Indigenous People With Disabilities Are on the Front Lines of the Climate Crisis

The World Health Organization estimates that 15 percent of the world’s population has a disability. There are 360 million Indigenous people in the world, representing 5 percent of the global population, comprising 5,000 distinct groups in over 90 countries. There is scarce statistical data on Deaf, disabled and ill Indigenous populations globally, but some data suggest that rates of disability in some countries are as high as 50 percent of the Indigenous population.

These higher rates of disability are common anywhere the colonizer has invaded. This is caused largely by a legacy of systematic oppression and genocide that has never ended. This includes environmental destruction that has had devastating impacts on the health of Indigenous people and has especially endangered disabled Indigenous lives.

The escalating climate crisis is increasingly impacting Deaf, disabled and ill Indigenous people. Yet, in the face of this destruction, little support or reparations are on offer. In fact, the disproportionate impact of the climate crisis on disabled Indigenous communities is yet another aspect of a colonial genocide that has never ended.

Impacts of a Colonial Environment

Kera Sherwood-O’Regan (Kāi Tahu) is the impact director at Activate Agency in *Aoteāroa (“New Zealand”), a social change agency led and owned by those with disabilities. Sherwood-O’Regan explained that in her Indigenous community the environment wasn’t traditionally viewed or treated as a separate entity from her people. The environment is a colonial concept that disconnects people from nature for primarily colonizing nations to plunder and profit.

Environmental degradation leads to a host of illnesses and disabilities that create further harms to Indigenous people, specifically. Twenty-two percent of the world’s land surface is recognized as Indigenous land representing 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. The U.S. Department of Interior estimates there are approximately $1 trillion in potential revenues from undeveloped coal, natural gas and oil on tribal lands. Timber is bountiful, as there are 18 million acres of forest land on the 56 million acres of federal trust land. The potential impact to the health of Indigenous people lies heavily in the hands of government and corporate entities that often steamroll over tribal sovereignty. The same is true across the globe.

The world’s largest uranium deposits sit on Indigenous land in what is known as Australia. In the 41 years it was in operation, the Ranger mine on traditional Mirarr lands had over 200 spills, leaks and breaches. In 2013, a Ranger tank leaked over 1 million liters of radioactive liquid. The Jabiluka and Koongarra uranium mines also occupy this land.

There are a number of health problems associated with uranium mining and long-term exposure, including cancer. Almost one-third of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had some form of long-term respiratory disease in 2012–13. A recent government study found that Aboriginal people near the Ranger mine had a 50 percent higher rate of cancer versus other Indigenous people in the Northern Territory of Australia. The study, however, claimed that the cancer rates weren’t linked to the mine and were a result of the high alcohol and tobacco consumption rates. Yet, there was limited input from Indigenous people themselves for this study, casting doubt on the accuracy of the study. Moreover, there is documentation of higher rates of cancer for Native people living near uranium mines in the “U.S.”

Meanwhile, the Wayuu people in La Guajira, Colombia, have experienced many harms as a result of one of the world’s largest open pit coal mines, Cerrejón mine. The Wayuu homeland is in a dry region with little access to clean water, which means the Wayuu must travel further in search of water or experience dehydration and other health impacts. It particularly impacts disabled Wayuu people as the lack of clean water has caused malnutrition and decreased growth in the children, potentially leading to an increased rate of death, disability and illnesses for the future. This is part of a larger legacy of violence against Indigenous people in the country.

Environmental degradation has led to not only increased droughts but also rising waters. Members of the Isle de Jean Charles tribal nation in southern Louisiana have become the first state recognized climate refugees in the “U.S.” They’ve lost 98 percent of their home island due to rising waters and coastal erosion. Sea level rise is so dire in Louisiana that the state is losing approximately a football field of land every hour.

Traditional ways of life and knowledge are lost alongside land, further assimilating Indigenous people into their colonizers’ way of life. According to Ida Aronson, member of and Sergeant at Arms for the United Houma Nation (UHN), their home territory of Montegut, Louisiana, once was a community where people could live off the land by growing and catching their own food. It wasn’t unusual to have five generations of family together every night to feast on crawfish and other traditional foods. Due to pollution that has killed off many of the local plants and animals they used to gather in the area, and due to a lack of grocery stores, Montegut is now a food desert.

“The food desert thing really frustrates me because we are the nation’s largest river swamp. We have all of what should be an amazing place to live and grow food and to thrive really,” Aronson told Truthout. Contaminated water has also led to reliance on bottled water, soda and other packaged and processed beverages, further harming a community with high rates of diabetes. Poorly managed diabetes can lead to a host of medical problems, including amputation and loss of vision.

