The National Tribal Air Association estimates that 200 methane or coal power plants are located within 50 miles of tribal lands. Indigenous communities living on tribal lands are often disproportionately burdened by air pollution from the oil and gas industry.
I’m a member of the Choctaw Tribe, and I currently live in Oklahoma in the town that is the headquarters for the Chickasaw Nation. While I do not live within a reservation, last year the Supreme Court ruled that the reservations in Oklahoma were never actually dissolved. So, my home is located on Chickasaw land.
The area I live in has been heavily impacted by air pollution from a cement plant. Activists spent years fighting for cleaner air. Finally, the plant was listed on the EPA’s high priority list because it was in violation of the Clean Air Act. Major updates were made that helped to improve the air quality, but that was after years of polluting my community. And there is still air pollution associated with living near a cement plant.
These are the kind of environmental issues I generally think of when I think about Indigenous people being impacted by air pollution. But poor air quality is prevalent inside our homes too, especially for people living on reservations.
Common indoor pollutants can come from many sources, including allergens, carbon monoxide, secondhand smoke, radon, particulate matter, excessive moisture, and other sources of indoor air pollution. These issues can affect any home but are more common in poor housing quality and when there is a lack of electricity and adequate ventilation.
With about 22% of the country’s Indigenous people living on Tribal lands, not including those living in the recently confirmed Oklahoma Tribal land, there are some major concerns about indoor air pollution. This is due to the fact that there is a housing crisis and living conditions on reservations are often very poor.
About 40% of on-reservation housing is considered inadequate. Many of the homes are not connected to the power grid, and some aren’t even connected to public sewers.
The lack of electricity is a reason for an increased risk of indoor pollution. Many rely on coal and wood-burning stoves for heat. Some homes have propane heaters that release pollution when used for heating or cooking. Add poor ventilation to the mix and it all contributes to serious respiratory issues.
To ensure cleaner indoor air, the focus needs to be put on programs that are led by Indigenous people because we understand the needs of our own communities. Tribal programs are more likely to be trusted and implemented if they are focused on saving lives and traditions.
There are currently programs that help families swap out their old stoves for cleaner and more energy-efficient options. And there is a movement to bring green energy to reservations to help address the issue of indoor air pollution as well as other housing issues faced by those living on reservations.
I’m glad work is being done on these issues, but more needs to happen as indoor air pollution continues to plague the Indigenous community at a higher rate than other communities.
To learn more about how air pollution impacts our Indigenous communities and what you can do, please check out this resource: Indigenous People and Air Pollution in the United States.