Rai, also known as stone money, located in Yap. Sea level rise and coastal storm events threaten local communities, cultural resources, and

This article from the fall 2020 edition of the Nonprofit Quarterly, there published as “Indigenizing Environmental & Climate Justice: Reconciling the Past May Be the Only Way to a Sustainable Future,” is part of a series of works on the subject of environmental justice and Indigenous communities in the United States, curated by Raymond Foxworth of the First Nations Development Institute. More articles will come this week, and join us this Thursday on October 15 for a webinar on the topic featuring three of the authors, hosted by Senior Editor Steve Dubb.

The environmental struggles of Indigenous peoples across the world are unique. Whereas the impacts of large-scale industrial activities pose an increasing threat to the well-being of human populations and ecosystems around the world,1 these threats disproportionately endanger Native peoples, who already, for generations, have been robbed of health, prosperity, cultural access,2 access to natural resources for subsistence purposes, and other well-being indicators. And these impacts are often exacerbated in Indigenous communities by histories of intergenerational trauma,3 including the violent displacement of Native peoples from their ancestral homelands.

Generally, across the planet, there has been an increase in awareness regarding social justice issues, including issues of environmental4 and climate justice.5 These movements have surely reinforced each other—environmentalists’ long-standing concerns about the health of the planet appear to have received a much-needed boost, driven in part by people directly seeing and experiencing the effects of climate change on their local communities.

Most, if not all, environmental justice and climate justice frameworks tend to focus on more recent environmental harms and subsequent environmental degradation. But injustices perpetuated against Indigenous peoples and their lands have a much longer history and are still firmly rooted in worldviews connected to exploitation and domination of land and its resources.

Social movements focusing on environmental and climate justice need to evolve to center histories of Indigenous injustices and the ongoing consequences for Indigenous peoples. Whereas mainstream discussions of environmental racism typically focus on contemporaneous acts of land use and resource exploitation, Indigenous environmental issues are deeply rooted in cyclical acts of displacement and alienation.

This article provides a brief summary of this past and its linkages to communities of people, both in the United States overall and Hawai’i specifically, who have been routinely attacked, pilfered, and excluded from the prosperity and opportunities that should be available to all. Within this history, contemporary acts of environmental racism in Hawai’i are considered and serve as an important lesson when considering how climate issues should be addressed in the Pacific more broadly. Finally, intersectional environmentalism is examined as one potential area in which a more holistic approach to environmental justice and just futures can be considered.

The environmental histories and traumas of Indigenous peoples remain largely absent from the environmental justice discussion, and this must be remedied if we are to develop pathways to a just, sustainable future.

How Historic Injustices Have Robbed Communities of Their Power

Communities that have been violated by historic injustices are more likely to suffer environmental impact than those that have enjoyed historic privileges.6 The US Water Alliance explains: “Vulnerable communities face historic or contemporary barriers to economic and social opportunities and a healthy environment. The principal factors in community vulnerability are income, race or ethnicity, age, language ability, and geographic location. This may include low-income people, certain communities of color, immigrants, seniors, children, people with disabilities, people with limited English-speaking ability, rural communities, Tribal communities, people living in unincorporated areas, people living in public housing, and currently or formerly incarcerated people.”7 This is a good example of a definition and framework that appropriately covers the range of vulnerable communities.

All of these groups would benefit from approaches centering upon the long history of settler violence—acts of latent and manifest aggression directed at peoples by settler-colonial forces—that first were perpetuated against Indigenous peoples. This engenders a discussion that recognizes what is largely spoken of as “vulnerability” but which really ought to be relabeled “threat”—not as a modern phenomenon but rather as a fundamental tenet of Western culture that extends back to the very origins of American society. Understanding that the ways in which inequality and the seizure of land and resources by certain groups at the expense of others are embedded within the foundation upon which the United States was built helps reframe the discussion about the origins of our environmental problems.8

The past is often romanticized. From historians to scientists to climate change activists, too many start the timeline to today’s environmental crisis in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. This is understandable, given that this is when many groups, particularly people of color (including immigrants), enter the American narrative—but the story actually begins much earlier. It begins when westerners arrived on Indigenous lands and began to interact with Native peoples and their ancestral resources.