Colonialism impacts health and disability for Indigenous people in a wide range of ways, according to Kahstarohkwanoron Lindsay Monture of the Kanienkehá:ka (Mohawk) Nation and Turtle Clan from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory in “Canada.” Monture is the director of programs at Indigenous Climate Action, an organization that creates tools and opportunities to uplift Indigenous voices, sovereignty and stewardship of the land. “Colonialism has forced us into systems that don’t belong to us; they aren’t made for us and they don’t care for us. When those systems fail, there is no support for the harms they cause,” Monture said. For example, environmental degradation leads to food insecurity as Indigenous Peoples become “more reliant on commercial foods shipped into remote communities, with high shipping and purchasing costs that are unsustainable.” Food insecurity can create a litany of health issues including reliance upon cheaper, but considerably unhealthy, foods.

Industry Control Over Survival

The United Houma Nation has attempted since the 1970s to gain federal recognition from the U.S. government, which could bring rights and resources such as health care and sovereignty over their oil-rich lands. Aronson believes the denial of federal recognition is due to the influence of the oil and gas industry. The loss of traditional ways of life and lack of tribal resources “serve to push people more into the oil industry because that’s the job that pays and puts food on the table because they can’t live off the land,” Aronson said.

The same fossil fuel industry that many tribal members depend on for survival is also leading to higher rates of illnesses and disabilities. In preliminary data from an unofficial, unreleased, ongoing community needs assessment conducted by the United Houma Nation, over half of its members reported a disability in a member of their household. One-third reported hypertension, which Aronson suggested is a side effect of working in oil and manual labor jobs. One-third also struggled with depression and half said their children had ADHD. Asthma and severe allergies were also highly reported.

Environmental Violence and Solutions

These disparate climate impacts on the health of Indigenous people clearly aren’t going away. The recently released UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report found that global temperatures are the hottest they’ve been in 100,000 years and that many of these “changes due to greenhouse gas emissions are irreversible for centuries to millennia, especially changes in the ocean, ice sheets and global sea level.” These rapidly accelerating temperatures are leading to an increase in both the number and severity of storms.

Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the Board of Directors for the North American Indian Center of Boston, is from the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana and was born with mild cerebral palsy. His family home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. What would normally be a six-hour drive from New Orleans to Houston took his family 18 hours during the evacuation. While Pierite was able to make this grueling trip, these conditions are dangerous, if not impossible, for other people with disabilities, such as those who rely upon items like breathing machines.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found that many of the people who died during Hurricane Katrina were disabled or living in nursing homes. A White House report found that approximately 71 percent of the victims were over 60, many of whom had medical conditions or disabilities. At least 68 people were found abandoned in nursing homes. While the total numbers of disabled people impacted by Katrina are unknown, the National Council on Disabilities stated in the past, “people with disabilities, especially those living in poverty, were disproportionately left behind in Hurricane Katrina.” Twenty-five percent of the population of the three cities hardest hit — Biloxi, Mobile and New Orleans — had a disability. As one study found there is almost no data on Katrina or other hurricanes impacts on Indigenous people either.

Deaf, disabled and ill people are often denied the right to evacuation through a lack of accessible news, information, resources, transportation and shelters. Plus, as disabled people disproportionally live in poverty, they often lack the financial resources to evacuate. This situation becomes more dire for those that are also Indigenous.

Compounding the United Houma Nation’s lack of resources are evacuation concerns for their disabled members. In a community with only a couple of roads, people in Montegut need to evacuate early in the event of a weather disaster, Aronson said, but evacuation for disabled people is incredibly difficult. For instance, the United Houma Nation only has two vehicles that are wheelchair accessible. One was broken at the time of our conversation.

Lanor Curole, tribal administrator and programs director of the United Houma Nation, told Truthout that because they’re not a federally recognized tribe, they don’t receive any Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds for evacuation or recovery. They have to rely solely on their parish and state governments. Curole went on to explain that through the state, those that are “medically needy” have to pre-register for early evacuation where they’ll be put in an unknown shelter that will supposedly meet health and disability needs. Curole said the way the program is administered though often leaves disabled and rural people behind. “A lot of people prefer to be on their own than deal with the system,” she said.

Compounding evacuation concerns are that storms are intensifying much more quickly and the government can’t keep up. Voluntary or mandatory evacuation for the lands of the United Houma Nation requires a 72-hour advance notice of landfall. As happened with Hurricane Ida, which hit on the 16th anniversary of Katrina and left many without water or power for days, there wasn’t 72 hours’ notice to evacuate, leaving many stranded. “It’s every man for himself,” Curole said.

