Environmental Justice, Political Ecology, and the Three Bodies of a Mohawk Community
“This is God’s country here,” an Akwesasne Mohawk woman explained to me as we sat at her kitchen table over cups of coffee. She stared past me out her kitchen window, which overlooks the Saint Lawrence River and the General Motors Central Foundry. She had just been describing how she stood in her front yard and watched men in “moon suits” work to clean up the industrial site a few years prior. “They’d come in here in their space suits and take your water, a sample of it. If that’s not alarming, then I don’t know what is.” She described how “we used to play in that dump. We used to go play in it. We would just scavenge in the junk and go sort through it, pick aluminum and stuff like that, play with paint.” She reduced the family’s fish consumption after the government of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe (SRMT) issued advisories against eating locally caught fish, and after her husband started noticing changes in the fish. But she was not sure these changes had come in time to protect their health. She had always wanted a big family, but several miscarriages (which she connected to exposure to the contamination) made that impossible. Even so, when I asked her if she ever considered moving, she said no. As a resident of the Raquette Point region of the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation, she had the dubious honor of both living on a beautiful waterfront property and having a front-row seat to observe a Superfund cleanup.
Another resident, Mark, lived a little farther downriver. He described his battle with cancer and told me that the residents of Raquette Point were constantly barraged with pollution from three local industrial sites: General Motors (GM), Reynolds Metals, and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa). We talked about whether contamination from these industrial plants had affected the number of gardens that had been planted in Akwesasne, a community where gardens are materially and symbolically important. He told me: “I decided to keep eating. . . . No, I never did stop planting.” He went on to emphasize:
I never did stop planting, you know. Hoping that . . . the stuff I produced was healthier than what I bought from an unknown source, you know, at least I knew the pollutants I was getting from the yard, so I could say yeah, mine is polluted but it’s my own pollution. I don’t know, that doesn’t make sense but somewhere in my head it did.
As far as Mark was concerned, it seemed that all food had the chance of being somewhat tainted, so by continuing to produce food in his own gardens he at least had some modicum of control over the source of the contamination. When I asked him if he had ever considered moving, even to another area of the reservation, he replied, “Are you kidding me? I live in heaven!”
These conversations are emblematic of the complicated feelings that many Akwesasro:non express about their homeland, a place that has sustained Indigenous people for eons but has been impinged on by environmental contamination as well as state and federal governments. These two examples are drawn from dozens, all collectively emphasizing the strange tension between the beauty, history, and productivity of the land and the devastating environmental impact of industry. As people reputed to be fighters and activists, Mohawks have battled to preserve who they are, confronting state and federal governments and the scientific–industrial complex to maintain their homeland. This book is about those fights and those confrontations.
Akwesasne is a Mohawk community that straddles the borders of New York State and the Canadian provinces of Ontario, and Quebec. The portion of the community below the U.S.–Canadian border is known as the Saint Regis Mohawk Reservation. The portion north of the border is known as the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve. The entire community, currently about 13,000 people living across 25,712 acres, is called Akwesasne, which means “land where the partridge drums.” Sitting at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence, Saint Regis, Raquette, Grasse, and Salmon Rivers, the community has relied for generations on the region’s abundance of fish and wildlife and rich alluvial soils.
Akwesasne is downwind, downriver, and down gradient from one federal and two state Superfund sites, one of which, the General Motors plant, has been determined to be a serious hazardous waste site. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, was enacted by Congress in 1980 and amended in 1986 by the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act. This law gave the U.S. federal government broad authority to respond directly to releases of hazardous substances that might endanger public health or the environment, established prohibitions and requirements concerning closed and abandoned hazardous waste sites, and provided for the liability of persons responsible for releases of hazardous waste. The trust fund part of Superfund, which was established to pay for cleanup when no responsible party could be identified, was funded initially through a tax on chemical and petroleum industries. Starting in the mid-1990s, however, due to industry lobbying and efforts by a Republican Congress to weaken the law, input to the Superfund trust diminished, and cleanup rates for contaminated sites slowed. Since 2001, most of the funding for cleanups of hazardous waste sites has come from taxpayers and from “potentially responsible parties,” when they can be identified and held accountable.
Once a site is identified as releasing hazardous substances, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducts a site inspection and gives the site a score based on the EPA’s hazard ranking system. This score determines whether the site should be placed on the National Priorities List of more serious sites. A Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study is then conducted to determine the degree of site contamination, and this leads to a Record of Decision (ROD), which explains the methods that will be used to clean up the site. Remedial action then begins. In 1983, New York State discovered that the GM industrial plant directly adjacent to the Raquette Point portion of Akwesasne had been leaching polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Saint Lawrence River. This discovery, fueled by community outrage, triggered an official reaction.
