The quiet crisis

Native Americans and their tribal lands are more likely to be exposed to American military explosives and toxic munitions. This was the conclusion of a research study announced last year by Gregory M. Hooks, professor and chair of Washington State University’s Department of Sociology, and Chad L. Smith, one of his doctoral students, now an assistant professor of sociology at Texas State University, San Marcos. 

Theirs was the first nationwide social science study to recognize this correlation. Their research, entitled “The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans,” was published in 2004 in the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

The unequal distribution of dangerous munitions sites resulted from a “coincidence of land use,” Hooks explained. On March 9, he was the first speaker in a seminar series titled “Disaster: Natural, Social, and Political Forces Collide,” sponsored by the Honors Program at Washington State University Vancouver.

The federal government, often through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), owned huge tracts of land in the western states.  Much of that land was arid and remote.  During World War II, the American military required acreage for bombing ranges, munitions dumps, and explosives factories.  Transferring BLM land to military use was the easiest way to get that land, and nationwide, that was the preferred process.

The “coincidence,” Hooks noted, was that the same arid and remote land had earlier been considered appropriate for tribal reservations.  Native Americans were often given reservation land in areas unwanted by the new settlers – the same land chosen by the American military decades later for munitions use.

“This contingent intersection of Indian conquest and the rise of the Pentagon placed Native Americans at great risk of exposure to noxious military activities,” explained Hooks, the Boeing Professor of Environmental Sociology and Soros Senior Justice Fellow at WSU.

Hooks uncovered the correlation by investigating public information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about closed military bases in the contiguous 48 states.  Between 20 and 50 million acres of former American military installations are contaminated with unexploded munitions, including landmines, nerve gas, and explosive shells.  Using county-based data to compare the military hazards on those former bases with the proximity and acreage of Native American lands, the study found a disproportionate number of hazardous sites were located near tribal land.

The “Treadmill of Destruction” study drew nationwide attention.  Newspapers and magazines across the U.S. publicized the research conclusions.  In 2005, the National Science Foundation funded a new data collection study that Hooks says will provide a refinement of their initial findings.  This proposal for more comprehensive analysis was entitled “The Quiet Environmental Crisis Confronting Native Americans.”

The seminar series continues with two presentations in April, including:
— April 6, 7-9 p.m., “The Role of Coral Reefs in the Southeast Asian Tsunami” by Professor Brian Tissot, Science, WSU Vancouver.
— April 13, 7-9 p.m., in “Acts of God, Acts of Nature, Acts of Humans: Hurricane Katrina and Other Disaster Puzzles” by Gene Rosa, professor at WSU Department of Sociology and the Edward R. Meyer Professor of Natural Resource and Environmental Policy at the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.
Both will be in the Multimedia Classroom Building Room 6 at WSU Vancouver. All seminars are free and open to the public.

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