Sacred Water: Environmental justice in Indian Country

For Native American tribes, water more than sustains—it is a sacred, living thing to be revered and protected. It is their cultural touchstone.

Yet tribes across the United States face water pollution problems that make their members sick, taint their traditions and epitomize the weight of modernity squeezing spiritual connections to a breaking point. When it comes to water, more than just treaty rights are at stake for Native Americans. It's basic environmental justice.

Sacred Water is Environmental Health News’ ongoing investigation into Native American struggles—and solutions—to protect culturally significant water sources on and off the reservation.

Part 1 — August 2016
For the Crow Tribe, water pollution shows up in the form of heavy metals, nitrates, fecal coliform and E. coli, via sources both on and off the reservation. The effects are pretty clear: Contaminated well water exacerbates health problems such as diabetes.

Tainted water imperils health, traditions for Montana tribe. On Montana's Crow reservation, wells provide drinking water and springs offer spiritual cleansing. But most tests find contamination.
By Brian Bienkowski 

August 22, 2016



Years after mining stops, uranium's legacy lingers on Native land. Abandoned uranium mines and leftover pollution plague Western US tribes. 
By Brian Bienkowski 

 August 22, 2016



In Crow Country, a water system brings new life. A long-awaited compact, a massive water system and energized youth bring hope for Crow water woes.
By Brian Bienkowski 

August 23, 2016



Culture and science merge in environmental research for Crow. Adding cultural observations to Western science bolsters both the science and the tribe.
By Brian Bienkowski 

August 23, 2016 



Essay: Everything has water flowing through it. We grew up learning a tradition of respect for water, hearing our Elders praying with water. Water is a part of every second of our lives, everything has water flowing through it, everything has life. It's one thing to say that, but another thing to truly understand that.
By John Doyle, Myra Lefthand, Sara Young, Frederica Lefthand and David Small

August 24, 2016 



Part 2 — September 2016
For the Menominee Indians of Wisconsin, burial grounds left outside reservation boundaries may soon become islands in an industrialized, strip-mined landscape. The tribe's reservation is 60 miles away, across the state border. But its cultural headwaters are along the Menominee River, where Aquila Resources, Inc., hopes to start digging. 

Mining leaves a Wisconsin tribe's hallowed sites at risk. Wisconsin's Menominee tribe is fighting to save ancestral remains and the river that birthed their people. The problem is, both are across the state line.
By Brian Bienkowski 

September 19, 2016 



Mining’s long history in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. While there’s been a recent resurgence in mining interest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, historically mining was to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula what the auto industry is to the Lower Peninsula.
By Brian Bienkowski 

September 19, 2016 


River fight boosts a tribe's long-threatened culture. While the Menominee tribe does not share a border with the Menominee River, that doesn’t invalidate a connection between environmental insults and reservation health. And the tribe is trying to reestablish its connection with the sacred river to foster cultural and physical health. 
By Brian Bienkowski 

September 20, 2016  


Standing together. The Menominee Creation story was told to me by one of our elders on the reservation. We, Menominees, were given the responsibility to look after the Menominee River and land by the creator thousands of years ago, and that supersedes any treaty or law. This Menominee River is a part of me; its essence is within my soul.    
By Guy Reiter 

September 21, 2016 


One tribe's 'long walk' upstream for environmental and cultural justice.
Wisconsin's Menominee tap their forebears—and Native American cultural rebirth underway in North Dakota—on a walk to protect their river.    
By Brian Bienkowski 

September 29, 2016 


Michigan mine gains two state permits; tribe vows to continue fight.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality this week approved a general mining permit and an air use permit for the Back Forty mine in the western Upper Peninsula despite tribal opposition over its location on sacred ground. 
By Brian Bienkowski 

December 29, 2016 



Part 3 — November 2016
The Coast Salish tribes’ struggle to protect salmon in the Pacific Northwest shows that unity and science can elevate the tribal voice. But is it enough to save the dwindling cultural icon?

Dwindling salmon and treaty rights in the Puget Sound. People love the Puget Sound. This affection—and the crowds, pavement and pollution that inevitably follow—is chipping away at the centerpiece of tribal culture in the Northwest: The salmon runs.  
By Brian Bienkowski 

November 16, 2016


Tribal commissions fight for fishing rights. Tribes across the U.S. coalesce around tribal fish commissions, and many are in battles to protect fish populations and treaty rights.  
By Brian Bienkowski 

November 16, 2016



When the salmon come home. Salmon heading upriver is cause for celebration—as their presence is intertwined with the spirit of Coast Salish tribes. 
By Lynne Peeples

November 17, 2016



In conclusion:

2016 and beyond: Justice jumping genres.  A historic year for environmental justice saw government failures in Flint, a resurgent Native voice, and a merging of movements. We're watching where it’s headed in the new year.
By Brian Bienkowski

December 28, 2016



Related Coverage:

Drinking water in Indian Country: More violations, less EPA.  Analysis shows more health violations but much less federal enforcement at tribal water treatment plants, suggesting “regulatory neglect.”  
By Brian Bienkowski

November 7, 2016



From the Sioux to the Sault: Standing Rock spirit spreads to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  A 63-year-old pipeline runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac. Great Lakes tribes—tapping into the Standing Rock spirit—want it stopped. 
By Brian Bienkowski

November 21, 2016



EHN's environmental justice reporting

Environmental Health News has a strong history of award-winning reporting on disproportionate health and environmental threats confronting, more often than not, people of color and low income communities across the United States.

Our 2012 special report, Pollution, Poverty, People of Color, traced the struggles of seven communities coping with environmental threats, from Richmond, Calif. to Anniston, Ala. The reporting was recognized with an honorable mention by the 2013 Oakes Award committee, one of the environmental journalism's most prestigious national prizes.

Ongoing reporting can be found here in our archives and includes dispatches from North Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania and beyond.  

These stories resonate with all of us, regardless of race, color or class. We invite you to explore the issue with us.


EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at


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