Water Flows Down-Hill –the Stages of Degradation and the Geography of Race Ecojustice on the Wind River Reservation–by Rev. Dr. Sally Lentz Palmer
Grant me the ability to be alone.
May it be my custom to go outdoors each day
Among the trees and grasses,
Among all growing things.
And there may I be alone,
And enter into prayer
To talk with the One
I belong to.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
This is the favorite poem of Audrey Plenty Hoops, a single mother, who left her reservation to study at the University of Wyoming. In Audrey’s words: “I am a proud member of the Crow Tribe…and I worked at the water quality department of Little Big Horn College…and learned a method to identify the presence of Esherichia coli (E. coli), the presence of which can cause illness and lead to premature death….My connection with Toxic Waste and Race is personal because the natural water ways on the reservation have become contaminated.
Long before I met Audrey’s teacher, I learned about a different way of seeing.
It was a poem displayed on a Chicago bus. Its author, Joy Harjo, is the first Native American Poet Laureate. She wrote:
You open your whole self…to earth, to sky, to sun, to moon,
To one whole voice that is you…and know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t know…except in languages that aren’t understood
And other circles of motion.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of all this, and
breathe…knowing we are truly blessed.
Anyone who looks at the issue of water, as a Native American, knows that water isn’t just what we use to grow crops, to wash our hands, to brush our teeth, or to frack oil wells. Water is what we need for life. As Joy wrote: “breathe in, knowing we are made of all this…” That is true, not just for air, but for water.
I come from a university that is trying to remember to look at the whole. I draw from the work of scientists, like Anne Sylvester, Harold Bergman, Ron Frost, and Terry Deshler. I turn to the long record of scientists, but also to those who listen carefully to the native voices. So, I begin with how we listen and how we see. At a conference at UW called “The Political Geography of Race,” the president of UW, the director of a free clinic, a Latino administrator, and a Cherokee counselor agreed on these principles.
(See the panel discussion of 2016, when the then president Dick McGinity, and current director of the Downtown Clinic, Pete Gosar, and two minorities—Jackie Gozales and Layna Morris presented “The Political Geography of Race.”) (1)
This is their common description of discrimination:
- Race is real for minorities because they have to navigate in a world
That discounts their problems and their culture.
- The problems of the minority cultures in Wyoming are geo-political…where you live makes the difference in your quality of life.
- The geo-political geography of race has these characteristics:
One: INVISIBILITY—People want to be individuals, to be seen for who they are.
Two: LABELING—We put people into boxes, we label them so we don’t have to deal with them. But, minorities are not just a label. Each person is already whole.
Three: IDENTITY—Minorities have to redirect their modes of being so they can navigate through a white world.
Shepard Symposium, 1/30/2016 (1)
Native Americans have never forgotten that water flows downhill—first from the mountains from which it springs, clear and fresh and clean, THEN downhill from sewer emissions, from the tailings of uranium mines, and from streams that do not merit “first water rights.” Minority students at the University of Wyoming have taught us about the political geography of race. Their direct of the power behind water issues makes evident that vulnerable peoples can become the victims of toxic waste. Their experience echoes the research of Michigan State University and the Racial Justice Commission of the United Church of Christ. After the 1990 census, research measured toxic dump sites against minority neighborhoods and concluded that race was the first criteria in allowing toxicity to contaminate where vulnerable families live. Flint is but one example.
The prevailing pattern is described by the Wyoming Department of Health Equity. In assessing causes of morbidity and mortality, the health department determined that “zip code,” or “where you work and live and play,” is a greater determinant of health than D.N.A. (Lillian Zuninga, Wyoming Office of Health Equity.)
The Wind River Reservation is at the heart of Wyoming and careful science has raised concerns about the effects of mining, drilling, and energy exploration. The worst example is the uranium tailings left by the closure of Susquehanna –Western mill in 1963. The piles of uranium tailings were not treated until 1988, 25 years later, when radioactive tailings had already leached into the ground water and into the soil. The effect of this toxic residue is deformity in aquatic creatures and increased thyroid cancer in human beings. Now as many members of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes know, the only safe water is bottled water. As a video produced by and for Washaki High School states, not just the continuing problem but the reality. The video is called “Our Water, Our Future,” and marks the decrease in the flow of rivers and streams, the indifference to what is contaminating water, and the pain of using bottled water for ordinary lives.
