Native Americans and Social and Environmental Justice: Implications for Criminology

By Lynch, Michael J.; Stretesky, Paul B. | Social Justice, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Native Americans and Social and Environmental Justice: Implications for Criminology


Lynch, Michael J., Stretesky, Paul B., Social Justice


Introduction

DESPITE ATTENDING TO SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC JUSTICE ISSUES, CRIMINOLOGISTS have said little about environmental justice (Zilney, McGurrin, and Zahran, 2006), especially among underrepresented populations such as Native Americans (for an exception, see Seis, 1996). (1) This review examines the social, economic, and environmental injustices Native Americans face by drawing on health and medical literature. (2)

Environmental injustice occurs when minority groups and/or the poor are excluded from environmental decision-making (including methods of production), or are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards (Stretesky and Hogan, 1998). Environmental injustice against Native Americans occurs, in part, because of social and economic injustice. Brooks (1998) argues that contemporary injustice against Native Americans is an extension of the historical process of genocide, and should be understood within that framework. (3) The health care and medical literature provides considerable support for Brooks' contention. This review focuses on five examples of environmental injustice against Native Americans, using as empirical documentation the Akwesasne Nation, Church Rock (New Mexico), the Four Comers Region of the United States, the upper West or Plains area, and Prince William Sound (Alaska). To put that injustice in context, we begin with a review of some general information on Native American populations and then summarize general indicators of social and economic well-being.

Native American Lands and Population

Native populations exist throughout the United States, living both inside and outside reservations, and are extensively surveyed by The Harvard Project on American Indian Development (Taylor and Kalt, 2005). The 2000 Census indicates there were 310 reservations and 40 Indian statistical areas (ISA) in the continental United States, which were home to 511,000 American Indians, or 21.3 percent of the estimated 2.4 million self-identified American Indian/Native Americans (Ibid.: 2). An additional 97,000 Native Americans live in Alaska, 3,000 in Hawaii, and 229,000 in Indian Statistical Areas (ISAs). The population of Native Americans living outside reservations and ISAs is significantly larger (1.6 million) than the Native populations living on reservations and ISAs (0.8 million). The majority of America Indians living on reservations and ISAs (66 percent) live on non-gaming reservation, which are typically the most economically and socially disadvantaged (Ibid.).

Social and economic inequality is widespread among Native Americans. That inequality helps to explain the degree and extent of environmental injustice experienced in Native American communities. The environmental justice literature is replete with findings indicating an association between income and measures of environmental injustice, a relationship that could be expected to extend to Native Americans given their deprived economic standing. Below we review several relevant indicators of social and economic inequality among Native Americans in comparison to other racial groups as described in Taylor and Kalt's national study.

Poverty and Income Unemployment. Per capita income for Native Americans is approximately one-half the U.S. mean. American Indians living on reservations fare far worse than those who live outside the reservations on this measure. American Indians who live on reservations have a per capita income level that is 33 percent of the U.S. average, compared to 45 percent for those living on gaming reservations and 35 percent for those who live on non-gaming reservations (Ibid.: 8).

Per capita income for American Indians on reservations is inflated by the inclusion of ISA populations, since those who live on ISAs earn, on average, more than other Native Americans. If ISA residents are excluded, the per capita income of American Indians on non-gaming ($7,365) and gaming ($8,466) reservations compares poorly to mean per capita income for all races ($21,587) (Ibid. …

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