Perceptions of Economic Development,

Environmental Protection,

and Rural Indian Identity


J.D. Wulfhorst

University of Idaho

A.E.  Luloff

Pennsylvania State University

Stan Albrecht

Utah State University

Steve Lopez

Fort Mojave Indian Tribe



Recent literature reports Indian[i] Nations are experiencing a Renaissance period.  Indians are experiencing cultural, economic, and political shifts in local community development efforts.  Similar to other parts of rural America, local identity has emerged as a central feature of such development.  As a Tribe chooses a particular development strategy, it must also “negotiate” the accompanying social identities associated with these efforts.  This paper presents an analysis of survey responses from one Indian Nation in the Southwestern U.S.  This Indian Nation has taken a variety of proactive measures to carve out its own future by initiating infrastructural development and supporting certain commercial operations, while strongly resisting others that were perceived as being too great of a risk.  We focus on the degree to which residents feel a part of the community.  Factors including length of residence, feeling accepted or welcomed within the community, and values placed on environmental protection and economic development, are evaluated in relation to community identity.  Possible implications of these findings are advanced.

Many Indian groups, through civil rights struggles, sovereignty, and debates over the control of resources, have initiated a new Renaissance period in North America.  As part of that Renaissance, these groups have been a central and substantive presence in the fight for environmental justice over the past several decades (Churchill, 1992; Deloria, 1995; LaDuke, 1999).  This involvement reflects the Indians’ commitment to defend their land, and as a result, also defend their cultural history and contemporary communities.

Kuletz (1998) has argued that Indian groups in the southwestern United States have particularly suffered cycles of exploitation with respect to the nuclear landscape.  But they are not alone in this type of exploitation.   Indigenous Arctic peoples have suffered contamination from previous military intrusions (Kassi, 1996).  In the Dakotas, strip mining has raised serious concerns about the Oglala Lakota being downwind of contamination (Knox, 1993).  And, the Ojibwa of Canada have suffered what Erikson (1994) referred to as trauma as a result of mercury contamination of their historic waters.  Grinde and Johansen (1995, p. 5) have summarized this pattern as the “Ecocide of Native America,” noting in sharp contradiction to these patterns that Indian perspectives revere the earth as a “sacred space.”

Results from a recent study illustrate a symbolic modern response to this pattern of ecocide on Indian lands.  Among the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, over 90% of those responding to a 1999 survey indicated extreme opposition to a proposed low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) storage facility long-proposed for siting 20 miles west of their reservation in a location commonly known as Ward Valley.  In fact, the Fort Mojave activists have become the primary political force in the longstanding struggle with the California State Department of Health, private waste companies, and federal land/resource management agencies to site a Southwestern LLRW compact facility (which includes California, Arizona, North Dakota, and South Dakota).[ii]  The clash over Ward Valley has endured for over twelve years and remains a contentious government policy failure.  During this period, a waste company (U.S. Ecology) that proposed to store 55-gallon drums of radioactive waste in trenches in Ward Valley went to the brink of bankruptcy.

As a part of their concerns, the Fort Mojave anticipated impacts to native species, especially the desert tortoise, critical to their local landscape and symbolic definition of their people.   In the Mojave creation story, the turtle is an animal, but also a relative whose purpose is to educate the Indian tribes who live along the river about how to survive in the desert (Albrecht and Amey 1999; Klasky, 1997).  The Fort Mojave identify themselves as protectors and guardians of the Colorado River.  In this sense, the Fort Mojave identity includes aspects of the local ecology traditionally used by their community.  They fight for the space defined as sacred—including Ward Valley—because of its historical and cultural importance to the people who live there now.  These actions help define the Fort Mojave’s defense of their community.

This raises the central concern addressed in this paper: Does the near consensus opposition among the Fort Mojave respondents to oppose a LLRW facility reflect a community identity?  If so, what criteria can be used to evaluate the process by which a common association emerges in the minds of a group?  If not, can we determine what factors would constitute a community identity?   This paper analyzes Indian responses to community issues, their values for the natural environment, and their perceptions about development opportunities in order to assess the role that the struggle over Ward Valley played in this community’s identity.  In the context of the larger Indian Renaissance, this case offers a chance to better understand the complex social, political, and natural resources issues inherent in Indian policy at both the tribal/reservation level, as well as nationally.  Further, such an analysis also provides a chance to speculate on the meaning and implications of community identity.