The Superfund cleanup was staged on a complicated landscape. Akwesasne is one of eight Mohawk communities spread across Quebec, Ontario, and New York, although it is the only one to straddle the geopolitical territorial lines of so many nations, states, and provinces. Because of the myriad borders that crisscross Akwesasne, residents must contend with two federal, three state/provincial, and three tribal governments, along with all of their accompanying agencies. If they step off either end of the reservation, they are also dealing with two different New York counties, Franklin County and Saint Lawrence County. Children in Akwesasne have the option of attending public schools on either side of the international border (or the community-based Akwesasne Freedom School), and many have dual U.S. and Canadian citizenship in addition to their tribal citizenship. The southern portion of the community is governed by the SRMT, the elected tribal government recognized by the U.S. federal government. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA), the elected tribal government recognized by the Canadian government, governs the northern half of the community. A third governing body, the traditional clan-based government empowered by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs, considers the entire territory of Akwesasne as its jurisdiction, although it is not recognized by either the U.S. or the Canadian federal government. Most Native American communities are jurisdictionally challenging, but Akwesasne is exceptionally so.
After the discovery of leaching PCBs and other contaminants in the 1980s, the community rallied across social, cultural, and political divides to fight for environmental justice. A midwife, Mohawk scientists, and other community members, concerned about the potential health impacts of this contamination, worked to revolutionize how environmental health research is done in Indigenous communities and pushed to influence how the cleanup would be conducted. Drawing on interviews with community members and scientists, and framing my discussion within the literatures of Native American studies, critical medical anthropology, environmental anthropology and sociology, and political ecology, I set out here to explore the history of how these projects came together and to reveal how taking part in this research affected the Akwesasne Mohawk community, the scientists who worked with the community, and the ways in which environmental health research would be conducted after this case. Throughout this book, I try to highlight those moments when Indigenous methods informed the scientific outcomes and when local ways of knowledge production came into dynamic relation with the state, with corporations, and with the existing scientific community outside Akwesasne.
At first glance, the situation of the Akwesasne Mohawk community would appear to be a standard case of environmental racism, but the proliferation of borders and boundaries, the disconnects among overlapping agencies and identities, and the distinctiveness of local cultural history set this particular case apart and demonstrate that it needs to be examined on its own terms. To accomplish this, I include in this book the voices of people on the ground, mobilized for environmental justice, but working through a kaleidoscope of identities, affiliations, and political structures. I highlight the material history and symbolic impact of settler colonialism and dramatize the interplay between political activism and political ecology. Through this book’s focus, plotlines, and conclusions, I intend to spotlight how we might learn from community-based research projects that are built, at the very foundation, in partnership with Indigenous communities. I also aim to model how we might actually write about those same sorts of projects. Such partnerships do not merely change how we understand—they also alter what and for whom we learn.
Katsi Cook: Midwife, Activist, and Grassroots Leader
The story outlined in this book began in large part with the actions of a remarkable woman who has made it her life’s work to help Indigenous women reclaim sovereignty over their bodies, their birthing practices, and the health of their communities. Katsi Cook was born at home, delivered by her midwife grandmother, and raised in Akwesasne. As she prepared for the birth of her own first child in 1975, Katsi sought out traditional birthing methods as a means to avoid the sterile “white” institution of the hospital and to assert herself as a Mohawk woman. Throughout the 1970s, as she became more involved in Indian activism and took part in the founding of Women of All Red Nations (WARN), she identified control over reproduction as one of the essential elements of Native sovereignty. She decided to take up midwifery, a profession practiced by women in her family for several generations. In 1978, Katsi completed an apprenticeship in spiritual midwifery at The Farm in Tennessee; a completely self-sufficient “hippie commune,” as she describes it, The Farm, run by Plenty International, trained midwives and emergency medical technicians for Akwesasne through its own medical programs. She then received clinical training at the University of New Mexico Women’s Health Training Program, which included working with Navajo and Pueblo women, whom Katsi was concerned were also becoming estranged from their cultures’ traditional birthing methods. She subsequently completed a clinical placement in the Twin Cities at the Red Schoolhouse Clinic, a WARN project in Minneapolis–St. Paul. There she trained an Anishnaabe birthing crew and created the Women’s Dance Health Program through a grant administered by the Youth Project in Minneapolis.
The Women’s Dance is a traditional Haudenosaunee dance in which the women’s feet never leave the ground; it is performed to remind women of their connection to the earth. In the creation story, Sky Woman made the earth larger through a dance done on the back of a turtle, and women carry on a reminder of this creation through this traditional, shuffling dance. Katsi organized a core group of four women to continue the project, and in 1980 she returned to Akwesasne, where she gave birth at home to her second son. She then became involved in the standoff between New York State and the Tribe over jurisdictional issues on the Raquette Point portion of the reservation.