Hawaiian and local community members work together to restore a traditional Hawaiian fishpond. PHOTO: TRISHA KEHAULANI WATSON-SPROAT

In Hawai’i, this began with the arrival of British explorer James Cook, who happened upon the Hawaiian Islands during a 1778 voyage in the Pacific. Native Hawaiians quickly began to fall ill with diseases introduced by Cook and his sailors. These foreign-introduced diseases included gonorrhea, syphilis, and, likely, tuberculosis. (Cook also introduced alcohol to the islands.9) By the beginning of the 1800s, foreign diseases were having crippling effects on the Indigenous populations. In 1804, approximately 15,000 died from a ma’i ‘ōku’u epidemic (literally, the squatting disease, likely cholera), including high chiefs. The Native Hawaiian population would collapse from an estimated 300,000 at the time of Cook’s arrival10 to a low of 34,000 by 1890.11

Westerners seized upon the opportunity to acquire land holdings and resources, including fresh water, taken from the ailing Native population. Despite efforts to protect land for the Native people, settlers continuously pulled land resources away from Hawaiians. Much of this was to occur through manipulations of policy and litigation12 that continue to dispossess Hawaiians of their family lands to this day.13

By recognizing how inequality, discrimination, and violence were present in American culture from the first arrival of Europeans, we shift from viewing environmental degradation as resulting from industrialization and technology to understanding it as grounded in long-standing American values—and the ways in which those values perpetrate grave harm against people and the environment. Native peoples were the first to be affected, and continue to suffer the effects today.14

Undoubtedly, America’s violent racism, early and present, has devastated other groups—most critically, Black Americans. The purpose of this article is not to attempt to give a full history of America or quantify which groups are the most impacted by its culture, but rather to highlight that it was in Indigenous communities where the intersection of racism and environmental abuses originated, and that the current crisis of environmental injustice extends from long patterns of displacement that allowed settler groups access to ecologically rich lands and resources, while Native peoples were forced onto less fertile lands with scantier resources. Additionally, Western settlers established property boundaries that were based on political agendas rather than environmental sustainability.15 The effects of these political constructs remain today. While the resulting disparities and inequities are felt by multiple classes of people in communities across the country, Indigenous peoples’ experiences are distinct, often overlooked, and worthy of further understanding.

Kinship above All Else

The Western Christian worldview that drove and largely shaped dominant American practices centered on dominion theology,16 which built in part upon the passage from the King James Bible version of Genesis 1:28, in which God gives humans dominion over the earth. The passage reads: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’”17

But Indigenous worldviews and connection to lands have always been fundamentally different from those of Western Christianity. First, the relationship Indigenous peoples share with their ancestral lands is one of kinship above all else. Epistemologies were constructed around cosmologies centered on origin stories that linked the genealogies of Native peoples directly to the earth, often through earth or sky progenitors. In Hawaiian tradition, Earth Mother is known as Papahānaumoku, and Sky Father is Wākea.18 Margo Greenwood and Nicole Marie Lindsay explain, “Indigenous values, beliefs, customs and protocols are meant to maintain the relationships that hold creation together.”19 When colonization dismantled these relationships, environmental destruction ensued.

The outcome of the displacement and diaspora resulting from foreign contact is the traumatizing forced removal of these descendants from their earth ancestors. One of the most devastating consequences of this was that the Native Hawaiian peoples, who thrived prior to foreign contact, were left largely unable to steward their ancestral lands.

Stewardship, and in particular the self-sufficiency it accords, presumes the active presence of a population physically capable of completing the daily tasks necessary to manage resources and maintain food sovereignty. The loss of life from foreign diseases meant a significant reduction in the physical labor needed to maintain self-reliance. Family members were burdened with the additional task of caring for others afflicted with illnesses of which Hawaiians had no previous experience, leaving them without traditional knowledge and medicines to turn to for treatment. Resulting infertility left many families without descendants to inherit land and take on stewardship.

Ecocolonization, “the process by which Western forces simultaneously colonize indigenous natural resources and the First People who inhabit that environment,” is a useful lens through which to focus on these early environmental histories. It centers environmental injustice questions around colonization and imperialism—historical patterns that have done their utmost to marginalize and alienate Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLC) over the course of centuries.20

Ecocolonization has proved to be physically, psychologically, and spiritually devastating for many Native communities, not only Native Hawaiians. For instance, regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, UN News reported that, on the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres noted, “Throughout history, indigenous peoples have been decimated by diseases brought from elsewhere, to which they had no immunity.”21 The report continues, “While indigenous peoples already faced deep-rooted inequalities, stigmatization and discrimination prior to the current pandemic, inadequate access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation increases their vulnerability, [Guterres] added.”22  It must be recognized first and foremost that many environmental challenges today originate in foreign settlement that saw the environment and natural resources like forest products23 and water24 as commodities.