Conceptual Background

When we describe the identity of a collective, such as a community, we cannot rely solely on the aggregate identities of its members.  Rather, a collective identity grows out of a group having something larger, or more than themselves to relate to, negotiate, and in which to participate (Carroll, 1995; Kemmis, 1990).  Kaufman (1959) pointed out that the interaction centered on a locality characterizes community and its accompanying identity.  The association with a particular place gives community identity its fabric.  Referring to community then, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts while also being territory-bound.

Groups and individuals of a locale make up the players in a community.  Interactions between and within groups create the synergistic components of community.  The identity associated with that community does not occur automatically; rather, identity centers around the interactions devoted to constructing a sense of place and commitment to the surrounding environment called home (Wilkinson, 1991).  Many have written about the psychological, or individual attachment to place and how a “rootedness” or “spatial identity” may emerge in conjunction with self (Bridger, 1996; Feldman, 1990; Kemmis, 1990).  Less understood, and less clear, is the relationship between place and collective identity.  However, much as Proshansky, Fabian, and Kaminoff (1983, pp. 62-3) argued about place-identity, community identity encompasses interrelated components centering on social interaction, including personal commitment, professional obligation, civic duty, and leisure.

Although rural sociologists have written about issues facing contemporary Indian communities (see Greider, 1993; Snipp, 1995), the subject of identity has received little, if any, attention in this literature.  To address this issue, we must place contemporary rural Indian communities in a context of common beliefs about natives.  A principal belief behind our study is the common view of the ecological Indian.  Detailed by Krech (1999), the ecological Indian stems from historical views of Indians as either noble or ignoble nature dwellers.  Over the centuries Anglos have defined Indians as peaceful, moral, and vigorous inhabitors of nature as well as bloodthirsty, threatening savages.  Both sides to this duality contribute to images of the ecological Indian.

The more contemporary version of these identities exonerates native Indians as being innately conservation-oriented.  According to Krech (1999, p. 21), such a perspective dominates modern preconceptions:

Time and again the dominant image is of the Indian in nature who understands the systemic consequences of his (sic) actions, feels deep sympathy with all living forms, and takes steps to conserve so that earth’s harmonies are never imbalanced and resources never in doubt.

What primary implication does this view of Indians as ecologists-in-practice have for evaluating a sense of identity?  From the perspective adopted in this study, it has everything to do with community identity because we cannot divorce the collective and symbolic level of such a phenomenon from culture and history.  Bridger and Luloff (1999, p. 383) emphasize how local social interactions comprise the intersection between culture and meanings for those associated with a place.  Essentially, we must describe the reputation of Indians as a group, in order to explicate current realities.  Clearly, the reputation of Indians as pure and wise in regard to the environment gets used and manipulated by the media.  Yet such a pattern explains little about the impact of such a reputation on local Indian communities, as well as its meanings within the groups it portrays.

Many Indian reservations and their Indian members experience a much more dynamic situation of development today compared to previous generations.  This has resulted in opportunity for what Bordewich (1996, p. 329) calls an increasingly ambiguous identity among Indians.  And although Krech (1999) claims the historical identity of the ecological Indian reflects more myth than reality, a mounting body of evidence suggests Indians today continue to create a groundswell of knowledge and subsequent protection of natural resources and the environment.  Greider’s (1993, p. 80) theoretical framework for Social Impact Assessment, which argued that “ . . . symbols and meanings are embedded in sociocultural belief systems, customs, traditions, and social interactions and they transform the nonhuman environment into meaningful sociocultural phenomena,” is an important basis for our own work.  This framework implies that if Indians project meaningful environmental symbols, then those symbols reflect the social and cultural dimensions of shared meaning that we have labeled community identity.