Katsi joined the standoff in 1980 and helped to develop the Akwesasne Freedom School, an alternative school that taught students in the Mohawk language and served to educate children who lived in the encampment as well as those living elsewhere on the reservation. Katsi also continued her midwifery practice. While the battle over jurisdictional issues raged, outside communities would not provide emergency medical services, so Akwesasne developed its own volunteer group of emergency medical technicians, trained at The Farm, and Katsi delivered babies in mothers’ homes. In a 1981 grant application for funding for the Women’s Dance Health Program, she described how on average she oversaw a home delivery every six weeks. She also provided complete prenatal care, labor and delivery assistance at home and in the hospital, postpartum care, family planning services, family counseling, and general obstetrical, gynecological, and infant care, which she estimated to be about $1,600 worth of services for each mother. She noted: “While we do not charge for our services, this does not mean that it is free. Our birthing families are primarily motivated by their commitment to traditional understandings of health and community. Along these lines, they are encouraged to offer their volunteer services to other nation projects, such as the Akwesasne Freedom School, community gardens, and Akwesasne Emergency Team.” Katsi also worked with her husband, Jose Barreiro, at the offices of the newspaper Akwesasne Notes, which, along with the Freedom School, were directly adjacent to the General Motors dump, a source of contamination that continues to shape life at Akwesasne decades after its discovery.
Katsi partnered with her fellow community members to insist that the impacts of this contamination on their health and environment be properly investigated. Their research and persistence, coupled with the willingness of scientists at SUNY Albany to work with community members to reimagine their methods, changed the way such environmental health research is now done in tribal communities. In the literature on research methods, Akwesasne is often referenced as an example of an Indigenous community that took control of its research destiny, and the scholarly data about the site are held up as an example of the results that can come from community-based participatory research (CBPR).
Katsi Cook’s local struggles intersect with the national history of the concept of environmental justice, which first appeared on the political and academic radar in 1982, at roughly the moment Katsi began actively pressing the state to confront the massive cleanup needed at the GM site. In that year, African American activists in Warren County, North Carolina, stood up to protest the construction in their neighborhood of a dump for PCB-contaminated waste. That people of color were disproportionately affected by environmental contamination, and that race was the most important factor in predicting where toxic waste sites would be located, was confirmed by a study conducted by the U.S. General Accounting Office in 1983 and by a national study conducted by the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, reported in the 1987 publication Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. Environmental justice (EJ) studies emerged as an interdisciplinary field with a body of literature documenting the disproportionate impacts of pollution on communities of color. Since then, as Mohai et al. note, “hundreds of studies” have concluded that, in general, “ethnic minorities, indigenous persons, people of color, and low-income communities confront a higher burden of environmental exposure from air, water, and soil pollution from industrialization, militarization, and consumer practices.”
Environmental racism, which lies at the root of struggles for environmental justice, has been defined as “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color.” This leads to the “systematic exclusion of people of color from environmental decisions affecting their communities.” On the flip side, environmental justice is the principle that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection by environmental and public health laws and regulations. The EJ movement has expanded definitions of “the environment” to include where people live, work, play, and pray and has fought to institutionalize the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” in agencies like the EPA.
While Katsi Cook’s activism could be viewed as an outgrowth of the radical social movements of the 1960s and 1970s—and there are obvious connections between Akwesasne and North Carolina at the start of this national movement—Indigenous communities have a unique stake in the history of environmental racism. In the United States, Native communities live in close proximity to approximately six hundred Superfund sites, and environmental mitigation for these communities lags significantly behind that for nontribal communities. Sites ranging from industrial plants to mines to military bases—as well as places affected by the release of pesticides and other agricultural by-products—have negative effects not only on their surrounding environments but also on the health, cultures, and reproductive capabilities of the Indigenous communities they border. When the study of EJ is applied to a tribal context, environmental issues cannot be contemplated apart from a recognition of American Indian tribes’ unique historical, political, and legal circumstances. As geographer Ryan Holifield notes, “Environmental justice in Indian country is intimately bound up in the complex matter of tribal sovereignty,” which differentiates EJ cases in these communities from those in other racial or ethnic communities.
Katsi Cook highlighted this important difference between American Indians and other EJ groups in a keynote speech she delivered to environmental health researchers in 2015:
It’s important to understand that North American Indigenous are not a racial or ethnic minority, but are one of three sovereignties in the United States. These are the federal, state and tribal levels of government. And so our traditional cultural property is protected by whole body of case law and Supreme Court decisions, treaty rights, and has significance for the work that’s being done to recover our community from this historic moment of the post-WWII economic boom and the development of the St Lawrence Seaway.
