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The Modern Environmental Movement’s Clashes with Indian Country

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

California’s Death Valley. The Timbisha Shoshone were dispossessed of their lands with the creation of Death Valley National Monument in 1933.
California’s Death Valley. The Timbisha Shoshone were dispossessed of their lands with the creation of Death Valley National Monument in 1933.

All environmental justice eyes are on the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. As we watch, we must remember to center the world’s Indigenous nations in conversations on damage control in the face of our climate crisis. Because the environmental movement showed its true settler-colonialist colors toward First Nations activists in the past. As Dina Gilio-Whitaker wrote in As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock, it wasn’t pretty.


The Red Power movement was just one aspect of the social revolution that swept across the American social landscape in the 1960s and ’70s, paralleling other ethnic nationalisms, women’s liberation, the antiwar movement, and the emergence of a new, rebellious, and predominantly white middle-class counterculture. Disenchanted with the conservative values of their parents’ generation and witnessing the increasing degradation of the environment, countercultural youth looked to other cultures for answers to existential questions they perceived as unavailable in mainstream American society. In American Indians they, like Thoreau and Muir before them, saw a relationship to nature that should be emulated, inspiring a back-to-the-land movement and an aesthetic that unequivocally evoked the Indian—long hair, headbands, moccasins, beads and feathers, leather and fringe, turquoise and silver.

In 1971, just a few months after the first Earth Day signaled the beginning of a modern environmental movement, Indians unwittingly became the symbol of the new movement with the famous “Crying Indian” antilittering commercial released by Keep America Beautiful, Inc. The image of a buckskin-clad Indian, with a single tear rolling down his face as a factory spews toxic smoke in the background and trash thrown from a car lands on his beaded moccasins, seared itself into America’s collective consciousness. Never mind that the Indian, Iron Eyes Cody, was no Indian at all, but a 100 percent Sicilian American actor named Espera Oscar de Corti who had built an entire career—and personal life—on Indian impersonation. The Crying Indian represented what anthropologist Shepard Krech III called the “ecological Indian,” a revamped version of the noble savage who became the stand-in for an environmental ethic the US should aspire to. In a strangely visceral way, the deception of Iron Eyes Cody mirrored the falseness of the ecological Indian stereotype, because like de Corti’s fake, hyper-Indian image, the new stereotype set an impossibly high standard to which white environmentalists would hold Native people for the next several decades. It came at a time when tribal governments had finally regained enough power to exercise self-determination in nation-building projects that often involved exploiting the only things they had—natural resources—setting the stage for future conflict and discord.

The relationship between the counterculture and Indian country was complicated from the beginning. Desiring a deeper connection with the Earth and a more meaningful form of spirituality, hippies made pilgrimages to reservations searching for the mystical Indian wisdom they had read about in books like John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks and Carlos Castaneda’s wildly successful but fraudulent series about the Yaqui shaman Don Juan Matus. Other ethnic frauds infested the literary counterculture over the next few decades, exploiting the gullibility of the spiritually starved and building a lucrative New Age industry in the process. The problem was not so much that hippies looked to Indian country for answers. It was that as settlers they unconsciously brought with them worldviews and behavior patterns that were inconsistent with Indigenous paradigms and tried to fit Indigenous worldviews and practices into their own cognitive frameworks. Predominant among their settler culture frameworks are the pursuit of universal truth and personal edification, both particularly Christian ideas in the context of the US. If truth is universal, the logic goes, then the truths perceived in Native cultures must be applicable to all people everywhere, and in the United States everyone has the right to practice whatever religion they choose. Non-Natives couldn’t comprehend that Native spiritual principles evolved over eons based on ancient relationships to place and was reflected in language and specific histories, and that the function of Indigenous ceremonies was primarily for the perpetuation of particular communities, not personal enlightenment. An orientation based on rugged individualism combined with a deeply ingrained sense of entitlement (Manifest Destiny in its modern form) translated into the toxic mimicry that today we call cultural appropriation, which takes a multitude of forms. At its core, cultural appropriation is always an invocation of “authentic” Indians and Indian culture as constructed by settlers, however falsely. The fetishized authentic Indian is the representational production of the culturally and biologically “pure” Indian, and the ecological Indian trope was just the counterculture and environmental movement’s version of it.

