The Threat to Sacred Waters and Ways of Life for California Indigenous Communities
By: Sophie Sparksworthy, WEA Intern
The physical health and cultural well-being of Indigenous communities are threatened by increasing environmental degradation. Negative ecological impacts from extractive industries, energy plants or refineries, and the contamination of hazardous waste on Indigenous lands compromises the survival of Indigenous communities both globally and locally. Indigenous communities are in an ongoing fight to restore their ecosystems to meet their present needs, but they are also challenged with ensuring the integral parts of the environment remain intact for future generations.
The continued degradation of each component of our ecosystem has serious implications for the species and cultures that inhabit them. Of these impacted components, water—which for many Indigenous cultures in inextricably linked to subsistence, spiritual practices, and traditions—has become increasingly threatened by prevailing long-term issues and the emergence of new ones. Along with long-standing water related issues like contamination, Indigenous communities are also faced with increased threats to water supplies from climate change. This is especially true in California, where the third year of drought has created a state of emergency. The effects of the drought combined with California’s attempts to follow the national push towards energy independence through increased fracking poses an even greater threat to the vitality of Indigenous lifeways and the ecosystems we all depend on.
Mercury Contamination in California
For California Indigenous communities, the fight to protect the quality and supply of water has been a very real threat for centuries, particularly due to the regions history of mining and gold extraction. Sediments and other hazardous materials like methylmercury have contaminated land and aquatic habitats and have had adverse health effects that vary based on the age and level of exposure an individual has. This exposure can cause damage to both the nervous and immune systems, with the worst case scenario being death.
Indigenous communities have experienced the impacts of mercury poisoning first hand, with deaths among older generations who had been chronically exposed without their knowledge. Unfortunately, the threats of contamination are still present, especially for future generations. For pregnant women, mercury can cause irreversible damage to unborn children, inhibiting normal brain development, and in more severe cases causing developmental and mental birth defects. For Indigenous communities in which fish is a traditional food source and whose cultures cannot be separated from this critical relationship, the tragic choice becomes one between health and identity.
These issues of water contamination in California are also not isolated, with high levels of mercury found in waterways such as: Lake Berryessa, Clear Lake, New Almaden and New Idria, the American, Bear, Feather and Yuba Rivers, and the San Francisco Bay. The international and regional response by authorities to the contamination issues California tribes such as the Pomo, Maidu, Yurok, Karuk and Winnemem Wintu face has been minimal in comparison to the scale of the problem.
Indeed, while EPA clean ups have been more frequent since the 1990’s and advisory warnings about fish contamination have been issued, this has done little to address the fact that tribes are unable to exercise their traditional fishing treaty rights—and the threat of further pollution is ongoing. To this end, in 2005, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) filed an international complaint against the United States asserting that the contamination Indigenous communities faced was a human rights violation. In the complaint, the National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC) provided testimony which stated:
“The proposed UMR [the EPA’s Utility Mercury Reduction] rule fails to protect and preserve federal treaty trust resources, such as hunting and fishing rights, which are considered integral to many tribes continued existence…Instead, EPA instructs these groups—and particularly children and women of childbearing age—to reduce or eliminate fish from their diets in order to ‘avoid’ the risks of mercury contamination. Thus, rather than take steps to reduce meaningfully the sources of these risks, EPA shifts the burden to those who are exposed and asks them to protect themselves.”
While these and other efforts are critical and ongoing, some communities fear that the response—if any— will be too slow to address the severity of the issue. California’s Indigenous tribes are at an extremely high risk for ongoing contamination, with some estimates stating that the current rate of clean up will leave the land and water contaminated for the next 10,000 years. Despite the slow progress of the State and Federal governments, organizations like IITC and the California Indian Environmental Alliance, alongside a network of Indigenous and environmental groups, have helped communities fight for the right to information about contamination, and to expedite the process to have their ecosystems and traditional ways of life protected.
Climate Change and Drought in the West
For Indigenous communities, the fear of losing traditional ways of life connected with water is further exacerbated by another devastating issue. The third year of drought in California has forced Governor Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. As a result of water resource allocation focused on supplying both Southern California’s reservoirs and the water needed for the State’s massive agricultural industry, much of the limited water supply in Northern California’s reservoirs has already been drained.
For tribes in Northern and Central California, this means that traditional species of fish like steelhead and chinook salmon will no longer be protected as their habitats shrink to meet the demands of the rest of the state’s water needs. Indeed, proposed solutions to meet the state’s water demands include constructing large underground pipes to transport water from the top of the state to the bottom. The Winnemem Wintu have been some of the strongest voices opposing this plan because it threatens the survival of salmon and other native fish populations that many in California—Native and non-Native alike—rely on.
Don’t Frack California
Indigenous communities often face more than one threat at a time to their ecosystems and cultural survival. Instead, we see the threats to traditional ways of life coming from multiple directions at once. Thus, along with efforts to reduce contamination and water supplies, tribes must also resist the forces of extractive industries, which leave ecosystems traumatized. Some of the most recent national and local resistance against extractive industries has focused on hydraulic fracturing, the high pressure blasting of water and chemicals in the earth in order to produce gas and oil—commonly known as fracking.
Not only does fracking contribute to water, air and land pollution, as well as climate change, but the human health hazards are equally frightening, with chemicals used in the blasting being linked to birth defects, and even infertility. In California, though resistance is gaining in strength, the mainstream debate as to whether or not to continue fracking is still underway.
In recent months, the Don’t Frack California campaign has gained significant momentum, with over 4,000 people—including Indigenous community members, environmental advocates, and concerned citizens—expressing their opposition to fracking in Sacramento on March 15th. As a result of the efforts leading up to this rally, in February a moratorium (SB 1132) was introduced to prevent continual and future extractive industries like fracking from operating in the state. California’s resistance to fracking is only part of a national resistance movement that is supported by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates and activists alike.
Women’s Earth Alliance encourages all our friends to be good allies: learn more about these critical issues California Indigenous peoples face and do your part to support efforts to end the destruction of their traditional lands, waters, and ways of life.
For more information on mercury contamination, please visit the International Indian Treaty Council or Earthjustice’s Cleaning Up Mercury, Protecting Our Health Campaign. To learn more about the effects of California’s drought on Indigenous communities and native species, visit Restore the Delta and the National Resource Defense Council. And to further understand how the drought affects Indigenous communities in Northern California, please visit the tribal website of the Winnemem Wintu and the Yurok people
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