The political, social, and environmental history of Akwesasne reveals how promoting environmental justice in an Indigenous community can be challenging, necessitating a consideration of these unique factors. More specifically, any consideration of environmental issues in Indian Country needs to take into account the unique colonial history of Native Americans and the relationship that tribes have with the United States. Writing from the perspective of a member of the Muskogee Creek Nation of Oklahoma, Daniel Wildcat refers to the dislocation of Native peoples from the environment as the “fourth removal,” following relocation from tribal homelands through forced removal, the compulsory attendance of Indigenous children in boarding schools, and the removal of tribal identity through assimilationist programs. Jace Weaver similarly considers environmental issues across Indian Country with this history in mind, noting, “As Indian lands are assaulted, so are Indian peoples. . . . Environmental destruction is simply one manifestation of the colonialism and racism that have marked Indian/White relations.”
Exploring environmental issues in Indian Country through the lens of settler colonialism—and differentiating cases of EJ in Indigenous communities from struggles for justice in other types of communities—also contributes to an understanding of the full impacts of settler colonialism on Indigenous lifeways. Patrick Wolfe defines settler colonialism as an inclusive, land-centered project with a view to eliminate Indigenous societies. As Scott Morgensen notes, the elimination of Indigenous peoples necessary for settler societies is pursued via “amalgamation and replacement”—that is, through the physical removal of Indigenous peoples from the land or through their assimilation into Western society. This assimilation can come in part through a “structure of oppression that wrongfully interferes with Indigenous capacities to maintain an adaptive capacity in their homelands,” robbing Indigenous peoples of the ability to carry out relational responsibilities and land-based culture. In describing the legacy of uranium mining on Navajo land, Traci Voyles asserts, “Settler colonialism is so deeply about resources that environmental injustices, whether on Native lands or lands of other others, must always be viewed through the lens of settler colonialism. While the connections between the two forms of power are various, the body is a good place to start—just as race and racial power are organized at the level of the body, so too are the functions of environmental violence.” She goes on to state that Native American encounters with settler colonialism are so deeply entangled with environment and resources that “even the phrase ‘environmental racism’ can seem to lose all meaning in a tribal context, quite simply because ‘racism’ has always meant environmental violence for Native peoples.” Voyles calls to move EJ studies, particularly studies of environmental injustices on Native lands, to a more complex understanding of nature and justice in the past, present, and future of settler colonialism. Part of what I am setting out to do here is to examine how settler colonial encroachment on Akwesasne’s self-governance and relational responsibilities has affected the health and environment of Akwesasro:non, but without diminishing the ways in which the community has pushed back against these forces and their assimilative impacts in the fight to maintain and re-create identity and lifeways.
Environmental justice activists and scholars have focused their efforts on different avenues of justice: distributive justice, procedural justice, and recognition justice. Distributive justice addresses the overrepresentation of toxic waste sites in communities of color, advocating for the equal distribution of such environmental harms as well as environmental benefits like green space. The early EJ reports, like the one drafted by the United Church of Christ’s commission, focused primarily on inequitable siting practices—on who was bearing burdens. Procedural justice centers on ensuring that all communities are able to participate in the environmental decision-making process, in the hope that this will both help prevent inequitable siting and better involve affected communities in site cleanups. While this type of inclusion is what many EJ organizations are fighting for, Penobscot anthropologist Darren Ranco has noted that procedural inclusion looks different for tribes than it does for other communities fighting environmental injustice because of EPA policies necessitating that federally recognized tribes be given “treatment as state” in cases that affect their territories. Ranco notes that many EJ groups are fighting to “get a seat at the table,” but just being involved in the regulatory process may not be enough. He goes on to describe how the EPA is required to include and consult with Indian nations during regulatory decisions when tribal resources are affected, but, he notes, quoting Eileen Guana, “A place at the table does not ensure a comparable serving of the environmental protection pie.” Tribes can set standards, but they might not have the funds to monitor and enforce compliance with those standards.
Some critical EJ scholars have noted that being included in the procedures is irrelevant to community health and safety when the system in which these procedures are embedded is designed to exploit some members of the community for the benefit of others. David Schlosberg, who has studied conceptions of justice in the context of the EJ movement, argues that what is important is not just the fight for equal distribution of goods and bads in society or equal participation in environmental decision-making processes—we also need to examine the processes that construct the maldistribution and unequal participation, which allow for the application of justice only to certain human communities. As critical EJ scholars argue, the system that allows for environmental degradation in some communities is not broken, it is designed to work that way. They argue that environmental problems and inequities are produced—they are not accidents. These inequities are evidence of the normal routine functioning of modern market economies. For these reasons, Anishnaabe activist and author Winona LaDuke has stated, “We don’t just want a piece of the pie. We want a different pie.”