The Indian-inspired back-to-the-land sensibility cultivated by the counterculture emerged as another iteration of the environmental movement, but it was expressed in distinctly spiritual terms drawn from Native peoples, as the literary examples of Carlos Castaneda and many others demonstrate, however problematically. Sometimes referred to as “second-wave environmentalism,” countercultural hippies, despite their blatant appropriations, did at times work constructively with Indian country. As historian Sherry L. Smith documents, the Pacific Northwest Fish Wars, the cultural revolution in California, the Wounded Knee occupation, and other places and events saw productive partnerships between hippies and Native people who were working for Indian rights alongside calls for other social justice reforms. Indians sometimes even exploited non-Natives’ misplaced beliefs about Native cultural authenticity, but overall “most leftists did not understand that their adulation and reverence carried this darker undercurrent [of colonialism and racism].” Historian Paul Rosier contends that the mainstream environmental movement developed in tandem with an American Indian environmentalism during the 1960s and ’70s, sometimes intersecting in interesting ways (the Fish Wars is a good example, and literary examples include Ken Kesey’s blockbuster One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Edward Abbey’s 1975 cult classic The Monkey Wrench Gang). “An important element of this story,” Rosier writes, “is thus the conversation and collaboration among Indians and non-Indians on environmental problems in their efforts to find common ground; the process was an exchange of ideas and political support rather than a one-way act of appropriation or cultural imperialism.” But as the years progressed, the cultural appropriation and imperialism intensified with the rise of the New Age movement, and the conversations and collaborations weren’t always smooth, or even present at all, when they should have been.

With the 1975 shift in federal policy to tribal self-determination and as tribal governments sought economic development, land use projects, land return, and cultural revitalization, clashes between tribes and white environmental groups were on the rise by the early 1980s, exposing the groups’ historic roots in (white) settler privilege and racism. In 1983, for instance, the Nature Conservancy purchased four hundred acres of land on the White Earth Reservation and donated it back to the state of Minnesota, not the tribe. In 1985 the Sierra Club sued to prevent Tlingit and Haida in Alaska from logging on Admiralty Island, after the US had returned twenty-three thousand acres as part of a land claims settlement. In 1992 the Sierra Club refused to support the White Earth Land Recovery Project’s effort to have returned the northern half of the Tamarac Wildlife Refuge to the White Earth Band on the grounds that the club would not have a say in refuge management. In 1999, after years of legal, cultural, and spiritual groundwork, the Makah tribe in Washington State successfully hunted and killed their first gray whale in more than seventy years from a traditional cedar canoe. The reprisals were swift and furious, coming from a variety of antiwhaling and animal rights groups, the most vocal from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Paul Watson, a founding member of Greenpeace. The Makah received death threats, hate mail, public harassment, and the inevitable challenges to the authenticity of the tribe’s culture.

Conservationist mythologies of Native people living in untouched pristine nature have dogged them even into recent years. The Timbisha Shoshone in California’s Death Valley were dispossessed of their lands with the creation of Death Valley National Monument in 1933, ending the tribe’s ancient land management when their homeland came under the management of the National Park Service. In 1983 the tribe gained federal recognition, but because federal recognition did not come with the return of land, it would take many more years of legal battles to finally reacquire 7,754 acres within the park, under the Timbisha Homeland Act. Decades of landscape neglect resulted in the deterioration of the honey mesquite and single-leaf piñon groves—both important food sources—and in 2000 the Timbisha requested comanagement with the Park Service to resume their traditional management practices, but they faced bitter opposition from numerous environmental groups and individuals, including the local Sierra Club chapter. In the public commenting process of a legislative environmental impact assessment, a dominant theme running through the comments was objection to tribal management. Public opposition was based on the tired, old belief of a pristine wilderness, as though the valley had been uninhabited and unmanaged for millennia. Eventually the conflict was resolved, and today the Timbisha Shoshone are engaged with the Park Service in experimental projects to rehabilitate the natural habitat with traditional techniques.

