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Gwendolyn D. Brown, Gettysburg College, ANTH 223–Indigenous Peoples, the Environment, and the Global Economy. Background on the Mohawk Indians and the.

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Presentation on theme: "Gwendolyn D. Brown, Gettysburg College, ANTH 223–Indigenous Peoples, the Environment, and the Global Economy. Background on the Mohawk Indians and the."— Presentation transcript:

1 Gwendolyn D. Brown, Gettysburg College, ANTH 223–Indigenous Peoples, the Environment, and the Global Economy. Background on the Mohawk Indians and the Akwesasne (St. Regis) Reservation The area known as Akwesasne by the Mohawks is the place where several rivers converge with the St. Lawrence River. Akwesasne has been occupied for nearly 3 millennia by the Mohawk people and for most of that history was a rich and environmentally healthy land. According to Grinde and Johansen. “…the site the Mohawks call Akwesasne was a natural wonderland; well watered, thickly forested with white pine, oak, elm, hickory and ash, home to deer, elk, and other game animals. The rich soil of the bottomlands allowed farming to flourish” (Grinde and Johansen 1998: 12). The area became a permanent settlement for the tribe in 1755, but was an important hunting and fishing site long before that (Johansen and Mann 2000: 12). The official border between U.S. and Canada was defined in 1783 by the Treaty of Paris- long after the Indigenous peoples in the area had been living there. (Johansen and Mann 2000: 13). Following the American Revolution, Mohawks in this region faced pressures from settlers encroaching on their lands in this region, because they lacked formal legal claim to the land—in spite of the fact that they had lived there long before the non-Indian settlers. (Johansen and Mann 2000: 13) From 1800 to 1850 the Mohawks accumulated legal guarantees from U.S. and Canada for the reservation. The Jay Treaty in 1794 also guaranteed the Mohawks the right to cross between U.S. and Canada (Johansen and Mann 14). Today, it is the only Indian reservation with territory on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border (Johansen and Mann 2000: 12). The reservation is 14,600 acres and a tribal council provides local self government (Pritzker 2000). This indigenous group has been relatively successful at preserving Mohawk Language and culture—partially as a result of the Akwesasne Freedom School, a school which incorporates Mohawk culture and traditional activities into its curriculum (Johansen and Johansen 14). One third of people on the reservation speak the Mohawk language fluently (Johansen and Mann 2000: 15). In spite of their cultural successes there have been increasing economic problems on the reservation—largely due to pollution in the area. Industry began to encroach on the area starting in the early 1900s. In 1903, the Aluminum Company of America which was the first large industrial plant in the area opened eight miles away from the reservation (Johansen and Mann 2000: 14). More intense industrialization began following the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. That year Reynolds Aluminum built its aluminum reduction plant only one mile away from Akwesasne (Johansen and Mann 2000: 14). Elliot and Mann argue that the pollution is the major cause of severe economic stagnation which is reflected in statistics such as the fact that 58% of the population falls below the poverty line, 45% are unemployed, and 48% are welfare dependent. They support this argument based on the fact that pollution has been directly related to the decline in numbers of local farmers and fishermen. In 1930 there were 129 commercial farms and 104 commercial fishermen in Akwesasne, whereas by 1990 there were only 30 farmers and 11 people who made their livings by fishing. This decline is a result of a number of serious environmental contamination cases such as a fluoride poisoning incident in 1962 in which cows bones and teeth began to break. With the traditional employment options nearly gone, the major sources of cash income are now working for the industries near the reservation (which caused the pollution problems in the first place), the sale of discounted cigarettes and gasoline, and illegal smuggling across the border Elliot and Mann 2000: 14). Mohawk people living on the Akwesasne Reservation have confronted the destruction of their health and traditional way of life as a result of toxic waste contamination of their lands by industries in the region, particularly contamination by polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs as a result of industries in the area, including a General Motors foundry, aluminum plants and steel mills). “Akwesasne has been declared the most polluted Indian reserve in Canada, and the largest nonmilitary contamination site in the United States” (Johansen 2003: 363). Key industries which sprang up after the St. Lawrence Waterway was constructed, included ALCOA, Reynolds, and General Motors manufacturing facilities. All used and discharges PCBs in their manufacturing processes. They discharged a variety of organic and inorganic toxins, which are fat-soluble and thus went into the food chain. These chemicals entered peoples bodies through the bodies of the fish and wildlife they ate, which meant that nursing mothers unknowingly had high levels of PCBs in their breast milk posing health hazards to their children. Other forms of pollutants included fluoride, PAHS (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) from ALCOA, and other forms of air and water pollution. For instance, Domtar, a Canadian pulp and paper mill, discharged mercury and the pesticide “Mirex” into the water (Community Monitoring Handbook/ Coming Clean.org 2003) A New York State Department of Environmental Conservation wildlife pathologist, Ward Stone was influential in the identification of the severity of the PCB contamination in Akwesasne. In 1985 he found a female snapping turtle; its body contained 835 parts per million of PCBs. To put this in context the federal standard for edible poultry is 3ppm and the federal standard for soil is 50ppm—above that levis materials are considered toxic waste. Thus the living turtle has such high levels of PCBS in its body that it qualified as toxic waste. Late, a male snapping turtle was discovered with 3,097 ppm PCBs in its body: 1000 times edible amount in chicken and 60 times the standard for hazardous waste. As if this were not bad enough, a masked shrew was found in 1985 with 11,522ppm in its body. At 250 times the hazardous waste level, this was the highest concentration Stone had ever seen in living creature. When the superfund cleanup plan for General Motors foundry, one of the sources of this PCB pollution was released by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1990, it