Our primary question asks whether a common collective response to a community issue represents a form of identity for that group.  Because social interaction is the basis for community, we believe how and whether one feels a part of, involved in, or included in the major events of a community may largely exemplify one’s association with a collective identity.  Feeling a part of one’s community reflects a feeling of belonging beyond oneself.  Belonging serves as a boundary by which membership is defined, for both insiders and outsiders (Coleman, 1957; Coser, 1956; Wilkinson, 1991).  We believe membership emanates from the positive interactions with others and that communities in part emerge from these interactions (Luloff, 1998).  A pattern of positive relations or interactions helps construct the identity of a collective.

Further, the length of time one has resided in a community also reflects the ability to feel a part of the activities in that community.  In a mobile society, length of residence often corresponds to satisfaction with place as modified by structural factors such as family and economic ties (Toney, 1976).  Even in cases where length of residence does not translate to satisfaction, long-term residence may reflect stronger sentiments toward the community (Goudy, 1990), a commitment to engage in community affairs (Liu, Ryan, Aurbach, & Besser, 1998), or a reflected interest and better understanding of the surrounding natural environment (Keenan & Krannich, 1997).

Feeling accepted or welcome in the community also plays a role in community members’ willingness to identify with the collective.  Individual acceptance of larger group identity occurs more readily when members share beliefs, values, and attitudes about the identity in question.  For those who negotiate the collective identity they associate with a place, feeling welcome and accepted may override concerns they have regarding their identity.  In this sense, identity for the collective persists as a dynamic shared reality.  Despite the potential for real consequential differences among members of a locality (Coleman, 1957), outsiders tend to associate members of a locale with a perceived image and reputation of that place.

To assess the interrelationships between the concepts discussed above, we also need to assess the values groups place on environmental quality.  Community response to environmental hazards demonstrates local knowledge about the fundamental and tenuous nature of the relationship between a group of people and their immediate surrounding environment (Kroll-Smith & Couch, 1991).  Because of this important characteristic of communities, assessing group identity should also impact local response to risk and threats within the local environment.

Last, given the unique and dynamic context facing many Indian communities today, it is important to compare values placed on environmental protection with those expressed toward economic growth priorities as they relate to community identity.  Environmental protection and economic development represent two key community development activities.  From an outsiders’ perspective, gauging the tendencies of a community—toward either environmental protection or economic development—has a lot to do with its associated collective identity.  Similar to how an insider either feels a part of the community events or not, the members of a town who represent that place, either formally or informally, also carry with them an identity negotiated through interaction that reflects the overall development approach practiced in a place.

Data and Methods

Research Setting

The Fort Mojave Indian reservation is bisected by the Colorado River overlapping the region where the states of Nevada, Arizona, and California meet.  The Fort Mojave Indians, known as Pipa Aha Macave, or “people who live along the water” traditionally practiced dryland farming along the banks of the Colorado River.  The Mojave have always taken pride in their pottery, beadwork, and tattooing.  In the late 19th Century, many Mojave began working for the Anglo settlers in the area, primarily at the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in Needles, CA.    Designated in 1911 by executive order, the Fort Mojave reservation totals over 31,000 acres.  However, the largest section of their

reservation in Arizona remains “checkerboarded” as a result of the federal government’s historic practice of giving the railroad every other section of land.

Today, the Fort Mojave have over 1,100 members, three-quarters of whom live on the reservation.  Over 60% of members are women.   Annual household incomes for Fort Mojave families average about $19,000, a figure slightly lower, but consistent with the data collected on this project.  Unemployment on the reservation remains high (37%), but is decreasing due to a number of newer developments.  The predominant religious affiliations for the Fort Mojave include:  Nazarene, Catholic, Pentecostal, and Jehovah’s Witnesses (Klasky 1997).

Like other tribes, the Fort Mojave altered their traditional leadership structure in 1957 and established a constitution and Tribal Council.  In the past decade, the Fort Mojave have substantially developed the reservation’s infrastructure and human capital.  By owning and operating tribal utilities, building their own school, and sponsoring local development efforts (including the new 4,000 acre planned Aha Macave residential project), the Fort Mojave have greatly improved their self-sufficiency.

