From the Director's Desk

Indian tribes in the United States today face an array of environmental problems including surface and groundwater contamination, illegal dumping, hazardous waste disposal, air pollution, mining wastes, habitat destruction and human health risks resulting from all these problems. Yet, tribes have been systematically denied the resources to develop even the most fundamental environmental policies and programs for the protection of their air, water, lands and their people. Many tribes, in fact, lack even the most basic information about the environmental status of their communities. Over the past quarter century, the United States government has spent billions of dollars on the development and maintenance of programs and institutions to protect human health and the natural environment in communities and on lands across America - all the while leaving out Indian tribes and their reservations.

This is yet another example of how the government has failed to honor its trust and government-to-government relationship with tribes.

One of the Native American Rights Fund's five priorities is the protection of tribal natural resources. Under this priority, NARF works with tribes, national Indian organizations, and federal agencies to improve the health of tribal reservations and protect environmental resources on tribal lands.

Overall, NARF primarily focuses on implementing law and policy that recognizes tribal governments as the principal regulators and enforcers of tribal and federal environmental laws on Indian lands. Just within the past few years, NARF participated with a tribal working group on the Endangered Species Act in negotiations with the Departments of Interior and Commerce on the development of a Secretarial Order. The purpose of the order is to establish a new protocol for dealings between the federal government and tribal governments in the administration of the Endangered Species Act.

In the late 1980s, the Native American Rights Fund worked with tribal leaders, the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, National Congress of American Indians, and other national Indian groups to create the National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC) - a membership organization dedicated to enhance each tribe's ability to protect, preserve and promote the wise management of air, land and water for the benefit of current and future generations of Indian people and tribes.

Currently, as you will read in this issue's lead article, the Native American Rights Fund is working directly with the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota to develop legal solutions that will address their existing environmental problems and avoid further harm to the land and its resources.

Once you have finished reading this Justice, please help us achieve our mission and educate more people about the environmental problems being addressed by our nation's Indian tribes by passing this newsletter on to a family member, friend, or colleague.

John E. Echohawk (Pawnee)
Executive Director

The Environmental State of Indian Lands

Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the burdens of environmental degradation. In a 1994 survey of one hundred forty-nine Indian tribes conducted by the National Tribal Environmental Council, the report's findings revealed that tribes face an array of environmental problems including:

  • 51% reported polluted or insufficient drinking water
  • 54% have no water treatment plants
  • 51% of the tribes have no sewage treatment plants
  • 77% have no regulations for discharges into surface water
  • 79% have no regulatory program for underground storage tanks
  • 85% have no regulations for lead
  • 66% have no capability or plans for addressing a hazardous waste emergency

There are an estimated 1,000 open dumps on Indian lands which violate federal standards, 450 of which are potentially dangerous

The inability of tribes to adequately address these, among other, environmental concerns can be traced to one primary factor. Until the mid-1990s, the federal government failed to provide adequate funding for the development of any environmental regulatory presence on Indian lands.

When Congress first started making policy and dedicating funds to develop environmental programs back in the early 1970s, they were meant to apply to all of the people and the resources of the United States, including reservations. Since then, however, states and municipalities have been the primary beneficiaries of environmental policy. The federal government has provided states and cities with billions of dollars, while providing only token funding to tribal governments. These meager funds are woefully inadequate to address the task of environmental capacity building and developing an infrastructure that will provide on-going protection for Indian people and their homelands. While every state has an environmental program, few tribes have managed to develop ones on their own.

Since the mid-1980s, thanks to the hard work and relentless advocacy efforts by tribal leaders, the Native American Rights Fund and other Indian organizations, federal government agencies have become more responsive to tribal environmental needs. On February 11, 1994, President Clinton issued an Executive Order on environmental justice requiring that "each federal agency shall make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low income populations in the United States." The Executive Order specifically provides that "each Federal Agency responsibility set forth under this order shall apply equally to Native American programs."

Pine Ridge, South Dakota

The Oglala Sioux Tribe has a reservation of about 2.5 million acres in southwest South Dakota with a population of about 38,000 people. The diverse topography ranges from desert like conditions to rolling grassland hills to acres of spotted pine. Like many tribes, it is struggling with a wide range of environmental issues including unsafe drinking water, water and sewer systems operating without Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permits, public water systems that are out of compliance with EPA minimum standards, and a lack of a solid waste facility. For example:

  • The Tribe has thirty wastewater lagoons nearly all of which are over capacity.
  • Wastewater treatment and disposal is inadequate. Of the thirty-six existing wastewater systems, most are overtaxed resulting in raw sewage flowing into surface water and ground water sources. Ground water is frequently the primary source of drinking water for the reservation.
  • Safe drinking water is not available everywhere on the Reservation. Of the twenty-two public water systems on the reservation, fifteen are out of compliance with EPA's minimum standards. The tribe lacks adequate funds to conduct water testing or even fundamental repairs such as installation of water treatment equipment in pumphouses, functioning electric controls for chemical additives, or repair leaking storage tanks.
  • Pollution of several primary streams on the reservations is widespread and is unregulated and largely unmonitored.
  • There are at least fourteen locations on the Badlands Bombing Range where hazardous military materials (practice bombs, detonated and inert materials) were buried by the Department of Defense.