Wary of the dangers posed by entanglements with the federal government, tribal leaders have still worked incredibly hard to ensure Native inclusion in environmental processes. As this book will describe, community and tribal government leaders in Akwesasne fought for a seat at the regulatory table, to develop their own policies and regulations, and to have a voice in the research and cleanup processes. But what some are calling for is a step beyond achieving equal inclusion in the political process. They are calling for recognition justice—the affirmation of group identity and acknowledgment that as a distinct and sensitive group they do not want to receive the same treatment as, for example, white middle-class suburbanites. Because of subsistence lifestyles, spiritual practices, and other cultural behaviors, Indigenous people often suffer multiple exposures from resource use that result in environmental health impacts disproportionate to those seen in the general population. “Exposure scenarios designed for suburban activities and lifestyles are not suitable for tribal communities,” note Stuart Harris and Barbara Harper, who have conducted extensive work around developing Native American exposure scenarios and risk assessment tools. For this reason, they argue, risk needs to be calculated differently in Indigenous communities. Potawatomi environmental philosopher Kyle Whyte asserts that the maintenance of “relational responsibilities,” which are necessary for tribal “collective continuance,” includes the maintenance of relationships not only between family and community members and across human communities but also across species and with features of the land (like rivers or mountains) and ecosystems. Members of the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE) have published multiple articles demanding that their community be recognized as a distinct tribal community and culture, with a relationship to the natural world and a culturally based lifestyle that are different from those of other Americans.
In a way, then, this story about industrial environmental contamination, histories of settler colonialism, and heroic community struggles for justice is also, in the end, about food. There is increasing convergence in many communities between environmental justice and food justice, as people work to have their environments cleaned up and to make safe food more available. In contrast with many urban communities, rural and Indigenous communities often rely on the immediate environment as their main source of food. Both the environmental justice and food justice movements have a place-based focus and are health related. Further, both focus on addressing corporate dominance and system-related issues, the empowerment of community members, and the development of sustainable and livable communities. Advocates of both environmental justice and food justice seek to alter the power relations at the root of social and ecological problems. As Whyte notes, in Indigenous communities, the structure of environmental injustice is “often tied to notions of wrongful disruption of Indigenous food systems.” He goes on to explain that “Indigenous food systems refer to specific collective capacities of particular Indigenous peoples to cultivate and tend, produce, distribute, and consume their own foods, recirculate refuse, and acquire trusted foods and ingredients from other populations.” Protective measures like fish advisories, made necessary by environmental contamination, disrupt these systems and capacities.
Much of the organizing around EJ issues in Indigenous communities involves the protection of traditional food sources. The notion that Indigenous peoples have a sovereign “right to food” has been affirmed in an array of instruments created by international governmental and nongovernmental alliances, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which specifies the range of rights required for the full exercise of food sovereignty, paying particular attention to the connections between the right to cultural self-determination and the right to maintain and protect seeds and land. But, as Whyte notes, “many of the more visible theories of environmental justice have not explicitly referenced the relationship between food and environmental justice.” In chronicling the story of Akwesasne, I have been struck by the power of this relationship, by the connection between a change in diet and activity, and by the ensuing health issues on the ground.
David Pellow and Paul Brulle call for a move toward critical environmental justice studies, which does not just document cases and successes but also provides a more critical examination of the movement’s tactics, strategies, discursive frames, organizational structure, and resource base. They note that it is imperative for EJ scholars to make more significant links between EJ research and literatures on social movements, environmental sociology, history, and ethnic studies. EJ scholars need to engage in conversations across disciplines that redefine the ways those disciplines approach questions concerning not only the environment but also race and ethnicity, class, gender, and nation; as well as the application of participatory methods being used in collaboration with communities fighting environmental injustice.
In this book, I demonstrate how aspects of the Akwesasne community —whether through grassroots organizations like the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment and the First Environment Research Collaborative, or through tribal departments like the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Environment Division—sought to challenge the durable, dangerous political power imbalances that made contamination possible. But although Akwesasro:non demanded and earned the opportunities to create environmental policies and shape environmental health research for their communities by establishing governance models and developing new research protocols, it is also important to note that Akwesasne (and tribal communities more generally) is not one monolithic political entity. It encompasses a number of different political factions and subcommunities, as well as divisions of class, gender, and religion. Examining the uneven interactions and negotiations between and among these socially and politically constructed categories is what Native American and Indigenous studies is meant to do, but here, in this book, it also contributes to an understanding of political ecology.
The premise of political ecology is that environmental changes and ecological conditions are the products of political processes. This includes the fundamental assumption that the costs (often hidden) and benefits associated with environmental change are distributed among actors unequally, usually reproducing or reinforcing social and economic inequities. Research in political ecology explores the root causes of environmental issues, who benefits and who loses when environmental changes take place, the political actors who contribute to environmental transitions, and the political movements that grow from these transitions. The goal of political ecological research is to identify root causes rather than just symptoms.