The Mojave have active community programming in the areas of cultural heritage and recreation.  Commercially, the Fort Mojave own and operate two “smoke shop” convenience stores, a chain restaurant, two casinos, and tribal members farm a substantial proportion of the reservation’s acreage (12,000) in alfalfa and wheat crops.  About one-third of the reservation’s farm acreage is also leased to area Anglo farmers.  In late 1999, the Tribe broke ground for a new high-tech power plant scheduled to provide power to the surrounding region.  Working with CalPine (the power utility), the Tribe is actively seeking to both use and subsequently protect their primary natural resource—water¾in the Colorado River.  All these projects are on their reservation and are coordinated with the Tribe’s business development plan.

Data Collection

We collected data with the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe using multiple formats.  This analysis concentrates on data from a survey implemented with the Tribe in August 1999.  It is supplemented by personal accounts from Tribal members gleaned from extensive key-informant interviews conducted during 1998 and 1999.[iii]  Following two phases of on-site key informant interviewing, we negotiated with the Fort Mojave Tribe about the methods we could use to implement a questionnaire of Tribal members.  At the time of the survey, the Tribe could not provide a comprehensive utility-users list that could have been used to draw a random sample of households for survey distribution.  Additionally, Tribal leaders advised the research team that the most effective method for administering the questionnaire would be through offering some incentive to those who completed the survey.  Based on these recommendations, we settled on a design that invited Tribal members to voluntarily fill out a survey during one of three designated time periods at the end of August 1999.  Two tribal members also agreed to implement a drop-off/pick-up method during the same time slots to allow us to obtain data from tribal members who did not participate in the voluntary sessions.  Despite the potential for bias of like-group

responses, our research team agreed the voluntary design would provide some data, which we considered more informative than no data.

During the survey implementation phase, a member of our research team served as on-site coordinator.  The coordinator provided all the supplies, answered questions about the process, and collected completed questionnaires. Open time periods, each more than 6 hours and covering both weekend and weekdays, were established and advertised ahead of time.  Tribal members were allowed time off work at their convenience to attend one of these sessions.  Each session was held at the Tribal Council Chambers in the main office building for Tribal administration.  Most respondents took an average of about 30 minutes to complete the survey.

Overall, response to the survey was above average.  A total of 168 surveys were distributed.   Most of these were administered during the three sessions.   Workers hired to administer the survey using a drop-off/pick-up method distributed 34 questionnaires in areas they knew had the highest proportion of residents.   The workers reported back to the research coordinator with the completed surveys and where they had been completed.   For this reason, local knowledge was invaluable given the highly changeable nature of households on the reservation.  A total of 127 surveys were completed and returned (76% response rate).  About one-fifth (22%) of the respondents opted not to complete or failed to return the survey.  Two percent of respondents given a survey refused to complete it stating that the results would not change anything.   Each respondent completed their survey separately and was assured confidentiality of their responses.

Measurement of Variables

We measured the primary variable within our analysis, community identity, as the extent to which the respondent felt personally a part of and involved in major events and activities in the community (see Table 1).  Response categories included:  “not at all,” “somewhat,” and “completely.”  Length of residence was measured as a continuous variable (in numbers of years).  The third community-oriented variable, acceptance within the community, asked respondents the extent to which they felt accepted and welcomed in the community and was coded using the same scale as the community identity variable.

Table 1 

Substantive measures of community identity, environmental quality, and economic growth used in analyses



Community identity (dependent)          

To what extent do you feel personally a part of, and involved in, major events and activities in this community?

(Categories:  Not at all; Only somewhat; Completely)


To what extent do you personally feel accepted and welcome in this community?

(Categories:  Not at all; Only somewhat; Completely)

Length of Residence

How long have you lived in this community?  ____ years

Environmental Quality

Using a scale of 0 (Not at all important) to 10 (Extremely Important), please indicate how important you think each of the following items is for maintaining and improving the future quality of life in your community.

(Item:  Maintaining an unpolluted environment with clean air andwater)

Economic Opporunity

Same as “Environmental Quality” measure. (Item:  Increasing economic opportunities for local residents)


Please indicate whether you agree or disagree with each of the following statements about maintaining and improving the future quality of life in your community.