was expected to be the costliest superfund cleanup job in the United States, based on estimated costs (Johansen 2003). It should be noted that Akwesasne is not the only area of pollution in the Iroquois Nation lands but most acute there. “The waters of Akwesasne are so laced with PCBs that people whose ancestors subsisted on fish for thousands of years can no longer eat them.” Pollution from Akwesasne and other parts of the St. Lawrence River- even affects the food chain in the ocean—certain whales that eat fish from this river- cancers, reproductive problems, immune-system deficiencies (Grinde and Johansen 1998: 2). Pollution’s Threat to Life, Health and Culture Conceptual Question How can industries (and individual companies) be held accountable for the human health impacts in Indigenous communities, and how can we prevent this kind of environmental contamination from happening in the future? This question is of high importance to the study of indigenous peoples, because around the world indigenous groups face the destruction of their culture and traditional ways of life through a variety of forms of environmental degradation. Whether it be transnational oil companies like Encana and Chevron threatening the health of the rainforests where the Huarani and Cofan people live or loggers threatening the lands of the Penan peoples of Indonesia, environmental problems seem to be especially problematic for the world’s indigenous groups. Obviously, for the Mohawk people who live in Akwesasne and can no longer eat their traditional food sources for fear of being poisoned by chemicals this question is of central importance to their ability to achieve justice for their community. Because this pollution is still being cleaned up and legal battles are still being fought, there are no clear-cut answers. However, for information on how this community has been standing up for their rights, see the box titled “The Fight for Justice.” Thoughts from the Mohawk Community: Henry Lickers, employee of the Mohawk Council at Akwesasne: “We can’t try to meet the challenge with the meager resources we have”…. “desperation sets in when year after year you see the decimation of the philosophical center of your society.” (Johansen 2003:365) Katsi Cook, Mohawk midwife: “This means that there may be potential exposure to our future generations. The analysis of Mohawk mothers’ milk shows that our bodies are, in effect, part of the [General Motors] landfill.” (Johansen 2003: 365) Tom Porter, one of the nine Akwesasne Mohawk Nation Council chiefs: “We are still lonesome for those fish,” in reference to the traditional food which his people can no longer eat. (Grinde and Johansen 1998: 247) Narrative of the Porter Family “’The waters of Akwesasne are so laced with PCBs that people whose ancestors subsisted on fish for thousands of years can no longer eat them… We are still lonesome for those fish,’ says Tom Porter, one of the nine Akwesasne Mohawk Nation Council chiefs. Porter, whose Mohawk name is Sakowkenonkwas, lives at Racquette Point with his Choctaw wife and six children in a house with no electricity that Porter, a carpenter by trade, built by hand many years ago. Until fifteen years ago, when they were warned against eating fish from the waters around Akwesasne, Porter's family, like many Mohawk families, took sturgeon, bullhead, bass, trout and other fish from nearby rivers in their nets, eating what they needed and keeping extra fish for visitors in submerged boxes. Their fishing nets have since rotted, symbolic of the destruction of a way of life as a result of PCBs, Mirex, mercury and other contaminants. The Porters now worry not only about the fish but also about the produce they raise in gardens around their house; even the health of the Belgian horses that Porter raises is at risk. The rivers of Akwesasne mean more to the Mohawks than fish for eating. They are the center of a way of life that has been destroyed. As with the native harvesters of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the people of Akwesasne did not just catch and eat fish. They gave thanks to the fish for allowing themselves to be caught and eaten and to nature and the spirit world for providing sustenance” (Grinde and Johansen 1998: 247). The Fight for Justice One important step in order to get legal redress for the environmental contamination of their lands the Mohawk community needed to work with researchers to substantiate the health impacts of this contamination. However, the community was concerned about how such research would be conducted and whether it would be done in a way that was respectful of community rights, because of past negative experiences with researchers. To address this issue, the community organization known as the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE) decided to take an active role in overseeing research projects done in the community, starting in in the mid-1980s.they approved a research study to be done by the New York State Department of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which would examine the effects of local fish consumption on levels of PCBs in the breast milk of Mohawk mothers. An important aspect of the study was its emphasis on inclusion of the Mohawk women as equal participants by giving them all ownership of data collected, allowing them to assist in study design, and ensuring the privacy of all participants. This study was conducted from 1986 until 1992 and it found that these women had high levels of PCBs in their breast milk which were being passed to their children, and that PCB levels were directly linked to consumption of local fish, leading to the recommendation that the women completely eliminate local fish from their diets. In 1995, the ATFE formed a Research Advisory Committee (RAC) to review all proposed research projects that would be conducted in the community, to ensure all research projects are based upon the principles of respect, equity, and empowerment (Coming Clean 2003: 3). Bibliography Grinde, Donald A. and Bruce E. Johansen 1998 Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and People. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers. Johansen, Bruce Elliott and Barbara Alice Mann 2000 Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy). Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Johansen, Bruce E. 2003 Indigenous Peoples and Environmental Issues: An Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. Pritzker, Barry M. 2000 A Native American Encyclopedia: history, culture, and peoples. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Coming Clean 2003 Handbook Case Study: State University of New York and the Akwesasne Community, PCBs in Breast Milk in the Akwesasne Mohawk Body Burden Monitoring. 5 May, 2011..


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