Despite commemorating the history and culture of Native Americans with Indigenous Peoples’ Day (October 9) and Native American Heritage Day (November 25), the general public remains woefully unaware of the challenges facing native Tribes on their own US lands.
Moms Clean Air Force created an Indigenous People and Air Pollution fact sheet in a partnership with the National Tribal Air Association (NTAA) and had a presence at this year’s National Tribal Forum on Air Quality in May. Shaina Oliver and Elizabeth Brandt were on hand to discuss the “Health Impacts of Air Pollution and Climate Change” and ways to share information and stories to promote healthy air.
Data consistently shows that American Indians and Alaska Natives face extreme inequities in accessing and receiving health care compared with other American demographic groups. They are often underrepresented in health reports, such as pediatric asthma studies.
The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has a dedicated agency, the Indian Health Service (IHS), tasked with ensuring oversight for over 2.2 million Tribal members. Yet that bureau continues to be underfunded.
In 2018, an HHS report showed 278,000 American Indian adults reported having asthma. A 2021 paper on communities in California drilled down on how Native Americans reside in “highly impacted census tracts,” which also had a higher number of older residents. An April 2022 study of air pollution comparing American Indian to non-American Indian communities from 2000 to 2018 looked at particulate matter and determined that wildfire smoke was a substantial factor.
Plagued by illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases, as well as a lack of services and resources, 2022 brought one more issue to the table.
The smoke that emanates from wildfires brought on by climate change.
This smoke dries out forests, vegetation, undergrowth, and other plant matter that can act as fuel. Other problems include elevated temperatures and a lack of soil moisture.
Native Americans often live in rural areas that may be close to fires or impacted by airborne smoke. These occurrences have become more intense in frequency, dimensions of the locations affected, and duration of the blaze. Higher mortality rates, mental stress, and the ingestion of particulate matter are further impacts.
It is their homelands, so they can’t migrate. They are intertwined with the land.
Although more Native American nations have applied to EPA for grants, the budget has remained flat for over two decades. The major obstacle is the dearth of federal funding for systems and procedures to monitor air pollution and deal with improving homes and infrastructure to respond to worsening smoke.
In New Mexico, a fire may happen in the state’s north, but the smoke carries to other vicinities. An example is the territory of the San Ildefonso Pueblos, which is in a basin area. Contaminated soil and sediments have been found on Pueblo lands near the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In addition, there is evidence of expanded erosion. Of tantamount concern is the destruction of sites bearing cultural significance.
Tribes are not monolithic. Some have more extensive financial resources than others. But they all struggle with fundamental concerns, like dealing with the fact that their children can’t attend school in wildfire smoke conditions and protecting the health of elders struggling with wellness deficits.
Some groups, such as the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR) and Karuk Tribe, have created “clean air shelters” for their communities. Based in Northern California, these Tribes have been affected by air quality levels that are harmful to health and have caused damage to infrastructure. Beyond constructing shelters, designing and getting air filters into the hands of people is essential.
It’s ironic that Native Americans, who have long implemented the practice of “Cultural Burning” to contain the incidences of larger fires, are being called on to share that knowledge with the US Forest Services.
In 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland delivered a talk at COP26 where she spoke about the need to implement the institutional knowledge of Indigenous nations in the fight against climate change. She said:
“We need every person and every tool to address the twin challenges of the climate and biodiversity crises. And when we ensure that Indigenous people are at the table and part of the conversation, we all win. If we are going to be successful in tackling climate change and addressing the biodiversity crisis, we have to empower the original stewards of the land.”