Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Tears From Trail to Highway & The Navajo Water Crisis

Iron Eyes Cody's iconic 1970's anti-pollution ad
It's a genuine shame that a diverse culture with such a rich hisory as that of the indigenous peoples of North America are so often associated in mainstream media with tears.

From the forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S. following the Indian Removal Act of 1830 know as the "Trail of Tears".

To the iconic 1970's anti-pollution television commercial for the 'Keep America Beautiful' campaign.

The brilliant oft-played commercial that famously featured Native American Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear after traversing a trash-strewn American landscape.

Yet tears were what came to mind after I read a couple stories about issues that impact the lives the Native American people both here in America and just to the north along a lonesome stretch of wilderness in Canada.

Last night before going to bed I read Dan Levin's New York Times article about Canada's "Highway of Tears".

Some of the women who've vanished along the Highway of Tears
It's a a sad account of a notorious stretch of Highway 16 that traverses vast isolated stretches of British Columbia where anywhere between 18 and up to 50 women and girls, the majority of them indigenous people, have vanished, or died, since 1969.

Like so many other Native American communities, it's a story of indifference by government and law enforcement.

It also speaks to how the lack of adequate and balanced infrastructure spending in Canada adversely impact the lives of those who happen to live far from a modern urban metropolis like Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

As Levin notes in his article, a number of the women who've gone missing along Highway 16 were hitchhiking because of the lack of even basic public transportation - and of course the accompanying economic circumstances that make it difficult for many to have access to a car.

After years of conservative leadership ignoring the tragedy of young indigenous women disappearing along Canada's Highway of Tears, Newly elected progressive Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is finally devoting resources and leadership towards addressing the societal imbalances that have existed between the government and Canada's "mainstream" population, and the people who originally lived upon the lands upon which the country was built.

More than a thousand miles to the south on the sprawling 27,425 acres of the Navajo Nation covering parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the same pivot of government attention to life-threatening issues impacting Native American communities is yet to take place.

Uranium-poisoned water flows through Navajo land
While the scope of the Flint water crisis is simply devastating for the thousands of current and former Flint residents impacted by lead poisoning of the water supply, according to a recent email sent from the eco-activist group Environmental Action, the water supplies on the sovereign lands occupied by Navajo people has been contaminated by toxic levels of uranium since the 1950's - and it's still going on.

Back in February, environmental activist and filmmaker Christina Laughlin wrote a detailed and troubling article in the Huffington Post that offers a 360 degree perspective on the Navajo water crisis - and reminds us that Flint, Michigan is not the only place in America where people marginalized by society through no fault of their own face monumental obstacles to access safe, clean water because of  government indifference.

Since the 1950's, over 400 million tons of radioactive uranium were extracted from mines located on Navajo lands, these days there are some 500 different uranium sites that contain 25 times the level of radioactivity considered safe.

The legacy of decades of uranium mining to provide fuel for nuclear weapons is that most of the water on the more than 27,000 acres of Navajo lands is now too contaminated to use; for a sovereign nation with a staggering 70% unemployment rate.

Cancer rates on Navajo lands used to be almost non-existent, 60 years after uranium mining began, Cancer is now the leading cause of death in the Navajo Nation.

The scope of this environmental crisis dwarfs the lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan, but you don't hear much about it from mainstream media or from the politicians who control the purse strings who could do something about it - remarkably, according to the Free Thought Project, there are still no federal or state laws that mandate that the over 15,000 abandoned uranium wells must be cleaned up. 

The fact that 75% of them are located on Navajo and federal land might have something to do with that.

Darlene Arviso - "The Water Lady"
Why is it that in 2016, so many residents in a rural impoverished area of New Mexico that has suffered years of environmental abuse at the hands of politicians and the mining corporations they serve, must now depend on the charity and kindness of someone like Darlene Arviso to get fresh water delivered once a month?

Known as "The Water Lady", she drives a distinctive yellow tanker truck on behalf of the St. Bonaventure Indian Mission.

As NPR reported in a feature back in January, she covers hundreds of miles delivering fresh water to 250 different families - some of whom would have to drive up to 30 miles to get fresh water.

Speaking of a man-made water crisis, is it possible that the horrific scope of the Flint water crisis actually motivated the members of U.S. Senate to do their jobs?

As the New York Times reported last Thursday May 12th, for the first time since 2009 (a year after President Obama was elected...), the Senate passed a "Regular Order" Energy and Water Appropriations bill to fund energy and water programs in 2017.

Senate Majority Leader (R) Mitch McConnell
Regular Order means that all twelve appropriations must pass through the burdensome Congressional committee process, then pass both the Senate and House so both chambers can appropriate the money to actually fund the bills.

H.R. 2028 Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2016, as it's known, would appropriate $37.5 billion to water and energy programs.

Whether the more contentious House of Representatives also does their part to get it passed and funded, the fact that the Senate passed the Water Appropriations Act 98-0 suggests that it's just possible that some members of the Senate are not completely immune to the suffering of the residents of Flint Michigan or the Navajo Nation.

And to the credit of Senator Mitch McConnell (wow did I just say that?), the passage reflects his goal as Senate Majority Leader to have the Republican-controlled Senate do their part to pass all twelve appropriations by the end of this year so that government programs can be properly funded without the kind of insane gridlock former House Speaker John Boehner faced with the extremist wingnuts in his party forcing government shutdowns over petty bickering and partisan nitpicking on appropriations spending.

Spending that, as is evident in places like the Navajo Nation and Flint, Michigan, can make a difference between life and death.

It's unfortunate that it takes a presidential election year that could have dire consequences on the Republican majorities in both the Senate and the House to motivate the GOP to take action on critical spending measures (which is their job after all) that affect clean water - and the appropriations being passed won't magically cleanse the water on Navajo land or in Flint.

But some progress is better than no progress, hopefully, buried deep in the pages of H.R. 2028, are some measures that would offset the decades of uranium pollution of water on Navajo land by mining companies that made profits, but are nowhere to be seen now that costs to undo the damage is in the billions.

The Water Lady traversing hundreds of miles of remote New Mexico territory on her own to bring fresh water to families can't be the only response to the needs of Native Americans.

People who are living in parts of the nation where there's not enough water for tears.

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