Opposition to gaming has also been a platform upon which environmentalists have battled with tribes. I began my career as a journalist with one particularly ugly episode in 2003 in the Northern California community of Sonoma County. I chronicled an explosive controversy over plans of the Federated Indians of the Graton Rancheria (FIGR) to build a casino and hotel resort within its traditional territory of Rohnert Park, a town that was part of the county’s growing urban sprawl and where I happened to live. Sonoma County and neighboring Napa Valley are better known as California’s wine country, and tribal gaming had long been perceived as a corrupting influence in an otherwise politically liberal and expanding economic climate. Prior tribal gaming ventures had faced bitter opposition and vitriolic fights. Initial promises not to pursue a gaming operation were made by tribal leaders under pressure from congressional members as a condition of the tribe’s federal recognition bill, which had passed only three years earlier. But when the recognition bill passed without an antigaming clause, the tribal council changed its mind; well-funded gaming industry backers had courted them based on what was sure to be a lucrative location. Terminated in the 1950s and with widespread poverty in its community, the tribe had regained its recognition but had no land base. The project would first require the acquisition of land that would then be taken into federal trust, making it a reservation. Once the site was chosen and the purchase initiated, the organized casino opposition kicked into high gear, becoming a spectacle of modern bipartisan anti-Indianism and invoking the ghosts of California’s not-so-distant genocidal past. Like the Makah, the tribe faced death threats and public hate speech, inaccurate and unfair media representation, and vicious racist attacks. And it went on for years.

Lawsuits failed to stop the project. The conflict raised issues of the tribe’s sovereignty, its right to economic development, and the historical injustices it had faced on one hand, and on the other, an ideologically driven disapproval of gaming by a surprisingly large and diverse segment of the local population. The result was a toxic brew of highly public and far-reaching anti-Indian rhetoric. After a 360-acre parcel of farmland had been purchased and the land taken into trust in 2010, the opposition group Stop the Casino 101 Coalition tried numerous tactics to block construction, including appeals to environmental harm. The Center for Biological Diversity was brought in and determined that the habitat of the endangered tiger salamander would be affected. Adding fuel to an already raging political conflagration, public debates then centered on the need to balance economic development (not tribal sovereignty) with environmental protection. Efforts to stop the project based on the endangered salamander ultimately failed, however, and the casino opened in 2013. The highly divisive public battle led all the way to the US Supreme Court, with the court declining to hear the case in 2015. In the end, challenges based on salamander habitat resulted in the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a 47,383-acre salamander protection zone, an exemption of 252 acres of FIGR’s property from the zone, and the tribe setting aside 180 acres and $24 million for environmental mitigation projects.

Legal strategies aimed at protecting the salamander may have failed to stop the project, but it raised troubling and provocative questions about what it means for non-Indians to use environmental issues as a political wedge against tribes’ right to exercise sovereignty, especially if seen through a lens that recognizes settler colonialism as an ongoing process of environmental injustice. If settler colonialism is a structure that disrupts Indigenous peoples’ relationships to their environments (as clearly happened to FIGR) and the exercise of sovereignty is at least a partial effort to reverse that structure, then opposition to it would be read as favoring a system that continues to commit environmental injustice against Indigenous peoples. It also highlights why environmental injustice is an issue that for Indigenous peoples goes beyond environmental racism. To what degree is environmentalism deployed as just another weapon of colonial domination in unpopular tribal economic development projects? Connecting the issue more broadly to ethical land use in energy projects, how can environmental awareness and protection be balanced with histories of injustice and respect for tribal sovereignty? If environmentalists (and the broader public) were more knowledgeable about tribal histories, sovereignty, and colonialism, could they transcend narratives that reduce debates about tribal economic development projects to environment versus development or in the case of gaming, communities versus tribal gaming? Finally, how can education about settler privilege, white supremacy, and systemic racism improve relations between Indian and non-Indian activist communities and the broader American population overall?


About the Author 

Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marcos, and a consultant and educator in environmental justice policy planning. Her research interests focus on Indigenous nationalism, self-determination, environmental justice, and education. She also works within the field of critical sports studies, examining the intersections of indigeneity and the sport of surfing. She is co-author with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz of Beacon Press’s “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, and author of As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice from Colonization to Standing Rock. Follow her on Twitter at @DinaGWhit and visit her website.