Bobbie C. Bibgy Title : Tar Creek Toxic Tourism and the Possibilities for Environmental Justice and Tribal Sovereignty
Bobbie C. Bibgy
In the far northeastern corner of the state of Oklahoma lie lands and waterways promised to a diverse set of Tribal Nations forcibly removed to this area throughout the 19th century. Today, these lands are home to both tribal members and non-Indigenous peoples alike, but the landscape and waterways have been irrevocably assaulted and transformed as a result of 20th century lead and zinc mining and the waste left behind (Manders and Aber 2014). Long known with the unfortunate designation of the “worst EPA Superfund Site in the United States” (Meadows 2019), the Tar Creek Superfund area remains to this day an ecosystem that is striving to recover from toxic chat piles, polluted creeks and overmined lands caving in on themselves. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a Superfund site is a contaminated site that is eligible for federal funding, administered through the EPA, to clean and de-contaminate the site, particularly when “no viable responsible party” can be located (“What is Superfund?”, n.d.). Interconnected with this contaminated land and waterscape, the community members of the Tar Creek region and surrounding areas continue forward in an ongoing journey of healing and recovery from the severe impacts of this pollution on their health, wellbeing, sense of community and futures. At the forefront of efforts to keep the clean-up of the Tar Creek Superfund Site and the support for its communities going is the Local Environmental Action Demanded (LEAD) agency, founded by Rebecca Jim (Cherokee Nation), a long-time educator, counselor and environmental activist in the region. As part of her work in supporting local communities and educating visitors to the area, Rebecca has been leading Tar Creek Toxic Tours that allow participants to witness and experience first-hand the devastating impacts of the mining industry on the land and her people.
By taking a closer look at LEAD’s Tar Creek Toxic Tours in Northeastern Oklahoma, this article echoes claims made by Pezzullo (2007) that toxic tourism is capable of challenging hegemonic structures, institutions and practices while opening up discursive spaces capable of environmental and social reflection and change. These toxic tours carried out at the Tar Creek Superfund Site simultaneously engage with and interweave awareness around the themes of environmental justice, local agency, the sovereignty of Tribal Nations and disability awareness from lead exposure. In navigating and engaging with these different themes through the toxic tours, this article draws on Whyte’s notion of “environmental coalition building” (2010) as well as the writings of LaDuke and other Indigenous environmental activists (2016) who reflect on land, water and non-human living beings as relatives. These Indigenous perspectives emphasize the relationships that are at the foundation of all human-environmental interactions and serve as an important framework in understanding the potential for toxic tours to foster new relationships of understanding and care between humans and toxically assaulted landscapes. Moreover, these Indigenous voices—along with the Indigenous-led tour efforts that demonstrate these perspectives in action—also help to transform and expand thinking around environmental justice as a concept itself, as humans and our relationships to all non-human lifeforms serve as key threads in a larger web of what environmental justice has been and can be.
LaDuke, W. (2016). All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life. London: Haymarket Books.
Manders, G. C. and James S. Aber. (2014). Tri-State Mining District Legacy in northeastern Oklahoma. Emporia State Research Studies, 49(2), 29-51.
Meadows, Robin. (2019). “The Life and Death of Tar Creek: Rebecca Jim, Tar Creekkeeper.” Waterkeeper Warriors, 15(1), 28-33.
Pezzullo, P. C. (2007). Toxic tourism: rhetorics of pollution, travel, and environmental justice. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
“What is Superfund?” (n.d.). United States Environmental Protection Agency (website). Retrieved [15 January 2021], fromhttps://www.epa.gov/superfund/what-superfund
Whyte, K. P. (2010). An Environmental Justice Framework for Indigenous Tourism. Environmental Philosophy, 7(2), 75-92.