The most recent example is the imposition of produced or “fracked” water into the tributaries of the Wind River. The project has been dumping fracked water into one tributary for years, but with the increased development of oil and gas wells, a new energy company has proposed drilling 4140 more wells and dumping up to 8.27 million gallons of produced water or “fracked water” per day into a tributary of the Boysen Reservoir which flow into the Wind. People upstream from the fracking site, in Riverton, see the promise of new jobs, but people downstream know that the water flows on to them. (2)
As international re-known geologist, Dr. Ron Frost, has stated: “The Department of Environmental Quality must be both informed and inform the public of the persistent toxicity of dangerous chemicals that do not dissipate, like cadmium and arsenic, and other heavy metals. If the proposal includes ‘processed water’ from fracking, then it is critical to test the ‘processed water’ regularly and make the test results transparent.”
As criticized by the Albany County Clean Water Advocates, the Hazardous Mitigation Plan is inadequate for one important reason: “Despite the known concerns in water produced from oil and gas operations, exemptions from federal hazardous waste laws mean that no national regulatory framework exists for handling radioactive or other hazardous materials in solid and liquid fracking wastewater…” In other words, many contaminants do not dissipate. They remain in the water, the soil, and the sand.
Over a hundred years past the Sand Creek Massacre, there are patterns of discrimination that make life on the reservation difficult. It’s not just the availability of clean water but the political will to preserve the web of Life for us all. The pattern in Wyoming looks like this:
Stage 1 –Disregard.
When “energy” development is planned, there is little to no regard for the natural flow of water, or the realistic effects of toxicity on the soil, the surface water, and the underground flow. Science would say that certain forms of toxic waste, like uranium tailings and benzene, are impossible to mitigate.
When a public complaint is raised about toxic waste, the first response is denial. Either the reality of the imposition is questioned, or the extent of contamination is denied. For example, one report in the local media said: “There is no air pollution in Pavillion.” But, toxicity from gas wells was is not in the air, but the underground water.
When scientific measurements are offered which record the toxicity in natural systems both above and beneath the ground. The strategy of “energy” companies is to discount its effects. This results in minimizing either the data, the source, or the extent of pollution. A well-known example in the Wyoming legislature was the battle over the “Next Generation Science Standards.” In short, public schools not teach climate change.
When the effects of toxic waste are evident, then the energy industries simply find another way to “get the job done.” The most common detour is the buying and selling of energy companies. Another detour is to make shifts from one community to another, which may not have the influence or the information to resist the promise of jobs.
One example is near my home, where fracking waters from the drilling fields near Walden is detoured to a rural route, Wyoming 230, where no one sees them at night.
Most important is the detouring around regulations or the regulatory agencies.
It is this “detouring strategy,” as well as disregard, denial, and discounting, which makes minorities vulnerable. Indifference is not an option when it comes to protecting their homes. Water will continue to flow, on the surface and underground. (3)
This summer a far more extensive operation was planned for a sites that effects the Wind River. It is called “High Intensity Hydralic Fraking” and its health hazards are clearly described in the 2018 report by the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Yet what is still proposed by a “new” energy company is drilling 4150 new wells in Fremont County and dumping of 8.27 million gallons a day of “produced water” as it flows into a reservoir which, in turn, flows into Wind River. But, the 361 page report of the Physicians for Social Responsibility states: “As fracking operations in the United States have increased in frequency, size, and intensity, and as the transport of extracted materials has expanded, a significant body of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that these activities are dangerous to people and their communities in ways that are difficult, and prove impossible, to mitigate.”
In spite of changes in energy production, water is still the source of life.
It continues to flow downhill just as surely as gravity continues to be an evident “law.”
One solution is for minorities to teach the science, as Audrey Plenty-Hoops has done. Another is for the rest of us to open our eyes to a spiritual truth from those who honor the land. Native peoples know that we are made of elemental energies. Our future lies in them:
I am a feather on the bright sky…
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water.
I am the shadow that follows a child.
I am the evening light, the luster of meadows.
I am an eagle playing with the wind.
I am the farthest star….
You see, I am alive, I am alive. N. Scott Momaday.
May we keep coming together to seek solutions. And, may we become, like Audrey Plenty-Hoops, and Rabbi Nachman, a broader people of spiritual return, wise ones who “go outdoors each each among all trees and grasses to enter into prayer and talk with the One we belong .”
With gratitude to all those who keep telling the story, especially professors Anne Sylvester, Harold Berman, Terry Deshler, Ron Frost, Tanaya and Laynah Moon Morris, Audrey Plenty-Hoops, Anton Lopez, Winnona Roof, Judith Antell, and James Trosper.
Rev. Dr. Sally Palmer is a former pastor of St. Paul’s and lecturer in religion. She is currently a teacher of Contemplative Prayer and leader in the Wyoming Interfaith Network.
Contact Carl Carmichael, Chair-Elect for more information