Shoreline immediately in front of my husband’s family home. The modest ancestral property has been threatened by numerous flood events and other effects of the rise of sea levels, where the family has fished and dived for food for generations. For decades, the family has used natural elements to maintain the shoreline, like the mature “false” kamani trees, which have an extensive and strong root system that helps to keep sand in place. PHOTO: TRISHA KEHAULANI WATSON-SPROAT
Less than fifty meters from my husband’s family home, king tides and sea level rise have resulted in the complete loss of shoreline areas where families fished for generations. Cultural resources also show that the area was traditionally inhabited by Native Hawaiians. PHOTO: TRISHA KEHAULANI WATSON-SPROAT

Environmental Racism in Hawai’i

In 1986, the United Church of Christ (UCC) initiated studies “to determine the extent to which African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and others are exposed to hazardous wastes in their communities.”25 The study concluded that “disproportionate numbers of racial and ethnic persons residing in communities with commercial hazardous waste facilities is not a random occurrence, but rather a consistent pattern.”26  Despite the environmental justice movement that grew following the publication of the UCC study, very little, if any, effort to identify patterns of environmental racism occurred in Hawai’i.

My 2002 master’s thesis may be the first study to look at how environmental racism27 applies to Hawai’i’s local communities.28 The study shows how many of the locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) are concentrated in regions with disproportionately high populations of Native Hawaiians. Unlike many Tribal communities, Native Hawaiians do not have reservations. Instead, they have Hawaiian Home Lands—government-controlled and managed lands set aside for Hawaiians with 50 percent or more blood quantum. The federal legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress at the urging of Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana’ole—heir to the Hawaiian kingdom, who would become the territory’s second U.S. congressman—who felt deep concern over his people’s alienation from their homelands. Selected and set aside by the federal government during the time when Hawai’i was a territory of the United States, these homesteads led to areas with high concentrations of Native Hawaiians. This has been enabled in part by zoning policies that fail to include protective measures for low-income, high-minority or Indigenous communities, and also in part by the comparatively lower political influence held by these communities.29

This study also discusses how O’ahu’s two primary landfills, the municipal Waimānalo Gulch Sanitary Landfill and the PVT construction landfill, were both located in the same district, Wai’anae, heavily populated by Native Hawaiians. In fact, Wai’anae and the larger Leeward Coast of the island of O’ahu are home to one of the largest concentrations of Native Hawaiians in the world.

Two years after the study, in 2005, the Hawaii State Legislature passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 140, which directed Hawai’i’s Environmental Council to “develop and promulgate a guidance document on including principles of environmental justice in all phases of environmental review undertaken pursuant to Chapter 343, Hawaii Revised Statutes.”30 Despite some policy guidance from Hawai’i’s Office of Environmental Quality and Control—which required a nominal consideration of environmental justice issues in environmental review documents—environmental justice regulations were never codified into law. In 2019, when the office updated its regulations, environmental justice considerations were entirely absent.

Nonetheless, an environmental justice movement began to catch fire in Wai’anae, and studies began focusing on the problem of environmental racism in that district.31 In 2009, the environmental organization KAHEA, in collaboration with a number of local organizations, started Huaka’i Kāko’o no Wai’anae—Environmental Justice Bus Tours.32 More people started learning about environmental justice, and specifically the environmental racism that continued to grow on the Wai’anae coast. As one 2012 article explained:

When heavy rains overtopped a reservoir above the municipal landfill and spilled into storm sewers, medical waste washed up on Waianae beaches. The Waianae coast is also home to eleven of eighteen sewage treatment plants, two oil refineries, and the privately owned PVT Nanakuli Construction and Demolition Material Landfill. Residents complain that construction debris includes asbestos dust and other toxic particles blown downwind, contaminating their homes and the nearby elementary school.

