Using Poetry to Explore the Rhetoric of Environmental Justice

This page authored by Amanda Hagood, ACS Environmental Fellow in English and Environmental Studies, Hendrix College.
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Initial Publication Date: March 15, 2013


In this classroom activity, students compare the "Principles of Environmental Justice" as outlined by the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991 to two poems about damming projects on the Columbia River in the United States ("Grand Coulee Dam" by Woody Guthrie and "The Powwow at the End of the World" by Sherman Alexie). Students read "The Principles" for homework, briefly discuss the definition of environmental justice, and explore how this concept compares to the idea of forgiveness described in Alexie's poem. Finally, students synthesize the two concepts in a brief writing assignment.

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Learning Goals

In completing this activity, students will be introduced to the concept of environmental justice and will identify and discuss its central tenants; they will rearticulate the concept for themselves and think critically about it as they compare it to similar ideas; they will practice spatial thinking; and they will gain some knowledge of the history of damming along the Columbia River.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for freshmen and sophomores at the college level, and can be done with any class size (though 25 or less would be ideal). It can be done in any classroom equipped with internet access and a projection system. Individual instructors can determine whether or not to provide handouts with the two poems that will be explored; a handout of the "Principles of Environmental Justice" should be provided, along with scratch paper for student writing. The activity should take at least 50 minutes (not counting homework time) and could easily be expanded into a 75-minute class session, or broken up across two shorter class periods. Students do not need any particular expertise in poetry to participate in this activity.

Description and Teaching Materials

1. Ask students to read, as homework, The Principles of Environmental Justice, published by the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in October of 1991. Available at:

2. At the beginning of class, allow students three minutes to write a one-sentence definition of the term environmental justice. Use students' definitions, which will necessarily be limited, to start a discussion about how The Principles defines environmental justice. Topics addressed could include:
  • How do we typically define justice, and how does environmental justice build upon that concept?
  • How does environmental justice differ from similar ideas such as conservation or environmentalism?
  • To what types of environments does environmental justice seem to apply? How, if at all, does this differ from the environment we mean when we discuss mainstream environmentalism?
3. Introduce Sherman Alexie's poem "The Powwow at the End of the World" (available at the Poetry Foundation's website:, asking a student to read the poem out loud. Help students become oriented to the poem's geographical context, asking them to identify and locate such landmarks as the Pacific Ocean, the Columbia River, the Grand Coulee Dam, and the Hanford Site. You could use Google Earth to help students visualize the river, as well as how large dam projects have changed its shape.
  • How does the shape of the poem correspond to the shape of the geographic features it describes?
  • How does the narrator of the poem wish to change the condition of the Columbia River? Why do you think he desires this?
4. Provide students with historical context about the Columbia River, Native American salmon fishing, and the building of the Grand Coulee and other dams. Useful exhibits could include:
  • The Oregon Encyclopedia's digital exhibit on the history of Celilo Falls, an important Yakima fishery. The exhibit's slideshow features historic images that show Native Americans fishing the falls, the construction of the Dalles dam in 1956, and settlement meetings between the Yakima and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
  • A recording and lyrics of Woody Guthrie's song, "The Grand Coulee Dam" (1941) (lyrics available at:, which was commissioned by the Bonneville Power Association to popularize the power-generation project.
  • The Oregon History Project's Historic Viewer of Celilo Falls, which allows students to see how the construction of the dam dramatically changed the appearance and geography of Celilo Falls.
Ask students to reflect on the components of environmental justice listed in The Principles.
  • According to Guthrie's song, what is the value of the Columbia River? Who would benefit from the damming projects, and where does the right to enact them come from?
  • How do these uses and values differ from the ones described in Alexie's poem?
5. Take a closer look at "The Powwow at the End of the World." Notice that the narrator says (repeatedly) that he has been asked to "forgive". Compare the idea of forgiveness to the idea of justice.
  • Who do you think the narrator has been asked to forgive? What crime must be forgiven?
  • How is forgiveness related to justice? What are the conditions under which the narrator promises his forgiveness, and are they equivalent to justice being done? Why or why not?

6. Read the poem aloud again. Notice that the refrain "I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall" is repeated nine times throughout this short poem, though each time it is broken into different phrasings. Explore this important motif.
  • How do the different phrasings result in different meanings with each recurrence?
  • How does the meaning of the phrase seem to change with the constant repetition?
  • Does the repetition of the refrain remind you, in any ways, of the river that is being described? Can you think of other reasons why Alexie might have chosen to structure the poem in this way?

7. Concluding exercise: Ask students to select one of the elements of environmental justice listed in The Principles and write one paragraph comparing the concept of forgiveness in Alexie's poem to the idea of justice as elaborated in their chosen principle. How do the two concepts compare or contrast? What might the relative advantages of the different concepts be in confronting environmental harm? Ask a few students to share their responses.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Because the "Principles of Environmental Justice" is a long and complicated list, I recommend assigning it has homework reading for the night before the lesson takes place. Similarly, if the class runs out of time before completing the concluding writing activity, students answers can be shared in class the next day, or the writing activity could even be assigned as homework. It would be entirely possible to substitute a different set of poems to compare with the principles, so long as there is sufficient thematic overlap, thought it would be useful to also substitute other historical exhibits to help students get the context they need to understand the particular environmental justice issue being discussed.


The instructor should plan to take up all student writing completed during the activity, including both the one-sentence definition of environmental justice and the concluding paragraph exercise. A careful review of these should help the instructor determine whether or not individual students have met most of the learning goals. The instructor could also provide 1-2 sentences of feedback on each student's writing to reinforce any missed lessons.

References and Resources

No additional resources to recommend, although the two historical sources used in the lesson itself (both on Celilo Falls) also provide good background for the instructor.