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American Indian Environmental Movement in Arizona Research Paper


Throughout the history of humanity, Native American cultures have proved to be highly resilient and showed the ability to sustain in the same environment during centuries, even though their population-level could decrease. Currently, twenty-two Native Indian tribes and communities reside on the territory of Arizona. The presence of the ethnic-cultural minority population in the state largely contributes to its multicultural diversification and enrichment as even new generations prefer to live up to the unique values and worldviews passed to them by ancestors. Along with this, the high density of their representation in the state − 5-6% of the total population − may also have a favorable impact on the ecological situation because, in accordance with tribal traditions, local indigenous people practice rituals that have both spiritual meaning and environmental connotations. This paper researches the implications of American Indians’ cultural and “environmental” activities, discusses the problems associated with them, and outlines possible effects on the ecology in the state.


Nowadays all twenty-two Native American reservations located in Arizona hold the territory of millions of acres. The largest communities include the Hualapai Tribe spreading over 1 million acres and comprised of 1.532 people, the San Carlos Apache Tribe − 1.83 million acres, and 9.000 people, the White Mountain Apache Tribe − 1.6 million acres and 12.000 people, and so on. Some of the communities, such as the Navajo Nation, can be so big that they spread around several states and 16 million acres (Sheridan 305). The smallest ones include the Cocopah Indian Reservation in which 816 people live on the territory of 6.500 acres, and the Havasupai Tribe consisted of 639 people and covering 518 acres of the land. In Native Indian reservations, one may find a great variety of natural formations, touristic destinations, and sights such as Black Mountains, San Carlos Lake, Canyon de Chelly, Colorado River, fountains, mineral water pools, and many more (“American Indian Tribes and Communities in Arizona”).

The establishment of all indigenous people’s reservations “proceeded sporadically and haphazardly over 119 years” (Sheridan 305). However, the historical development of Natives in Arizona goes hundreds of years back. Before their first encounter with the western explorers in 1528, culturally distinct tribes built villages and cities, farmed, hunted, and moved around the territory in search of better conditions and larger amounts of resources to support themselves (“American Indian Tribes and Communities in Arizona”). When the first American settlers started to come to Arizona in search of wealth since the 1800s, the mining industry has thrived. However, not only did the newcomers pay little respect to the land and its natural resources but also were extremely hostile towards Native Indians who tried to live in balance with nature for millennia. The conflicts between settlers and indigenous people often turned into wars with mass shootings, poisoning, and many cunning tricks which resulted in enormous casualties on both sides. Since the number of Native Americans was initially not too large, these conflicts contributed to the shrinking of the population. As a result, they obtained the status of a minority group and were severely repressed for a significant time.

After distinct tribes were resettled by the US government and the reservations’ boundaries became ultimately fixed, Native Americans were exposed to the influence of the western culture. Nevertheless, although they were forced to change their lifestyles, American Indians remained loyal to their traditions and managed to preserve their authenticity and in-group cultural and linguistic diversity even after becoming a unified nation (“American Indian Tribes and Communities in Arizona”). Although in the face of all tremendous challenges some of the cultural and spiritual ties were weakened, new Native generations aim to revive their original cultural identity by practicing traditional ceremonies and rituals, gathering at pow-wows, promoting Native Americans’ mass media, speaking tribal dialects, and teaching their children to live with dignity and respect to nature like their ancestors did (“Traditions & Culture”).

When speaking about Native Americans’ views of nature, they share a lot of similarities with the positions modern environmentalists have. On the one hand, indigenous people were very pragmatic in a way that they tried to consume resources in reasonable amounts, avoided overexploitation of natural resources, and understood the importance of keeping the environment pure and clean. At the same time, their perspectives had spiritual elements − they regarded some geographical objects as sacred; composed myths about natural forces, animals, and seasons; and, in this way, encouraged all members of the tribe to respect the nature. Booth claims that the legends of Native Indians convey the feeling of reverence for nature’s beauty − “there is a sense of great wonder and of something that sparks a deep sensation of joyful celebration” in them (331). The given attitude largely contrasts the views prevalent in the Western culture where nature is regarded as an object and is associated with the wilderness that should be tamed and refined.