As Beth Rose Middleton notes, the political ecology approach has increased our understanding of the relationships between resource control and governance, but it has not yet deeply engaged with Native and Indigenous studies and other related disciplines. Middleton argues that one cannot understand human–environment interactions within formerly colonized (or, some would argue, continually colonized) communities without both an explicit examination of coloniality through critical ethnic studies and analyses from third and fourth world scholars of their experiences of coloniality at multiple scales. Similarly, in his book about environmental governance in the Cherokee Nation, Clint Carroll describes how political ecology as a field stands to benefit from Native American and Indigenous studies through an analysis of the unique political histories of American Indian nations and their relationships to the U.S. settler state.
Political ecologists have increasingly argued that “the terrain of human health must be acknowledged as an ‘environment’ in its own right, thus necessitating that we examine (un)healthy bodies within the wider ecological context of (un)healthy landscapes.” In documenting the activist and environmental history of Akwesasne, and then moving through decades of remediation to present-day food-related health concerns that Mohawks see as still connected to this damaged landscape, I seek to contribute in this book to a developing political ecology of health and a political ecology of the body. While the full range of concerns ordinarily associated with the political ecological perspective—such as conflicts over resources, challenges inherent in environmental governance, and human–environment relationships—are all present at Akwesasne, we can also present “the body” as a site in which these concerns intersect.
Much of this book is about method—and about what happens when Indigenous methods are brought together with conventional academic practice in pursuit of environmental justice. It is not surprising, then, that my own method was shaped by the history shared in this book.
In many Indigenous communities, research has been perceived as an activity to benefit academics rather than community members. Many communities feel “researched to death” and have no desire to allow or take part in any further projects that they do not feel will directly benefit them. Tribal institutional review boards (IRBs) like the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment Research Advisory Committee have been established to prevent further research exploitation by approving or rejecting projects based on how the board members perceive these projects will affect their communities. Community-based participatory research, described as much as a process as a method, is one type of approach that researchers in the health sciences and social sciences have used as a means for achieving broader community input and greater community acceptance of research projects. Indigenous researchers have taken this a step further, advocating for “decolonizing methodologies,” which further deepen CBPR’s ethical commitments to communities. As Dakota scholar Kim TallBear describes, “Rather than integrating community priorities with academic priorities, changing and expanding both in the process, decolonizing methods begin and end with the standpoint of indigenous lives, needs, and desires, engaging with academic lives, approaches, and priorities along the way.” An important aspect of this is what Cree scholar Shawn Wilson refers to as “shared aspects of relationality and relational accountability” that can be put into practice “through choice of research topic, methods of data collection, form of analysis and presentation of information.” This relational accountability, he notes, “requires me to form reciprocal and respectful relationships within the communities where I am conducting research.”
As I conducted the research for this book, it was important to me that the project meant something to the people with whom—and for whom—I was working. The selection of the different themes and topics presented here was an iterative process, developed through conversations and work parties with Akwesasro:non, in addition to an interest in the literature of environmental health research. As a person of Indigenous ancestry who is not from Akwesasne, I knew that I needed to develop the right relationships with, and responsibilities to, the people, seeds, and soil of this community before, during, and after the drafting of the manuscript.
The idea that this book should explore the impact of environmental health research on Akwesasro:non was first developed in Katsi Cook’s living room, during a casual visit with her son, who was a friend of mine. As we sipped tea, Katsi described to me her work helping nursing mothers in the community determine the safety of their breast milk. Over the years, Katsi has striven to combine her knowledge of midwifery, women’s health issues, traditional Mohawk culture, and scientific health studies, and she is almost perpetually traveling—giving talks, working with Indigenous communities developing birthing centers, and collecting information for new health-based projects. As someone who helped to initiate the health studies at Akwesasne, but who has since taken on several other projects, she was interested in having me dedicate my fieldwork to a better understanding of people’s opinions of, and reactions to, these health studies—work that she felt could contribute to future health research.
At the same time, I could not explore issues of health and the environment in a community like Akwesasne without taking into account the connections between these issues and food production. This became apparent one day while my friend Gina and I were standing in her front yard on Cornwall Island. Gina described to me how she grew up around extensive gardens and had always tended a garden of her own until she was advised not to because of concerns about the contamination that might be coming from the neighboring industrial plants. From Gina’s yard, there was a clear view of the GM Central Foundry Division, directly across the river on the New York shore of the Saint Lawrence River. She pointed farther upstream, to the smokestacks of the Reynolds Metals foundry. Concerns about the possible effects on gardens of fluoride contamination from Reynolds and PCB contamination from General Motors led to the warning that Gina should not plant food.
