The Biden administration is facing criticism for its refusal to comment on whether they will reverse a controversial decision by the Trump Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that stripped tribal sovereignty from Indigenous people in Oklahoma. The October 2020 ruling reversed a Supreme Court decision granting tribal members the right to challenge environmental regulations and would open up land on Native American reservations for hazardous waste dumping without consultation or consent.
The EPA’s decision drew strong condemnation from environmental activists and Indigenous rights advocates, who praised President Biden for initially reversing other Trump-era environmental policies. However, Oklahoma tribes have not received similar optimism with his refusal to take a stand for their cause. When contacted, the EPA stated that it planned to review actions taken under the previous administration; however, no concrete action was specified in regard to protecting Native Americans’ rights over their land or state regulations concerning pollution.
This decision is especially concerning considering the long history of political abuse of Indigenous lands and resources throughout US history. In 2016, Congress passed legislation granting tribes more authority over their reservations; however, these efforts were undermined when the Trump administration reversed course and removed federal protection of tribal sovereignty in 2020. This effectively allowed corporations to do as they please when it comes to polluting native land without consulting with tribe leaders or any other nation-to-nation consultation process with tribes.
The situation has left many Indigenous individuals and organizations feeling let down and suggests that President Biden may be playing politics rather than taking a principled stance on this issue. National groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are calling on Biden’s team to reverse this decision so that it can protect tribal nations against corporate pollution and exploitation of Native American land–a move that is long overdue given our country’s past mistreatment of Indigenous peoples.
In addition, some experts have argued that failing to protect Native Americans from corporate exploitation could ultimately lead to increased health risks from toxic chemicals and pollutants entering their water supply without adequate safeguards. This could be especially dangerous given how COVID-19 disproportionately affects Indigenous communities due to limited access to healthcare services and resources, which makes them more vulnerable than other populations when exposed to toxins like hazardous waste.
President Biden should reverse this damaging policy immediately if he truly wants to uphold his commitment to justice for all indigenous people in the United States. Until then, we need our elected representatives at all levels of government—particularly those serving in states with large Native populations—to make sure justice is served by standing up for tribal sovereignty rights and protecting indigenous communities against corporate exploitation of their lands and resources.