Zimmerman claims that Native Indians can be considered “first ecologists” because environmental protection was always part of their daily life (107). It is possible to say that the Natives’ worldview was less egocentric in comparison to the Western one because they regarded nature as a superior force and saw themselves as only a small part of the world. Zimmerman observes that the early Native American tribes had a great understanding of the laws of nature − for instance, they knew that population growth might lead to the depletion of resources and, therefore, they strived to keep their numbers low (107). Knowling also states that, while burning certain areas is crucial to agriculture and the promotion of plant health, Native Americans used this practice in a cautious manner (110). When burning, they always took into account the season and particular properties of ecosystems to avoid substantial harm to the environment. For example, the researcher claims that Native Americans almost never purposely burned forests as they were aware of the vulnerability of the ecosystem to wildfires (Knowling 110). On the contrary, they aimed to protect them because forests were rich in natural resources and crucial to tribal sustainability.

However, not all researchers share the opinion that indigenous tribes did not harm the land on which they lived. Kidder states that, as farmers, Native Americans regularly practiced land clearance and, in this way contributed to the decrease in the natural diversity of flora (151). It is apparent that the damage to the environment caused by agricultural activities and burning practices of the early tribes was significantly lower in comparison to the harm that can be induced by such modern activities as mining and manufacturing. Contrary to traditional values, contemporary Native Americans sometimes can also contribute to the deterioration of the environmental state. For example, in the 1980s the White Mountain Apache tribe located in Arizona arranged a contract with an enterprise in order to cut and sell the local timber (Pevar 121).

Moreover, when being constrained by the boundaries of reservations and their harsh conditions, some tribes discovered and consequently started to exploit valuable natural resources and fossils that could bring them profit without paying much attention to the environmental outcomes of their behaviors. It means that it is incorrect to think that Native Americans do not leave any footprint on the ecological state at all. With every change in the social, political, legal, and cultural environments, human behavior alters as well because, in order to survive, one needs to adapt. It is also obvious that with the change in time, Native Americans’ attitudes to nature became different. Booth states that “modern Native Americans face different challenges than did their ancestors, and many of those challenges affect how they can now relate to the land” (330). To understand if their traditional philosophy could translate into modernity, we should analyze how people who live in reservations respond to these new environmental problems.

It is possible to say that the Resolution Copper deal passed in 2014 was probably one of the biggest challenges indigenous tribes located in Arizona encountered so far. Langlois explains that one of the provisions in this deal promoted by the senior senator from the state, John McCain, 2.400 acres of the Tonto National Forest will be given to one of the largest mining enterprises, Rio Tinto (par. 3). As a result of this action, the ancestral lands of the Apache tribe are threatened. Moreover, as the community members consider the area sacred, mining in the forest will have a significant adverse impact on the cultural and religious activities of Native Americans.

However, it was not the first case when the interests of Native Americans in Arizona were neglected by the government and representatives of the mining industry. The ancient burial sites and other important archeological artifacts located in Black Mesa, in northern Arizona, are still at risk of destruction because of the mining operations conducted by Peabody Coal (Langlois par. 4). The presence of mining companies near or in the reservations indicates that the voices of many Native Americans continue to be marginalized. At the same time, the tribes strive to oppose detrimental governmental and commercial acts. Since they advocate for their human and environmental rights publicly and, in this way, raise the awareness of severe violations in the society, the number of opponents of the mining projects in Arizona grows (Davidson par. 5).

