2010 U.S. Census. But that sliver of the country’s population – 1.7 percent - historically has faced an unfair burden of environmental justice issues.
Since early European immigration there have been palpable culture clashes with Native Americans – with the indigenous people often on the losing end. Infectious diseases, forced assimilation and land grabs marred early relations.
But as the nation grew larger, the environmental justice issues did, too. Native American reservations have been targeted as places to dump industrial waste, and to mine both uranium and coal, leading to polluted rivers, lakes and tribal lands across the country. Some tribes have turned to waste storage or mining as revenue generators.
Native Americans continue to battle poverty, joblessness and low incomes. About 28.4 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives – nearly twice the national rate – lived in poverty in 2010. Their unemployment hovers around 49 percent, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ most recent labor force report in 2005.
Low income and environmental threats often go hand-in-hand, said Kyle Whyte, an assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan State University who studies Native American environmental justice issues.
Native Americans are even more vulnerable than other disadvantaged groups because of their reliance on natural resources for survival, he said. The top environmental justice issues still plaguing their communities are lack of healthy foods and water, and protection of sacred sites – all at play in northern Michigan.