Finding Native People at Heart of Environment Beat

February 17, 2021

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Native Americans are often at the forefront of environmental concerns, but mainstream news media frequently miss their stories and perspectives. Above, a Native protestor at a rally in Minneapolis on Jan. 20, 2017. Photo: Fibonacci Blue, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Issue Backgrounder: Finding Native People at Heart of Environment Beat

As the Biden administration prepares for a potentially controversial confirmation process for New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as the nation's first Native American Interior secretary, it's becoming clearer than ever that the affairs of Indigenous people are a key part of environmental journalism, and that some of the most important environmental news is to be found by listening to Native Americans and the large, sophisticated ecosystem of Native media.

Native Americans are often the fiercest protectors of the environment. You can’t write about Bears Ears National Monument or the Dakota Access Pipeline, for instance, without an appreciation of the Native viewpoint and, in fact, the work of Native journalists. Yet the mainstream news media often miss their stories. It’s time to pay more attention.

Another reason to pay attention comes down to government bureaucracy. It just so happens that the government agencies responsible for "public lands" and "Indian affairs" are both within the Department of the Interior. This also applies to the committees of Congress. 

So many times, when a Native American story rolls off the wire, the editors will hand it to the environment beat reporter. That is, if they have one. This story lead is a gift. What we make of it is crucial. 

We hope this backgrounder can at least suggest the many important intersections between the environment beat and the world of Native Americans. 

Below, we offer an array of recent news stories that hint at how broad (and newsworthy) the possibilities are. But a first tip for environmental journalists: Find out whose land you are on. Then talk to tribal entities in your area or region to discover what issues they see as important. 

  1. COVID-19: The pandemic of COVID-19 is an environmental health story in a number of Native American communities — most particularly the Navajo, or Diné. Incidence of cases in the Diné Nation was as high as the worst of U.S. states back in mid-June of last year. Things are somewhat better now, thanks partly to good tribal government and some outside help. But the story revealed a lot. Wash-hands instructions don’t help in places where people have no running water. The outbreak revealed many disparities relating to Native health. Co-morbidities, communication, nutrition and poverty are just part of it (see this recent New Yorker video account of how local journalists covered the story). There’s also the problematic Indian Health Service (may require subscription).
  2. McGirt decision: The Supreme Court’s July 9, 2020 decision (may require subscription) in McGirt v. Oklahoma was an important development that will keep making news. The high court confirmed that, for purposes of criminal law, much of Eastern Oklahoma was still the territory of the Creek Nation. What was unusual about the 5-4 decision was that it upheld a treaty. The ramifications of the case will likely include further litigation and legislation on things like oil and gas drilling. 
  3. Bears Ears: A major set of controversies under the Trump-era Interior Department was the effort to un-designate many of the lands designated as National Monuments under Obama. One poster child in this war has been the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, parts of which are considered sacred to Diné, Hopi, Ute and other tribes. The conflict over the preservation of Bears Ears cultural resources continues even into the present.
  4. U.S.-Mexico border: Then there’s former President Trump’s border wall. Traditional homelands of 36 federally recognized tribes were split in two by the 1848 treaty that carved California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas out of northern Mexico. Ever since, these cultures have eked out their existence within the complex institutional ecosystem of the border. Trump’s wall would have run right through the lands of the Tohono O’odham and, they say, would have destroyed their sacred sites and way of life. The Biden administration has since terminated the Trump emergency order used to construct the border wall.
  5. Dakota Access Pipeline: The Standing Rock Sioux protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline was a major story in 2016. It galvanized and united Native peoples and environmental activists from all over and raised the issue of pipelines to national prominence. It was won, and lost, won again (may require subscription) and now is under review again by the Biden White House. It illustrates that a great many pipelines (and other facilities including federal roads) cross Native American lands and that protection of natural resources will remain a Native issue in many places.
  6. Water rights: Much of the American West has been arid for a long time. Some centuries are worse than others (see Anasazi and Chaco cultures), but climate change is bringing an emerging megadrought and revealing the overallocation of water from huge basins like the Colorado. This affects Native tribes who live in that region. In 2019, the states and others negotiated a huge water deal called the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan. Thing is, tribes have water rights too and say these need to be taken more seriously by parties to the agreement.  
  7. Northwest fishing rights: Native fishing rights, and their treaty and legal protections, have been deeply intertwined with the establishment of Pacific Northwest states. Yet development by European settlers, often in the form of hydroelectric dams, has impinged on those rights. And climate change’s effects on streams are only making things worse. These facts have cast Native tribes in the role of stream protectors, often through interventions of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission and the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.   
  8. Uranium and mining damage: Many of the Diné people have suffered for decades from pollution and illness resulting from hundreds of uranium mining waste sites. It’s not just the pollution of scarce and precious water, but respiratory health and threats to the unborn. The village of Red Water Pond Road (may require subscription) is an example, a relic from Cold War uranium mining that involves a Superfund relocation puzzle. Uranium may be the worst of it, but coal mining on Diné land is another legacy with environmental consequences.
  9. Arctic Refuge: The issue of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, or ANWR, has vexed and fed environmental journalism for many decades. It has been at the center of the modern wilderness movement. And Indigenous people have been cast as major players in this story. Although it is very sparsely settled, they have lived there for thousands of years. The Inupiaq village of Kaktovik is virtually at ground zero and some of its people oppose the drilling. But the Kaktovik Iñupiat Corp., a legal corporation that would profit from drilling, has been backing it. Although the former Trump administration and much of Alaska’s government had neared the goal of actual drilling, there is still suspense about how the story will turn out — Biden reportedly plans a temporary halt of oil activity there.
  10. Climate change: There has been a lot of coverage (may require subscription) of “America’s first climate refugees” — the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe. They lived on the fragile lands on the Louisiana coast that are disappearing from sea level rise, subsidence, hurricanes, oil and gas development, and erosion.They may or may not be the first refugees (remember Katrina or even the Dust Bowl?).  But they won the official title because the federal government is paying actual money (a grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development) to resettle them. With some imagination, you can see how climate change may affect other Native groups — whether Alaskans whose land is disappearing from sea erosion and permafrost melting, or others in dry parts of the country whose lands are stricken by drought.


Native American sources offer much info

There are scores of newspapers, radio stations and other outlets in North America that are owned or operated by Native people, and others that cover Native news heavily. The universe of Native media is a lot larger than what we share here (you can find a much more comprehensive list from Karen M. Strom, webmaster for the World Wide Web Virtual Library section on American Indian Resources). But you can start to explore the intersection between Native and environmental journalism, and the constellation of Native environmental issues, with the list of resources below: 


Native American groups and resources


Also, to keep track of individual journalists covering Native American issues, as well as some of the media outlets listed above, check out a Twitter list created by SEJ. Be sure to click “follow” to keep up with the list.

This handy source list is just a start, and we hope our friends and colleagues will help us make it more complete and helpful. If you have additions to the Twitter list or other suggestions, please email them to

[Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, check out the Society of Environmental Journalists all-day 2019 workshop on “Covering Indian Country, Public Lands and Environmental Justice in the West,” which includes session recordings. SEJ also ran a Sept. 16, 2020 workshop at its virtual #SEJ2020 conference, “Tribes Flex Legal Muscles; Can They Impact Public Lands Too?”]

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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