The Oglala Sioux Tribe is a prime example of a tribe that has done extraordinary work with limited resources. In particular, the Tribal Environmental Health Technical Team has been working with the Native American Rights Fund for the past two and a half years to define and address the problems related to the protection of their environment and human health.

The collaboration has thus far resulted in an award winning Tribal Environmental Review Code (TERC) which was enacted in April 1998. The TERC requires anyone proposing to engage in a development activity on the Reservation to obtain an Environmental Review Permit from the Tribe. Since its implementation, the Tribe has processed over twenty applications for the permit. In addition, it has also become apparent that some of the existing tribal environmental laws are outdated, unenforceable or non-existent. Two outdated and unenforceable codes are the Safe Drinking Water Code and the Solid and Hazardous Waste Code.

The key to effective tribal codes is that they be capable of implementation. Many tribes, including the Oglala, had environmental codes prepared for them in the past in a process that is divorced from the realities of reservation life and tribal political structure. The scenario: An attorney drafts a code, frequently modeled after a state or federal law, simply inserting the tribe's name where the other government once was mentioned. This code is sent to the tribe where it is adopted, put on a shelf, and never implemented because there is no relation between the code as drafted and the needs or abilities of the tribe to implement or enforce the code.

The solution, as demonstrated by the tribe and its work with NARF, is to develop these codes in the community where they will be implemented, taking into account the:

  1. administrative capability of the tribe to enforce and administer the law
  2. acceptance of the need for and advantages of the new law to the local community by the people in that community
  3. genuine comprehension by the political institutions of the tribe of the real requirements of the law and the costs that will be incurred in its administration
  4. rate and fee structures which are both fiscally adequate and realistic for the community for which they are designed

Thanks to current and past funding provided by the Onaway Trust, New Land Foundation, Educational Foundation of America, Environmental Protection Agency and our donors nationwide, NARF is able to continue its work with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to:

  • Draft a safe drinking water code and a hazardous and solid waste code which meets tribal needs and requirements of federal laws
  • Develop operations manuals that will enable other tribes to craft similar environmental codes that meet their specific jurisdictional and resource protection and management needs

On the national front, NARF is working with several tribes, Indian organizations and the EPA to assure that an equitable amount of funding is available to meet tribal needs for protection of the integrity of the environment.

On the Case

Don Wharton and Mark Tilden


Rosebud Sioux Tribe Education Project

An April 1999 evaluation report funded by the Carnegie Corporation cites major improvements in education on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota, and attributes the improvements to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's Education Department and Education Code. The evaluation, conducted by RJS & Associates, Inc., is the first-ever independent and formal assessment of a tribal education department and code.

Highlights of the report's findings include a substantial decline in drop-out rates and a major increase in graduation rates for students in grades nine through twelve. In St. Francis, South Dakota, where 99% of the student population is Indian, the drop-out rate went from 36.5% in 1989-90 to 7% in 1997-98. At the same time, the graduation rate increased from 24% to 69%. The report credits this progress largely to a tribally-funded and administered truancy program.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has over 31,000 members making it among the five largest tribes in the United States. Over 18,000 members live on or near the Reservation. Most tribal elementary and secondary students attend state public schools. The Tribe operates a grades K-12 school, as well.

Since the 1980s, NARF has been bringing its unique expertise and experiences in successfully advancing Indian sovereign rights to the educational arena. NARF's education reform efforts have been funded by the Carnegie Corporation, W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Northwest Area Foundation, Bush Foundation, and Coca-Cola Foundation.

Jicarilla Apache Education

NARF recently started working with the Jicarilla Apache Tribe in New Mexico on the development of an education code for their reservation schools. The Jicarilla Apache children consistently rank last or near last in all education categories reported on annually by the State of New Mexico.

Tuolomne Me-Wuk Cultural Property Rights

NARF represents the Tuolomne Me-Wuk Band in California on providing the tribe with a legal opinion on their rights to regulate cultural and intellectual property. The tribe is particularly concerned with misuse and misappropriation by non-tribal members of its traditional songs, symbols, ceremonies, and arts and crafts.

Alaska Subsistence

In early June, NARF, the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, Rural Alaska Community Action Program, the Wilderness Society, and a number of other conservation organizations held a successful meeting that resulted in a unified position in favor of federal assumption of subsistence management in Alaska. Unless the Alaska State legislature passes a Constitutional amendment that allows a rural subsistence priority, the federal government will take over management of subsistence fishing on October 1, 1999.

Does Your Employer Make Your Gifts Much Larger?

Many employers offer a Matching Gift Plan in which they will match their employees' contributions to a charitable organization, sometimes even double or triple them.

To take advantage of your employer's Matching Gift Plan, would you please:

  1. Get a Matching Gift Form from your personnel office.
  2. Mail it, along with your gift, to the Native American Rights Fund.
  3. NARF will return it to your employer and receive the Matching Gift.