Mining and Tribal Lands: An American Exploitation Story

Mining companies have long been one of the biggest threats to tribal lands. Beginning in 1891, Congress passed a flurry of federal laws that allowed mining corporations to lease mineral rights on tribal lands without tribal consent. Nearly 2 million acres of American Indian lands are now subject to mineral leases administered by the U.S. Department of the Interior. These mines impact the environment, health, and culture of Native communities.

Until the early 1970s, Native American tribes had little authority over the mining operations on their lands, including on issues like waste disposal, the location of roads and buildings, or the use of lumber, gravel or water. Still, it was tribal communities who bore the health and safety impacts to air, water, and sacred sites.

In addition, tribes could not benefit from their own natural resources despite the fact that mining corporations were making sometimes billions of dollars from the minerals they took. The federal government often took the side of mining companies and other industry beneficiaries, renegotiating treaties, moving reservation boundaries to suit their needs, and pressuring tribes into selling off land that was rich in minerals.

The exploitation of tribal lands is not a thing of the past. It’s still going on today. Though some tribes continue to seemingly willingly cede their lands to mining corporations, in truth, they have little choice. Tribal communities are often economically disadvantaged and have little power over wealthy corporations and government agencies.

Water Pollution and Mining on Tribal Lands

The majority of the current water contamination on tribal land comes from the long-lasting, exploitative legacy of mining. Mining practices are inherently destructive, polluting both the surrounding waterways and lands, and harming the health of the people living in these communities. Dangerous chemicals must be used to extract metals from the surrounding stone, and many of these chemicals are carcinogenic.

  • Gold mining often contaminates the surrounding environment with arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, mercury, nickel, lead, and zinc.
  • Uranium and vanadium mining often contaminates the surrounding  environment with arsenic, copper, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, uranium, and vanadium.
  • Copper mining often contaminates the surrounding environment with arsenic, cadmium, copper, iron, and nickel.
  • Lead mining often contaminates the surrounding environment with arsenic, cadmium, chromium, manganese, lead, and zinc.

Native Americans are uniquely impacted by these toxic mining practices, considering:

  • 417,846 indigenous Americans live less than 10 kilometers from a gold mine.
  • 286,346 Natives live less than 10 kilometers from a uranium and vanadium mine.
  • 243,722 American Indians live less than 10 kilometers from a copper mine.
  • 116,925 Native Americans live less than 10 kilometers from a lead mine.

Shockingly, these mining sites rarely have clear markings; the locations of many abandoned mines are only available in local memory and in sometimes sparse mining records. The danger of these mines are rarely clearly communicated to the people who live nearby.

Between 1944 and 1986, mining companies tore into the Navajo Nation and extracted roughly 8 billion pounds of uranium. During the mining process, no one warned the Navajo about the terrible effects of uranium exposure. Children and families swam in pools of mining wastes; they used that same water to water their livestock. Some people even built homes from uranium.

There are 500 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land alone.

Many Navajo people have lost their lives to kidney failure, cancer, and other health conditions associated with uranium exposure. Doomed from day one, Navajo babies can be born with uranium already in their systems. Unfortunately, Navajo people are only one example in a giant, ongoing problem.

Out of the 160,000 abandoned mines in the United States, the majority are found on reservations. New mining operations are continuing to be built, and often tribal people have little to no say in their locations or the safety of their operations.

Frazer Onder Environmental Law is dedicated to helping Native American tribes to claim their rights. We have worked with a significant number of tribal governments to hold corporations accountable for the damage they have done.

We cannot change the past, but we can make mining companies pay for the harm they’ve inflicted. Together, we are leaving a legacy for generations to come.

Contact Frazer Onder Environmental Law at 800-881-0939.