Military hazards are greater for Native Americans, according to sociological research

10/27/04

WASHINGTON, DC-A new study by sociologists at Washington State University (WSU) suggests Native Americans and their lands are disproportionately exposed to hazards posed by the U.S. military's explosive and toxic munitions.

The research, conducted by Gregory Hooks, chair of the WSU Department of Sociology, and Chad L. Smith, Texas State University-San Marcos professor and a former WSU graduate student, provides evidence that Native American lands tend to be located in the same county as sites deemed to be extremely dangerous due to the presence of a variety of unexploded military ordnance.

The researchers study, "The Treadmill of Destruction: National Sacrifice Areas and Native Americans," appears in the most recent issue of the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the American Sociological Association.

While a body of previous research has determined that Native Americans and other minority populations are often subjected to environmental inequalities as the result of economic and industrial activities, Hooks and Smith said this latest research is the first to systematically examine the role of the military in the uneven distribution of environmental hazards.

"The study demonstrates that much of the disproportional exposure of Native Americans to environmental dangers throughout the 20th century was the result of militarism, rather than economic competition," Hooks said. "And it shows that historically coercive governmental policies in locating Indian reservations are a major factor in determining their exposure."

The study cites historical evidence showing that the United States widely expanded its military infrastructure in the 1940s, and then reinforced that infrastructure again during the Cold War, each time using remote lands to serve as bombing ranges and weapons testing and storage sites. For the most part, the expansions occurred throughout the western United States, where by the 1930s much of the Native American population had been relocated to government reservations.

"These lands were remote, had a low population density and could be acquired in a very short period of time because the federal government already owned them," the researchers write of the military's expansions. "This contingent intersection of Indian conquest and the rise of the Pentagon placed Native Americans at great risk of exposure to noxious military activities."

Because national security restrictions make it difficult to gain information about bases that are functioning currently, the study examined publicly released documents from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer relating to closed military bases in the approximately 3,100 counties in the contiguous 48 states.

The research focused on sites containing unexploded ordnance, including landmines, nerve gases, and toxic and explosive shells, currently estimated to contaminate between 20 and 50 million acres of formerly used defense installations throughout the country.

Comparing U.S. Army Corps of Engineer rankings of the hazards posed by each closed site to the proximity and acreage of Native American-owned lands in each location, the study found a disproportionate number of the sites deemed most hazardous lay within close proximity to Indian reservations.

Even after accounting for a number of factors that influence the location of military bases and unexploded ordnance, "Native American lands," according to the authors, "are positively associated with the count of extremely dangerous sites. The more acres owned by Native Americans, the greater the number of such sites."

"Our research suggests that the toxic legacy of this unprecedented military expansion of the second half of the 20th Century left in its wake a spatial overlap pairing the forcible relocation of Native Americans and the expansion of the U.S. military," the researchers concluded. "This 'treadmill of destruction,' as we call it in our research, has systematically placed Native Americans in close proximity to extremely dangerous military sites.

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