From an environmental justice viewpoint, Waianae has a poverty rate double the island average, and is home to Oahu’s largest Native Hawaiian population.33

Whereas the city and county of Honolulu had committed to close the Waimānalo landfill and find a new location, the private owners of PVT Land Company Limited pushed forward with expanding their landfill in Wai’anae, seeking approval to encroach into previously undisturbed lands that house important cultural resources and serve as critical parts of traditional watersheds in the region. For years, PVT has been immediately adjacent to residential communities. Also within the immediate vicinity of the landfill are schools, homes, churches, parks, medical clinics, and community centers.34

Additionally, despite nearly two decades of growing concern about environmental justice issues in the area—about which residents and activists had been vocal—the environmental impact statement for the expansion did not make any reference to or take into any consideration the environmental justice impacts of the project on the communities, particularly the Native Hawaiian community. In response to PVT’s refusal to consider environmental justice issues, community members mobilized to pass legislation at both the county and state levels to stop the expansion. The municipal measure was still pending as of August 2020, but a state measure to create a buffer zone between landfills and residential areas had passed during a January 2020 legislative session. Senate Bill 2386 prohibits any waste or disposal facility from being located in a conservation district, except under emergency circumstances, to mitigate significant risks to public safety and health; it also requires no less than a one-half-mile buffer zone around residences, schools, and hospitals for the construction, modification, or expansion of a waste or disposal facility.35 PVT’s private owners launched a lobbying and public relations campaign to encourage Hawai’i Governor David Ige to veto the bill.36 Happily, despite their efforts, Governor Ige signed the bill into law on September 15, 2020.

The example of PVT demonstrates how strongly political environmental racism is in Hawai’i. Even when communities are able to mobilize to be politically influential, private interests work hard to retain power in a manner that best serves their financial interests, even above the welfare of natural or cultural resources. This is a critical lesson to apply to discussions of climate change. As widespread impacts from climate change increase, governments will need to develop equitable ways of implementing climate adaptation, so that the environmental injustice that plagues so many communities does not become further exacerbated.

Climate Injustice on the Horizon

My husband grew up in a small town called Hau’ula, on the North Shore of the island of O’ahu. His childhood home is a small community, where just about everybody knows one another. The majority of the homes are modest dwellings built over a century ago that have been in families for generations and remain largely unchanged. Many of the families also rely on the ocean for subsistence and traditional practices.

Lacking access to the capital and/or other resources to protect their properties, many multigenerational family homes, like those near my husband’s family home in Hau’ula, are directly feeling the threat of climate change and the potential loss of family lands. A 2019 Civil Beat article about the problem of inequity in the climate response explains:

Wealthy foreign investors and U.S. mainland speculators have snatched up many of the oceanfront properties in Hawaii, turning them into second homes or vacation rentals for the hordes of tourists who come to experience the islands each year.

But there are also many homes still owned by longtime middle-class residents who bought them before prices skyrocketed or inherited properties from relatives at a time when global warming was discussed more in scientific journals than on international stages as the biggest crisis of our time.37

Multigenerational families and working-class families—many of whom are Hawaiian or the descendants of immigrant laborers brought to Hawai’i to work on island plantations, and who inherited their shoreline property from family—increasingly are finding themselves faced with the challenge of protecting their homes as sea levels rise. These families largely rely on natural or low-impact ways—like the maintenance of large trees and other vegetation along shorelines—to protect their properties and livelihoods. This is a stark contrast to new, wealthy, predominantly white residents in the region, who have taken expensive, extreme, and unpermitted measures to build large seawalls to protect recently purchased properties—measures that have significant impacts on beaches and coastal areas. Seawalls are by and large illegal in Hawai’i. Recognizing the serious adverse impacts these structures have on coastal areas, the state has taken measures to significantly limit homeowners’ ability to fortify their properties, generally limiting that privilege to seawalls that have been in existence for generations and are grandfathered into state law. Yet this has not stopped wealthy landowners from taking steps, even illegal ones, to protect their expensive homes.

Just down the road from Hau’ula, no more than fifteen miles away, is the area most people have in mind when they picture the North Shore, increasingly defined by large palatial estates. Once inhabited by traditional Hawaiians, the area is now dominated by first-generation residents, many attracted to the area’s surfing community. Hawaiian and local residents are often harassed and chased away from beaches by these newcomers. A comparison of these two different towns and two different communities tells us much about the looming climate injustice and its potential impact on Indigenous peoples.

Over the past few years, local news outlets have reported stories of wealthy North Shore landowners taking steps to build large seawalls and otherwise fortify the shoreline between their homes and the sea. One well-publicized example is the case of James and Denise O’Shea, who purchased a beachfront property on O’ahu’s iconic Sunset Beach. The O’Sheas bought the property in 2001 for a comparatively reasonable price of $575,000. Within five years, they would make $38,500 worth of improvements to the home, resulting in an increase in the total property assessed value from $596,300 in 2001, when they purchased the home, to $2,043,100 in 2007, after the improvements were completed.38

In 2001, when the O’Sheas made their investment, the threat of sea level rise,39 across t