Literature published by members of the grassroots Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment illustrates a trajectory of health and social ills linked to environmental contamination. These publications describe how Mohawks were robbed of the ability to grow or harvest free, healthy, culturally relevant food and were left with the only option of purchasing cheap, processed foods, with the end result being an increasingly unhealthy population. Shortly after the founding of Kanenhi:io Ionkwaienthon:hakie (We Are Planting Good Seeds), a grassroots organization with a focus on supporting families interested in starting farming or gardening projects, I began volunteering with the organization to help with planting activities and to learn more about gardening efforts in the community. I sought to integrate community members’ thoughts on the changing food system, and efforts to reclaim it, with their concerns about the environment and their experiences with environmental health research. In this work I spent a lot of time planting seeds, pulling weeds, butchering chickens, harvesting vegetables, canning pickles and tomatoes, shelling beans, and braiding corn, in the process engaging in conversation about the past, present, and future of the food system in Akwesasne, and Indian Country more broadly. This work carried into taking part in the Ohero:kon rites of passage programs and ceremonies. With the encouragement of Wakerakatsiteh (Louise McDonald), the clan mother at the forefront of reviving these ceremonies, I have since 2008 helped the girls prepare for their fast, assisted with event setup, cut cedar, and tended gardens. The privilege of being able to take part in this work helped me to contextualize the multigenerational battle against environmental contamination and social ills that many people in the community have been waging.
A majority of the interviews that I conducted with community members took place in 2008, although I also conducted some targeted interviews to fill in knowledge gaps in 2009 and 2014. The interview protocol was structured similarly from one interviewee to the next, although I focused most on what each individual could bring to the discussion. The questions pertained to health studies, participants’ perceptions of change in the health and environment of the community, and their suggestions for how to improve the health of the community. We also discussed changes in diets related to a decrease in farming and fishing, and the possibility of community members returning to either of those activities with the proper support. Visiting is a valued form of social interaction in this community, and my interviews were often treated as “visits” over coffee. Some interviewees joked that they were envious I had managed to obtain a grant that allowed me to spend several months visiting with people, even if it meant I always had to be jotting down notes. As noted in chapter 3, some suggested that more visiting should be done in the context of sharing the results of studies and environmental information. Many of these visits led to “kitchen table stories,” as Gwen Ottinger labels them. Such stories offered deeper critiques of environmental injustices by highlighting an assortment of structural issues that have led to health conditions in Akwesasne, as opposed to “strategic stories,” which drew direct and uncritical lines of causation between environmental contamination and every health and social ill in the community. In exploring these honest stories, my intention is not to lessen any of the responsibility of polluting industries for the environmental and health disasters they have created but to explore additional factors that have contributed to social and health problems, as well as actions beyond environmental cleanup that can be supported to address these problems.
All interviewees were presented with informed consent forms that gave them the opportunity to choose whether they wanted their identities to remain confidential (I would remove their names and identifying information from the transcripts) or if they were comfortable leaving their identities on the transcripts. In the following pages in which I share and discuss their words, I give direct credit by using the first names of those who chose to allow me to do so. In quoting from public presentations, I generally provide the speakers’ full names.
I transcribed each of the sixty-three community interviews and then uploaded both the interviews and my field notes into the qualitative data analysis software NVivo 7 to code for relevant themes. Some of these themes arose from the interview questions, such as references to health studies and fish consumption, and others arose independently, such as references to distrust of the state and federal governments and concerns about health and habits of youth. I continue to have conversations and e-mail exchanges with some interviewees about the progress of the Superfund cleanup, environmental governance, and health programming, as well as farming and gardening programs. Publications that have come from this work have all been vetted through the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, and one of ATFE’s members, Brenda LaFrance, served as the community editor for this book. This gave members of the community featured in the book the opportunity to ensure that this publication meets ATFE’s goals for all research about the community to provide respect, equity, and empowerment.
I also worked to establish a level of accountability to members of the scientific community who shared their time, words, and articles with me. As described in greater detail in chapter 3, I interviewed seven scientists at SUNY Albany who had collaborated with Akwesasro:non on environmental health research, in response to Laura Nader’s call for “studying up”—turning the ethnographic lens on those in society who are not often seen as a cultural group because of their institutionalized positions of power. I spoke with each of them about their experiences in organizing the studies and working directly with Akwesasne community members, and I asked for their ideas about what they might do differently if they were to conduct the studies again. I also attended community meetings in Akwesasne in 2012 and 2014, during which the SUNY scientists presented years’ worth of results of environmental health research to the community. My purpose was to observe the ways in which the scientists worked to articulate dense scientific information for a lay audience, as well as the community’s responses. Dr. Lawrence Schell and Dr. David Carpenter were kind enough to provide comments on drafts of the chapters about their work in this book, to ensure that I had summarized their science correctly and represented the efforts of their research teams fairly.