(Item:  It is more important to preserve and protect the natural environment than it is to promote economic growth)


The other substantive variables in this analysis focused on assessments of environmental quality and economic growth.  Using a scale of 1-3, those surveyed indicated how important each item on a list of factors was for maintaining the future quality of life in the community.  One variable asked about the importance of “increasing economic opportunities for local residents” and another asked about the importance of “maintaining an unpolluted environment, with clean air and water.”   The third and final variable in this set, environmental protection vs. economic growth, asked respondents to determine their level of agreement with the statement, “It is more important to preserve and protect the natural environment than it is to promote economic growth.”  The environmental protection vs. economic growth question measured responses on a scale of 1-5, ranging from “disagree strongly” to “agree strongly.”

Level of education, age, and gender were also included in this analysis as demographic control factors.

Analytical Procedures

The results section below presents a brief description of the frequency distributions for selected variables used in this analysis.   We also examine bivariate relationships between community identity and the various factors related to community, economy, and the environment following the frequency distributions.  The bivariate level of analysis indicates whether the strength and direction of the relationships are consistent with the conceptual framework.  Additionally, we provide crosstabulations of the community identity variable with the other factors.  Finally, we conduct a multivariate analysis of the same variables using ordinary least squares regression (OLS).

Analytical Results

A socio-demographic analysis of the characteristics of respondents revealed a high degree of homogeneity.[iv]  Table 2 presents percentage distributions of responses for the substantive variables in this analysis.  Only one-third of respondents in this survey indicated that they felt completely a part of the community.  The majority of the remaining respondents fell into the middle category, indicating that they felt “somewhat” a part of major local events and activities.  In contrast, nearly two-thirds of the same sample indicated that they felt completely accepted and welcome in the community, with only 3% of the respondents claiming they felt no acceptance at all.  These data (that 86% of respondents feel a part of the community and 97% feel welcome in the community) serve as strong indicators of the importance of identity and community to these respondents.

Table 2

Percentage frequency distributions for selected variables related to community identity


Feel a part of community

Feel welcome in community

Importance of environment

Local economic opportunities

Not at all (1)

Only somewhat (2)

Completely (3)









     Not important (1)


Extremely impt. (3)










Environmental preservation vs. economic development

Length of residence

Disagree strongly (1)




Agree strongly (5)







0-4 years (1)

5-10 years (2)

11-20 years (3)

21-50 years (4)

>51 years (5)







The community members, on average, lived in this community for nearly 24 years.  The data suggest limited migration out of the community.[v]  Over 45% of those responding have lived in this community for more than 20 years, while less than 10% of respondents have lived there for less than five years.

The two questions asking respondents to evaluate the importance of a non-polluted environment and need for increased economic opportunities were both heavily skewed.  Strong agreement characterized both response patterns, indicating that the respondents in this community perceived both an unpolluted environment and economic opportunity as important.  Despite the overall similarity, 83% of respondents deemed environmental quality as important to the future quality of life in the community, while fewer (72%) indicated the same for increased economic opportunities for local residents.

The question that asked for a prioritization between environmental protection and economic growth also revealed a tendency to favor the former over the latter.  Nearly 64% of the respondents agreed environmental quality should take precedence over economic growth, while only 27% disagreed strongly or somewhat.   Very few respondents (10%) expressed indifference toward the issue.

Table 3 displays results from the bivariate correlations.  The ‘welcome in community’ variable revealed the most consistent pattern of correlation to the other variables.  Feeling accepted or welcome in the community correlated with the community identity variable (r=.42; p#.01), environmental quality (r=.37; p#.01), economic opportunity (r=.28; p#.01), and environmental protection vs. economic growth (r=.21; p#.05).  The strongest correlation, however, existed between environmental quality and economic opportunity (r=.68; p#.01).  All of these correlations support the conceptual framework of this study.

Crosstabulations between community identity and the other analytical factors identified two relationships important to this analysis.  First, as would be expected, the more likely one felt completely accepted and welcomed in the community, the more likely she/he was to feel a part of the community.   Statistically significant (p#.01), this relationship had a chi-square (X2) value of 38.04.   Examination of the relationship between community identity and environmental quality revealed a similar pattern.   This result indicated a tendency for those who believed in the importance of maintaining an unpolluted environment to also feel a part of and involved in major events and activities in their community.  However, this relationship did not achieve the same level of statistical significance (p#.10).