Recent research evidence shows that the effects of mining activities in the region can have an enduring adverse impact on the environment. For example, Lewis et al. state that there are over 160.000 abandoned hard rock mines across the western states including Arizona (130). Nowadays, these previously functioning mines represent nothing but the waste sites that “have numerous risk factors associated with disparities in health outcomes such as poverty, educational status, infrastructure, and frequently, compromised underlying health status” (Lewis et al. 130). In this way, proximity to mining facilities prevents Native Americans from living sustainably and in balance with nature. Due to increasing concerns about the contamination of water and soil induced by the industrial exploitation of the land, Native Americans became active advocates for environmental protection. It is possible to presume, that their traditional origins and the need to preserve their own cultural identity serve for them as the major sources of inspiration and support in this process.

Native American advocacy for environmental protection and human rights gathered momentum in the 1960s with the establishment of the American Indian Movement (Ortoleva 84). It is when the Native American environmentalism started to gain importance among many other discourses dominant in the US society, and the attention to ecological ethics and traditional spiritual beliefs and values of indigenous tribes drew attention.

Nowadays, since native Americans continue to be exposed to environmental disparities, many new organizations and advocates appear in the country. In Arizona, these pro-activist communities include Black Mesa Water Coalition, Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment, To Nizhoni Ani, and many others. D’Arcy states that one of the primary goals of the Black Mesa Water Coalition is the breaking of the tribal dependence on the fossil fuel industry (30). In the view of the organization’s representatives, it may help to realize the potential of the local tribes to its full extent. It means that the activities of the Native environmentalists are primarily oriented towards the restoration of the environment in the reservations and the promotion of the tribal well-being. Still, it is possible to say that, by pursuing these goals, they will also contribute to the welfare and sustainability of other inhabitants of Arizona.


The findings of the literature review make it clear that, throughout the last centuries, Native Americans faced many political challenges that altered their worldviews and lifestyles. With the increasing environmental disparities, tribes located in Arizona and across the country refer to their traditional values and views in order to stimulate the right attitude towards environmental protection in both Native and non-native populations. Native American activists struggle for the preservation of their cultural identity and aim to revive the social awareness of the close connection between people and nature. It is possible to say that by addressing the knowledge passed on to new generations by the ancestors, they can redeem the mistakes committed in the past and redevelop a respectful attitude towards nature and, in this way, foster sustainable living.

Works Cited

“American Indian Tribes and Communities in Arizona.” The Arizona Experience, Web.

Booth, Annie L. “We are the Land: Native American Views of Nature.” Nature Across Cultures: Views of Nature and the Environment in Non-Western Cultures, edited by Helaine Selin, Springer, 2013, pp. 329-350.

D’Arcy, Angela Mooney. “Environmental Justice.” Native Voices Rising: A Case for Funding Native-led Change, edited by Louis T. Delgado, Common counsel Foundation, and Native Americans in Philanthropy, 2013, pp. 25-37.

Davidson, Osha Gray. High Country News. 2016, Web.

Kidder, Tristram, R. “The Rat the Ate Louisiana: Aspects of Historical Ecology in the Mississippi River Delta.” Advances in Historical Ecology, edited by William L. Balée, Columbia University Press, 2012, pp. 141-168.

Knowling, Doug. Ecological Restoration: Wildfire Ecology Reference Manual. Lulu.com, 2016.

Langlois, Krista. High Country News. 2014, Web.

Lewis, Johnnye, et al. “Mining and Environmental Health Disparities in Native American Communities.” Current Environmental Health Reports, vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 130–141.

Ortoleva, Matthew. “‘We Face East’: The Narragansett Dawn and Ecocentric Discourses of Identity and Justice.” Environmental rhetoric and ecologies of place, edited by Peter Goggin, Routledge, 2016, pp. 84-96.

Pevar, Stephen L. The Rights of Indians and Tribes. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History, Revised Edition. University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Running Strong for American Indian Youth, Web.

Zimmerman, Larry J. The Sacred Wisdom of the Native Americans. Chartwell Books, 2016.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'American Indian Environmental Movement in Arizona'. 1 September.

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