Skip to main content

Contamination of American Rivers Triggers International Complaint

Alberto Saldamando
IITC General Counsel


    International Indian Treaty Council Files Human Rights Complaint for
    Indigenous Peoples in US to UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food


History was made on January 7, 2005, when the International Indian Treaty Council [IITC] submitted a formal Human Rights Complaint against the United States to the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mr. Jean Zeigler. The case was submitted by IITC on behalf of the Pit River Tribe of Northern California, the Yupik City of Gambell, the Gambell Common Council, and The Alaska Community Action on Toxics. It focused on the denial of Indigenous Peoples' Right to Subsistence in the United States as a result of the toxic contamination of their traditional foods.

IITC General Counsel Alberto Saldamando coordinated a team of IITC staff and impacted community representatives from Northern California and Alaska to compile documentation and testimonies for submission to the Rapporteur. He commented that "this is the first time we are aware of that the Rapporteur has accepted a case from Indigenous peoples whose right to food has been affected by toxic contamination caused by the legacy of mining and military toxics dumping which is the focus of our case. It will no doubt open the door for many other similar cases to be submitted, both in and outside the United States."

The main examples provided by the IITC were the ongoing methyl-mercury contamination of subsistence fish caused by abandoned gold-rush era mines in California and the dumping of PCBs and other contaminates by the US military in Indigenous communities around Alaska, in particular on
St. Lawrence Island.

Documentation was submitted from both Alaska and Northern California on the severe and persistent environmental and health affects experienced by Indigenous communities who traditionally have relied on subsistence foods as the basis of their diet as well as their cultural and spiritual practices.

[The evidence submitted by IITC included] tribal resolutions, statements from organizations representing impacted communities, as well as testimonies from elders and other community members in California and Alaska. The forced choice imposed on Indigenous peoples [by the pollution]—to risk health effects which in many cases included severe impacts on newborns, infants and young children, or to abandon their traditional subsistence way of life—was itself cited as a violation of their human rights.

The filing to the UN Rapporteur documents the toxic legacy of mercury contamination from the California Gold Rush and the impacts on Northern California's Tribal Peoples.

In 1999, a total of 13 Northern and Central California bodies of water were the subjects of [EPA] fish consumption advisories due to hundreds of tons of mercury contamination produced by now-abandoned mines, many of which continue to leach mercury into the environment.

IITC's filing also documents how the United States military, industrial mining and oil corporations have used the lands and waters of Alaska as a dumping ground, allowing contamination to affect the traditional lands, waters, and foods of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska. There are approximately 700 formerly used defense sites in Alaska, many in close proximity to Alaska Native communities and traditional fishing and hunting grounds and waters. Alaska has been used as an experimental testing ground for the military's nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare programs. Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) has documented 2,000 hazardous waste sites in Alaska. Indigenous peoples of the north are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of persistent chemicals because they are reliant on traditional foods such as fish and marine mammals.

Documentation was included stating that Native children in the Yukon River Delta in their first year have ten times the national rate of hospitalization for respiratory infections, and that, since 1990, the occurrence of cancer among Alaska Natives has been rising at a 30 percent higher rate than Whites. Studies showing above-normal levels of toxic substances such as cadmium, mercury, and PCBs in the blood of Natives who live in the Yukon delta, Northwestern Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands were also cited.

The case also highlights the failure of the United States government and its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to clean up contaminated sites, regulate or control contamination, adequately inform Indigenous communities about dangers and options, or to uphold its Treaty and trust obligations to Indian Nations in this regard.
The National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC), an environmental group composed of 170 member tribes, provided testimony to support this:



    NETC is deeply concerned about the Nation's American Indians and Alaska Natives who consume mercury laden fish and other wildlife, and subsequently suffer the adverse health effects of this consumption… The proposed UMR [the EPA's Utility Mercury Reduction] rule fails to protect and preserve federal treaty trust resources, such as hunting and fishing rights, which are considered integral to many tribes continued existence…
    Instead, EPA instructs these groups—and particularly children and women of childbearing age—to reduce or eliminate fish from their diets in order to “avoid” the risks of mercury contamination. Thus, rather than take steps to reduce meaningfully the sources of these risks, EPA shifts the burden to those who are exposed and asks them to protect themselves.

Evidence was also included that the US Department of Defense (DoD) and the US Department of Energy, as well as other federal and state agencies, frequently dismiss links with contaminants as "anecdotal" or blame the life-styles of those who are suffering from health problems.

Ron Englishoe, a tribal leader from Fort Yukon, an Athabascan Indian village located in the interior of Alaska 390 miles north-northwest of Anchorage, affirmed that:

    “ No matter what documentation we make, the military people ignore us completely. They listen to us, but that's about all they do. It seems like the age group of people getting cancer are getting younger and younger. So many members of our family died from cancer, are dying from cancer.”

The next step will be for the Rapporteur to file a formal "communication" to the United States government notifying them that this human rights violation charge has been received. The IITC and the participating communities are monitoring the United States' response and the progress of the case closely. The Rapporteur may be able to visit Indigenous communities in these and other affected areas in the United States to collect additional testimony and documentation. Clearly the cases sited in this submission represent only the "tip of the iceburg" for Indigenous Peoples in the US and around the world.

This article was reprinted with permission from Treaty Council News, a publication of the International Indian Treaty Council.


Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.