Table 3

Zero-order correlations between community identity and selected predictor variables











(1)  Feel a part of community











(2)  Feel welcome in community











(3)  Importance of unpolluted environment











(4)   Importance of economic opportunity











(5)  Environmental preservation v. economic development











(6)  Length of residence











(7)  Level of education











(8)  Gender











(9)  Age











p < .05.  ** p < .01.

In order to determine the extent of the relationships between factors, we also performed a regression analysis.  This test tells us the effect of each of these factors on feeling a part of community, while taking into account each of the variables considered.  As shown in Table 4, the substantive factors discussed above related to community, length of residence, the environment, and economic development constituted Model I within the analysis.  The Model II analysis regressed three demographic control factors¾gender, level of education, and respondent age¾on the dependent variable.  The Model III analysis added the substantive and control variables in the same equation.

Model I of the multivariate analysis revealed a substantive association between our measure for community identity and feeling welcome or accepted by others in the community ($ = .39; p# .01).  This association suggested that feeling accepted in the community related to feeling a part of and included in community activities and events.  Within Model II, gender ($ =  -.20; p# .05) and age ($ = .18; p# .10) both showed weaker, yet statistically significant relationships to feeling a part of the community.   The combined Model III yielded very similar results of simply adding Models I and II, except length of residence increased its level of association with feeling a part of the community ($ = .17; p# .10).   Together, in Model III, the combined substantive and control variables explained over one-fifth of the total variance in our measure of community identity (adjusted R2=.22).  Thus, a variety of factors not measured or included in this analysis clearly affect community identity.

Table 4

Standardized regression coefficients and coefficient of determination for community identity and associated variables


Model I

Model II

Model III

Feel welcome in community




Importance of unpolluted environment




Importance of economic development




Environmental preservation vs. economic development




Length of residence




Level of education
















Adjusted R2




* p < .10.   ** p< .05.   *** p<.001.


We began with the question of whether a near-consensus response among a community constitutes an identity for that collective.  In this case, a perceived environmental threat galvanized the Fort Mojave community into an unprecedented and cohesive fight for justice and social sustainability of their Indian community.  Although the environment-related measures in this analysis did not indicate statistically significant relationships to the notion of community identity, perhaps the words of one Tribal member speak more to this concept:  “This morning I asked the Great Spirit to give me the words to penetrate, to reach you; We cannot and will not move from a place where we have lived since time immemorial” (Klasky 1998).  This message comes from the peak of a near-confrontation between Indian community members staging a two-year occupation of the Ward Valley site and federal officials attempting to evict them.  Our data indicate most Fort Mojave Indians have a strong community identity; the Fort Mojave’s actions and words demonstrate that their identity relates to the health and character of natural places and creatures.  As the Fort Mojave say - peace, honor, and dignity define the people as well as the human relationship to the landscape. 

In this analysis, the relative association between feeling a part of and feeling welcome/accepted within the community indicated that a collective—or community—identity does not emerge solely as a function of positive interactions between community members.  One Fort Mojave activist represents the community’s symbolic value of believing in the importance of a natural place:  “This is a sacred place to us.  There is no church or cathedral out here.  The entire valley is sacred to us.  Ward Valley, we call it Silyaye Ahease, is sacred to us.  This is our history, our culture, and our future” (Klasky 1998).   Identity, clearly, is multidimensional, but increasingly complex at a collective level.

From the Fort Mojave perspective then, environmental protection and economic diversification are coexistent goals.  The lack of a statistical association between these strong indicators and our measure of community identity indicates less support than expected for the idea that an ecological identity relates to a collective identity.  Still, these patterns exist within a sample of respondents with a relatively high average length of residence.   Longer residence also has limited ability to predict community identity in this analysis.  However, discussion with tribal members revealed their long-term connection to the place and region they call home had a lot to do with their values and sense of community.  A resolution passed by the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance during the Ward Valley struggle reflects these values:

. . . whereas:  These Tribes were given instruction by their Creator on all aspects of survival and to be caretakers of their Traditional land and use areas where they were placed; and whereas:  These Traditional lands have extreme religious, cultural, and archaeological, non-renewable sources and resources that relate and tie them spiritually and physically in these areas; and whereas:  The retention of culture, native language, traditions, and land based reference areas prominent in native song and oral history is a main objective of these Tribes in order to maintain a distinct identity as individual Tribes; . . . (BanWaste Coalition 1997).

