The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1996, Volume 42, Number 2
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

The Campo Indian Landfill War: The Fight for Gold in California’s Garbage.

By Dan McGovern. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Maps. Bibliography. Index. 325 pages. $24.95 (clothbound).

Reviewed by Richard L. Carrico, Instructor of American Indian History at San Diego State University and Mesa Community College, and author of Strangers in a Stolen Land: American Indians in San Diego, 1850-1880.

Unlike its cousins Viejas, Barona, and Sycuan, that flaunt their glittering casinos, and encourage an onslaught of visitors to their tribal lands, the Campo Indian Reservation remains little known in San Diego County. One of eighteen Indian reservations, Campo is sliced in two pieces by Interstate 8 near Boulevard. For most of us, Campo Indian Reservation is a name on a sign as we travel over the mountains east of San Diego. The sign for Campo seems as incongruous as another sign in the area that proclaims we are entering Cleveland National Forest. Together the two highway signs lead the viewer to question, where are the Indians and where are the trees in the forest? It may come as some surprise to many county residents to learn that in 1990 the Campo Reservation became a field of intense opposition for politicians ranging from Steve Peace to then Governor George Deukmejian. The controversy spread amongst San Diego’s tribes and opposing environmental groups as they fought over the tribe’s plan for siting a landfill.

The Campo Indian Landfill War provides details on the Campo Indians and on their fight to counter racism, bureaucracy, ignorance, and the NINBY (Not in My Back Yard) syndrome in their attempts to site a landfill within their reservation. The author, Dan McGovern, is a former Regional Administrator for Region IX of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and a specialist in environmental law.

Several important themes run throughout this well-written book. One of the principal themes that is developed is the relationship between environmental justice and racism. Other subthemes are woven more tightly into the fabric of the book and offer insights into the author, the difficulties of writing contemporary history, and the still largely paternalistic way in which we perceive Indian people in the gathering dusk of the twentieth century.

Environmental justice is seen by many as the counterbalance to environmental racism. Environmental racism holds that developers of undesirable facilities, i.e., prisons, oil refineries, and, in this case, landfills, site them in minority, or so-called under- classed, communities to avoid conflict with wealthy, more politically powerful communities. In this case it was the minority group, the Campo Indians, who sought to have the landfill in their community much to the chagrin of their non-Indian neighbors and to advocates of environmental justice. It was assumed by a wide assortment of environmentalists, competing waste management firms, and politicians, that the Indians were being duped by East Coast “city slickers.” In actions and rhetoric reminiscent of the late nineteenth century, replete with paternalistic views and righteous indignation, the landfill opponents sought to protect the Indians from themselves.

This book documents the fight and gives the reader clear insights into the political and environmental processes that swirled around the Campo landfill. Mike Connolly, representing the Campo Indians, and Donna Tinsdale, spearheading an opposing group known as BAD (Backcountry Against Dumps), are brought to life by the author in a manner that breaks up the occasionally dry details of the legal and political fights.

Whether McGovern’s book is fair or objective is difficult to decide. Certainly the author made the effort to interview the right sources, he conducted extensive research, and as noted in his prologue, he tried to portray opposing views honestly and sympathetically. His introductory chapters on the Kumeyaay Indians and their traditional land use is valuable and makes good use of interviews with the noted anthropologist, Dr. Florence Shipek. The reader might have benefitted from the knowledge that the Campo landfill and its massive liner system provides three times the protection required by the State of California and the County of San Diego. It might also interest readers to know, as Mr. McGovern did, that land restoration programs implemented at Campo have been highly successful at reducing erosion and returning acreage to native vegetation.

It is the reader’s choice as to whether Mr. McGovern reached his stated goal of objectivity. Mike Connolly notes in a prologue that McGovern erred in taking a middle ground position throughout the book and has stated the same concerns at a recent California Indian conference indicating that he felt betrayed by McGovern.

One of the ironies of American Indian history is that when a tribe or a band takes on some of the trappings of non-Indian culture they are accused of selling out their culture or of not being able to handle the nuances of American political and economic life. Whatever the flaws of McGovern’s book, the story is one of cultural persistence and of a proud tribe’s efforts to develop self-sufficiency. Many of the issues raised in the book are as pertinent as tomorrow’s headlines as the struggle for Indian self- determination and sovereignty continue. The so-called Campo landfill war presented in this book is yet another skirmish over patrimony and hegemony and one well worth learning about if we are to understand what it is to be an Indian in San Diego County today.