Tar Creek

View on The Global Environmental Justice site

Curator and writers
This documentary was selected by Amity Doolittle, senior lecturer and research scientist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

The guide was written by Caleb Northrop and Caroline Scanlan, with research support from Elham Shabahat and Liz Felker, graduate students at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Why this film was chosen
The long sweep of historical injustices against the Quapaw Tribe makes this film extremely compelling. After being evicted from their homelands in the early 1800s, the Quapaw were relocated to Tar Creek, Oklahoma, on land that appeared useless to the U.S. government. However, once lead was discovered there in the early 1900s, the Secretary of the Interior attempted to once again deprive the Quapaw of their land rights by declaring individuals who owned land with large lead deposits “incompetent” so the government could manage the access to the lead below ground.

After all the valuable minerals had been extracted, the Quapaw were left with land that had no economic value. And most recently, even after the negative health impacts of lead on children’s development were understood, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. government have failed to adequately remediate the land, compensate the landowners, or relocate the families who have been exposed to the lead contamination.

Teacher's guide    
Please see the guide for maps, background information and suggested subjects, questions and activities.

Tar Creek is the story of the worst environmental disaster you’ve never heard of: the Tar Creek Superfund site in northeastern Oklahoma. What was once the Quapaw Tribe’s reservation was taken and transformed into one of the largest lead and zinc mines on the planet. Today, Tar Creek is home to more than 40 square miles of environmental devastation: acid mine water in the creeks, dangerous sinkholes, and high levels of lead poisoning in children. Now, almost 30 years after Tar Creek was designated for federal cleanup by the Superfund program, its residents are still fighting for decontamination, environmental justice, and, ultimately, the buyout of their homes and their relocation to safer ground. The pillaged land, contaminated waterways, and toxic dust are now the sole responsibility of the Quapaw Tribe—Native Americans who never asked to be located there in the first place. —Adapted from the distributor’s website at Bullfrog Films

The environmental justice focus of the film
This film highlights how environmental contamination can affect people, particularly indigenous communities, who are fighting for clean, healthy, and safe environments for their families and children. While non-Native American residents fled their homes after the attempts to clean up the Tar Creek site failed, members of the Quapaw Tribe who were forcibly relocated to the area in the first place remain, and they continue to be exposed to dangerous pollution from the lead and zinc mines. The film draws attention to the long history of marginalization and willful neglect that Native Americans have experienced at the hands of the U.S. government and corporate extractive industries—abuses that continue today.

“Tar Creek is amazingly clear and moving, full of many human voices and important issues of environmental justice and the interconnected nature of ecology and human lives…It highlights the history and ongoing drama of how so many people have been impacted by one of worst EPA Superfund sites in the United States” – John Calderazzo, Professor of English, Colorado State University


Main credits

Myers, Matt (film producer)
Myers, Matt (narrator)
Myers, Matt (film director)
Beer, Tanya (film producer)

Other credits

Director of photography, Robert Billings; original music by Watermelon Slim; edited by Matt Myers.

Docuseek2 subjects

Distributor subjects

Environmental Justice
Environmental Law
Health and Health Care
Human Rights
Indigenous Studies
Native American Studies
North American Studies
Pollution Rivers
Toxic Chemicals
United States


Tar Creek, superfund site, EPA, toxic remains, lead and zinc mines, NE Oklahoma, Picher, Ottowa County, acid mine water, lead poisoning, sink holes, chat piles, decontamination, Quapaw tribe, environmental justice, buyout, relocation of homes, environmental wastelands, strategic mineral, BIA, Department of Interior, Sen. James Inhofe, Bob Nairn, Tim Keny, John Berrey, Mark Osborn,"Tar Creek",Bullfrog Films, ead toxicity,lead poisoning, mine waste, heavy metal poisoning,Superfund site, Rachel Carson,lead and zinc mines,groundwater,surface water, aquifer, water contamination, decontamination, remediation, relocation, home buyout, Trail of Tears,EPA, Environmental Protection Agency,; "Tar Creek "; Global Environmental Justice

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