Perhaps for the Fort Mojave, contemporary and Euro-centric constructions of  “the environment” and “economic development” do not fit the symbolic meanings they have for these phenomena.  Rather, sustenance of their heritage, community, and identity are the definitions they use to make sense of what is meaningful to them.

Essentially, the Fort Mojave people, as many other Indian tribes, live complex modern lives.  Moreover, the Fort Mojave face similar sustenance challenges affecting non-native rural communities.  Yet the Fort Mojave Tribal members define their relationships to the landscape in different symbolic terms than Anglos who settled in the same region.  Indian identities in rural areas arguably combine cultural traditions and heritage of the past with how contemporary outsiders perceive them.  One such characterization is the ecological Indian.  This image remains dominant within Anglo culture to the extent that surprise or astonishment often emanate from those who encounter entrepreneurial or “successful” Indians by modern Westernized standards.  One Tribal elder explained his perception of the changes between “old” and “new”:

Some of the traditional ways and spiritual links are lost.  But some of them are coming back.  Our people are finding it within themselves and figuring out our roots are still our homes.  But since the 1950s, we rely on ourselves¾for transportation, education, livelihood.  Before we relied on Creator¾for crops, food, rain.  Ward Valley is different though, because the waste would have direct, tangible effects, mostly in the river, which is our lifeblood, and to the tortoise, who is our brother.  No recent use doesn’t mean discontinued use.

This passage illustrates how many Fort Mojave members perceive themselves and their relationship to their natural surroundings.  It is not important for them to neatly fit an academic definition such as ecological Indian.   Their identity is expressed in community support and commitment to such values as indicated by their continuous encampment vigil staged at the Ward Valley location (Albrecht and Amey 2000).

The Fort Mojave use the expression “since time immemorial” to describe their enduring presence in the desert landscape.  Perhaps more so than any other, this phrase depicts the dimensions of identity that evidently matter, but do not show up in this quantitative analysis.  As a Tribe, the Fort Mojave consider the landscape, in its entirety, as their origins and illustrate their Creation story with meaningful symbols, such as the desert tortoise, guardianship of the Colorado River, and spiritual landmarks such as Ward Valley.  Another Tribal member pointed out how often the history of Indians goes unaccounted for in contemporary evaluations by claiming:  “Your people give little credit to our existence and history; we were the first to make the rational and logical choice to live along the river and we are still here.”  Symbols such as the river and the tortoise are continually negotiated, yet become collective identity because a community endures and organizes everything from its infrastructure to maintenance of cultural heritage around what works to sustain those symbols.

We used both a sense of belonging and feeling a part of the collective as proxies for community identity.  Indian identity remains incredibly complex, even in rural areas.  For the Fort Mojave, broad community needs such as environmental protection and/or economic development appear not to preclude one another.  Our data tells us that Fort Mojave community identity is not dependent upon environmental health or economic prosperity, per se, despite the importance of those factors to community members.  Nonetheless, non-Indians often construct dominant symbolic images (e.g., the ecological Indian) regarding these needs.  Then, in an effort to figure each other out, static characterizations that rarely reflect the true complexities of identity for either group are assigned.  The question remains: At what point does a group—such as a community—assert its own identity?

Too often in the social sciences, we mistake and misinterpret groups as having consensus, communion, or solidarity simply because we can label them a group by association.  Nisbet [1953] (1990) pointed to the overarching bias of defining solidarity as a good thing and sought-after character within much of community theory.  Indians, however, illustrate the diversity rather than sameness that makes academic characterizations of community and identity insufficient.  The identity and reputation of the ecological Indian, for example, is misguided in its assumption that all Indians carry any sort of monolithic philosophical or cultural viewpoints, including an environmental orientation.

