Date of Award

Spring 5-11-2022


Environmental Studies


John Van Buren


As the colonial ideals that underscore the United States’ founding have bled into modern environmental policy, Indigenous communities have continued to be disenfranchised from and systematically oppressed through the creation, protection, and management of public lands. This, in turn, has manifested as vast human rights abuses through methods of cultural and physical genocide. This thesis examines the role extractivism and land grabs on public lands play in violating the basic human rights of many Indigenous populations, using the case study of extractivism on Bears Ears National Monument as a guiding framework. Chapter 1 provides an overview of public lands and land management strategies in the United States using relevant governmental and scientific data. It also outlines the ecosystem services provided by public lands, including cultural, regulating, supporting, and provisioning services, as outlined by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Building on this, Chapter 2 provides an environmental history of public lands, land grabs, and extractivism benefiting settler-colonial actors such as corporations and the U.S. government from both an Indigenous and settler-colonial perspective. Chapter 3 applies a political science perspective, focusing on the political autonomy of Native American nations, the legality behind land grabs and extractivism, and efforts to block these actions, such as the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition’s lawsuit against former President Trump. Chapter 4 takes a public health perspective, examining the role of various extractive industries on public lands in creating and perpetuating public health crises in surrounding communities, particularly focusing on the impacts of uranium mining in the Diné (Navajo) Nation. Additionally, it frames the crisis as an environmental justice issue and highlights the role of environmental racism in allowing and encouraging these processes. Finally, Chapter 5 puts forth suggestions for more effective policy creation in managing public lands such as an increased focus on capacity building and the implementation of LandBack initiatives based on the topics discussed in this thesis. Additionally, it explores how effectively addressing human rights abuses that result from extractivism and land grabs must involve prioritizing Indigenous voices in government and policy creation and abolishing colonial structures in public lands management.