Aronson said that evacuation and survival “really comes down to family relations.” However, Aronson and Pierite explained, many members of the United Houma Nation and Tunica-Biloxi tribes have relocated due to storms, leaving fewer family members to help the vulnerable. Meanwhile, Aronson said, “the saltwater intrusion is killing the local plants and the natural barriers to the storms … when the storms land, they hit harder and you have to go further inland [to evacuate].”

Not too far from Montegut sits Cushing, Oklahoma, the “pipelines crossroads of the world.” Oklahoma, which has a high populace of Indigenous people in the “U.S.,” is experiencing earthquakes caused by Oklahoma’s approximately 3,200 active wastewater disposal wells. The U.S. Geological Survey found that between 2014 and 2017, Oklahoma surpassed California as the most seismically active state in the continental “U.S.” In 2016, the Osage Nation of Oklahoma declared a state of emergency after being hit by a 5.8 earthquake, the largest in Oklahoma’s history.

Earthquakes are just the tip of the iceberg for Indigenous people in Oklahoma. A pamphlet by Physicians for Social Responsibility noted that, “Of the studies looking specifically at health impacts of unconventional gas development, more than eighty percent document risk or factual harms” and that 6 percent of the “U.S.” population live within one mile of an active fracking well, many of whom are historically marginalized people. Despite this documented harm, under the “Halliburton loophole,” many fracking chemicals are unknown as they’re considered “proprietary” and aren’t monitored under existing environmental regulation. This means the impact on health and disabilities could be catastrophic, but there is no way to definitively track fracking chemicals impacts on health, and to in turn, advance health care for these related illnesses and to hold industry accountable for these harms.

Resource-extractive industries’ activities compound the intergenerational and historical trauma many Indigenous people are burdened with. For example, the rates of murdered and missing Indigenous womxn, children and Two-Spirits are particularly high near “man camps, which are makeshift housing for overwhelmingly non-Indigenous, cisgender male construction workers. The situation became so dire in “Canada” that a national inquiry by the federal Canadian government, conducted between 2016-2019, ultimately concluded that this violence was genocide. “Resource extraction in our territories is the number one cause of our missing [Indigenous people],” said Lorraine Keeshkundug Clements (Anishinaabe), who worked on the inquiry.

Crossing the border is Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline that moves climate catastrophic tar sands oil from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin, where the headwaters of the Mississippi River meet Lake Superior. In Minnesota alone, this pipeline passes near or through three reservations. As Truthout reported, Minnesota state permits required Enbridge to create a public safety fund to cover certain costs related to anti-human trafficking efforts near the man camps. There has been an increase in reports of sexual harassment since construction began. In the fight to stop Line 3, which became operational on October 1, Indigenous Water Protectors have been brutalized and arrested by police and their health further jeopardized.

“The search for profit and capital over any concern for the safety and well-being of Native Americans has become a hallmark of the American government; combined with the apathy of the non-Indigenous and corporate greed, we will see our graves early while profit sectors continue to reap dollars drenched in the blood of our people,” said Jaike SpottedWolf of Camp Migizi, a frontline camp resisting Line 3.

Despite claims of support for tribal sovereignty and the end of violence against Indigenous womxn, the Biden administration hasn’t pulled permits for Line 3. In his first days in office, Biden approved over 30 exploratory drilling permits.

The EPA was repeatedly contacted for comment, but didn’t offer one.

Those in power know the catastrophic harm they’re causing. The Department of Defense has warned that the climate crisis will lead to greater conflicts across the world as people fight for remaining clean water and food. The U.S. Army has reported that the Pentagon should urgently prepare for the possibility that domestic power, water and food systems might collapse due to the climate crisis near mid-century. Ironically, the U.S. military is one of the world’s largest polluters and users of dirty energy.

The intersections of numerous oppressions are to blame for this situation, but colonialism is the underlying current. “We (Indigenous people) have to get back to being us because that’s what’s best for the environment,” said Pierite. “The power needs to be ceded even within very progressive, very environmentally conscious organizations. They have to be accomplices in the overall liberation movement in order for an Indigenous-centered healing and way of life to take place.”

Through the leadership of Deaf, disabled and ill Indigenous people in the climate movement, there’s an opportunity to end the destruction wrought by colonialism and ableism around the world.

*Quotation marks have been used around colonial nations’ names to recognize that these are Indigenous lands.