What then, if a group who responds with near-consensus (as did the Fort Mojave) is the source of apparent solidarity within that group on an issue such as siting a low-level radioactive waste facility near a community?  Drawing from Simmel, Sorel, and Marx, as well as Parsons, Coser (1956, p. 38) asserted that:

Conflict serves to establish and maintain the identity and boundary lines of societies and groups.  Conflict with other groups contributes to the establishment and reaffirmation of the identity of the group and maintains its boundaries against the surrounding social world.

Using this explanation, the conflict over the anticipated impacts from a LLRW facility in Ward Valley spurred an in-group response from Tribal members against the agencies, companies, and other groups symbolizing an external threat to their way of life.  However, the broad-based opposition resulting from the Ward Valley proposal has not   fully “agreed” on the alternatives to or strategies to counter current policy (Albrecht and Amey, 2000, p. 82).  Thus, in spite of a near-consensus response within the Fort Mojave Tribe on this issue, multiple definitions of the situation contributed to both the process of negotiating outcomes and to how a collective identity emerges from decision-making affecting the community.

In 1998 and 1999, elders and activists from the Fort Mojave Tribe and other area Tribes maintained an encampment at the Ward Valley site to demonstrate their opposition to how its development could limit and destroy many of their spiritual and cultural practices in the region.  On the one hand, we need to recognize this position of opposition as the representation of the collective—in this case, community—even if it does not fully describe the intricate feelings of each Fort Mojave Indian.  In another way, we can also view the encampment behavior and overwhelming response of opposition to the LLRW facility on the survey as an invocation of myth.   Rather than the pejorative meaning as used by Krech (1999), myths in this sense reflect the:

Collective representations which tell us about the kind of people we wish to be and why we should hope to be that kind of people . . .. (and the) ability to limit and extend our range of reality and action (Burch [1971] 1997, pp. 60-1).

The implication of this passage for community identity is critical.  The stories we tell from and about our heritage, about our people, our places, and our communities amount to more than truth or fiction.  In this way, the tortoise stories, help the Fort Mojave endure and persevere.  Symbolic stories express the spirit of the people and their stamina.  To Indians in the southwest, the tortoise in particular represents courage in hopeless situations and the need for dignity regardless of an outcome (Schneider 1996).

Actions, such as opposing a LLRW facility, become representation of identity at a collective level when environmental symbols (sacred land, species, or usage) are transformed into social and cultural phenomena (Greider 1993).  Thus, factors such as length of residence, acceptance within the community, and views on valuing the environment vs. development may influence levels of association with the community identity.  More clearly, however, the dynamic nature of Indian identity indicates that historical characterizations may also play a critical role in shaping how symbols become important for use in current struggles and contexts.


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The authors wish to acknowledge this project was supported by the Competitive Grants Program within the National Research Initiative of the US Department of Agriculture, Project # 97-35401-4444.  Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to:  J.D. Wulfhorst, Department of Agricultural Economics & Rural Sociology,  P.O. Box 442334, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID, 83844-2334;; 208/885-7645 (tel); 208/885-5759 (fax).

 [i]As argued by Austin (1993, p. 4), the term Indian is “inaccurate” but remains the term used in most writing on native peoples as well as the one most used by native peoples when talking about themselves (see also Bordewich, 1996).

[ii]The Fort Mojave partnered with the Quechan, Cocopah, Chemehuevi, and Colorado River Indian Tribes to form the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance to oppose Ward Valley as a site for a LLRW facility.  The Fort Mojave are the largest of these Tribal groups, proportionately the most active in the opposition struggle, as well as the only Indian group included in the data collection procedures at the study site.

[iii]The larger study that this data collection effort was a part of had three design components for data collection:  secondary data collection, an ethnographic phase including key-informant interviews and content analysis, as well as a survey instrument administered in 3 different comparative community settings.

4This analysis revealed a mean age of 34.5 years (ranging from 18-81 years); a sample of nearly two-thirds women; completion of high school/equivalent as the average level of education received; a tendency to be married or be living with a partner; most respondents having a single source of  primary income and receiving that from wages or salary; and an average household income in 1997 of about $20,000.

[v]This was confirmed by the key informant interviews as tribal members emphasized their attachment to place in contemporary and historical terms indicating their presence along the Colorado River “since time immemorial.”