Environmental justice is generally defined as equal access to resources and equal protection against risks, derived from the non-human environment regardless of race, gender, sexuality or class. And its absence can sometimes stand out more daringly than its existence — for example, the continued exposure to unclean water that has devastated the predominantly black city of Flint, Michigan.
While many observers date the rise of a movement against this inequality to the 1982 protests in North Carolina, the Rapid City flood was one of the first moments that motivated such activism. The multifaceted fight against environmental injustice around Rapid City after the flooding set the stage for the seminal North Carolina protests, as well as today’s Land Back movement and other recent movements led by natives, such as the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock over the past decade.
The Rapid City flood devastated the Native American community in Rapid City. Between 20-25% of those who died in the 1972 flood were Native Americans – in a city that was 90% white and only about 5-7% Native American in 1970.
This disparity stems from decades of discrimination in housing and employment. Among the places most devastated by the disaster were trailer parks and transitional dwellings built in the most dangerous parts of the Rapid Creek floodplain. These were places where the poorest residents of Rapid City lived – and being poor in Rapid City in the early 1970s often meant being Native American.
Cecelia Hernandez Montgomery, an Oglala Lakota woman born in 1910 on the Pine Ridge Reservation, remembers living in Rapid City in the mid-twentieth century. “Once I went to look for a house… and when I got there they found out I was Indian. They said, ‘Sorry, it’s been rented.’ ”
Stories like Montgomery’s abounded. Lakota reporter Tim Giago remembers applying for a job in Rapid City. The owner “looked at the request and then looked at me. …Finally, he said, “I’m not hiring anybody from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. ”
Through this type of discrimination, whites in Rapid City carefully managed where Native Americans could live, either by denying them well-paying jobs that could allow upward mobility, or by not renting or selling to Native Americans outside of a few selected neighborhoods, including some. directly into the Rapid Creek floodplain.
Not only did this discrimination place Native Americans directly in the Rapid Creek floodplain, leaving them vulnerable to flooding, but it also made it more difficult for them to recover afterwards. Flood refugees found it much more difficult to move from government-provided temporary housing to permanent housing.
In 1973, Edgar Lonehill, a member of the Rapid City Indian Flood Victims Association, told a congressional committee holding a flood hearing that his group had observed “some discrimination against Indian flood victims.”
Incidents included verbal abuse at a refugee camp on a nearby National Guard base, as well as more subtle forms of discrimination. Government relief agencies prioritized financial aid to homeowners (who were mostly white) over tenants (many of whom were Native American).
Hazel Bonner, a representative of the United Renters Council, a Rapid City advocacy group, testified before Congress that there was “discrimination in Rapid City against minority groups…especially Indians.” Bonner cited an experiment his organization conducted by sending a white potential tenant to tour apartments, followed immediately by a Native American tenant. “The white tenant…has three possible dwellings,” Bonner reported, while “the Indian tenant…has nothing.”
Additionally, city leaders have made conscious decisions to use federal relief money to revitalize downtown businesses rather than invest heavily in low-income housing for flood-affected people. . Soon, a new civic center arose. So has a flood memorial and a long stretch of parkland along the creek designed to prevent new construction in the floodplain. With much of the flood relief money spent on these improvements, rather than affordable housing, Rapid City’s housing crisis only intensified in the decades that followed. Today, Rapid City has a homelessness rate that is nearly three times the national average, and the majority of those experiencing homelessness in the city are Native Americans.
Yet such environmental injustice has also created space for new movements and activism. In the years immediately following the 1972 flood, Rapid City and the Black Hills became the epicenter of the Red Power movement, led by groups such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and Women of All Red Nations (WARN ). It was no coincidence. Activists cited the injustices made visible by the flooding as one of the reasons they made Rapid City a focal point of protest beginning in the 1970s.
Native American protests in the 1970s also fueled increased activism for environmental justice in and around the Black Hills. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, AIM and other Native American activist groups joined with mostly white environmentalists and even white ranchers to protest planned uranium mining. In the region. Calling themselves the Black Hills Alliance, these diverse stakeholders have held rallies and launched lawsuits, successfully stopping uranium mining before it started.
This activism predated by two years what many observers consider the moment that launched the movement for environmental justice: the 1982 protests by black residents of Warren County, North Carolina, against a proposed site of burial in their community. These protests have inspired communities across the United States to stage protests against environmental crises that have disproportionately affected communities of color, poorer communities, and women.
But the Rapid City flood had already catalyzed this kind of activism and a burgeoning recognition that the damage caused by natural disasters was often not natural, but the byproduct of bigotry and discrimination that increased the risks to poor communities and communities of color.
While the Warren County protests were aimed at visible environmental injustice, the Rapid City flood revealed that human decisions are causing natural disasters, such as flooding, to occur unevenly. Moreover, the example of Rapid City in 1972 shows how not only disaster, but even disaster relief, can become an issue of environmental injustice if not approached from an environmental justice perspective.
The Rapid City flood therefore has much to teach us about environmental justice 50 years later. “Natural disasters” will only become more frequent in our altered climate, and as they do, those in need – like the Native Americans of Rapid City forced to live in the floodplain by discrimination – will bear an unequal burden of risk and damage. Disaster mitigation strategies could respond to this reality by making communities at risk a priority.
Yet environmental justice need not be merely reactive; it can also take the form of planning and prevention measures. Some institutions are already doing this. In May, the Biden administration announced a new environmental justice office within the Department of Health and Human Services. However, such actions are only the beginning. Addressing environmental injustice requires a proactive and systemic approach if we are to prevent communities from simply doubling down on past wrongs.