Understanding the political, cultural, and environmental history of Akwesasne is key to understanding how it became the locus of the first large-scale CBPR study in an Indigenous community. In chapter 1, I lay out the history of this community in the context of a driving tour to provide a sense of the physicality of the location. To illustrate salient issues in the community’s social and political history, the tour includes landmarks such as border markers, the casino, the longhouses, the tribal offices, the Kateri Tekakwitha Catholic Center, the Saint Lawrence Seaway, industrial plants, and the smattering of signs put up by residents warning state police that they are no longer in New York but on Mohawk land. The “ecosocial history” of Akwesasne as an Indigenous community surrounded by two settler colonial nations and myriad other political bodies that impinge on environmental quality and self-governance makes the fight for environmental justice in Akwesasne a unique case. The road-map-structured history presented in chapter 1 demonstrates the historico-political lens through which Akwesasro:non perceive the imposition of environmental contamination, the government agencies that should have done a better job defending them, and the obstacles to their collaboration with state agencies on the first big CBPR project to take place in an Indigenous community.
In chapter 2, I draw from interviews, archival materials, minutes of public meetings, and newspaper clippings to document the multifaceted history of environmental contamination and environmental health research at Akwesasne. Fluoride contamination from the Reynolds Metals aluminum foundry and PCB contamination from the GM plant decimated the dairy and fishing industries, leading to Akwesasne being targeted for conventional environmental health research studies. But community members organized to demand action, forming first Mohawks Agree on Safe Health (MASH) and then the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment in order to ensure that the community’s interests were represented in the “mitigation politics” that would play out. Despite a lack of trust toward the state government based on suspicions that it has never had Mohawks’ best interests in mind, Katsi Cook convinced the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) to work with the Mohawks to determine the impact of contamination on the community, conducting environmental sampling and a health risk assessment. This work eventually led to nearly two decades of research with SUNY Albany that documented the levels of contaminants in Mohawk breast milk and blood, and, more recently, investigated some of the potential health effects of these burdens. Chapter 2 also traces the history of the cleanup process at this Superfund site, which, after GM declared bankruptcy, was turned over to an environmental trust.
Rooted in interview material as well as the literatures of citizen science, CBPR, and study report-back, chapter 3 addresses the benefits and challenges of this large-scale CBPR project for both the scientists and community members. Through frank discussions with scientists and Mohawk fieldworkers, I have constructed a conversation that was never able to take place in one time or space—a conversation about the successes and difficulties that members of both groups experienced in working together, and their suggestions for future researchers. The nature of the relationship between researchers and community members was in part a result of the fact that science is the “language of power”—that is, the scientists’ way of speaking about the impacts of contamination was legitimated as “official” or “formal” by the state, as opposed to the rich oral testimonies given by community members at public meetings hosted by the EPA. I also interviewed people who had served as subjects in the environmental health research, who had a number of suggestions for more effective and culturally appropriate report-back methods, targeted at social bodies rather than just individual bodies. In this chapter I also explore how, in addition to contributing to the capacity development of the scientists and community members who worked together on these health studies, environmental health research at Akwesasne contributed to the development of science more broadly, beginning at a time when CBPR was just beginning to become a standard of community research.
The second half of the book unpacks the impacts of contamination on Akwesasne’s local food culture, the health issues that developed as a result, and the community’s efforts to remedy them. In chapter 4, I discuss how the diets of Akwesasro:non have changed over the past generation and examine the direct and collateral ways in which people connect this shift to environmental contamination and other factors. Prior to the discovery of contamination in the river, Akwesasro:non relied on fishing and farming to sustain their food needs and the local economy. Fish advisories issued to protect human health (and the EPA’s reliance on policies focused on risk aversion rather than risk remediation), as well as concerns about the potential impacts of fluoride and PCBs on locally raised farm foods, have led to a decrease in the consumption of local foods. In this chapter I explore the risk assessment process that some people employ in making decisions about their local food consumption, in which they weigh potential health impacts against concerns about culture loss. At the same time, this diminishment in local food consumption has been compounded by other modern factors, such as the wage economy and young people’s preference for digital entertainment over gardening work. These elements have combined to lead to what Claude Fischler refers to as “gastro-anomy,” an anxiety over food, suffered by a generation whose relationship to food is different from that of preceding generations.
One of the health impacts of the change in food culture has been an increase in rates of diabetes. Akwesasne is not unique in its high rates of diabetes (the disease affects about 25 percent of the community, according to the local diabetes program coordinator). Indigenous peoples the world over are suddenly finding they have this “disease of modernity” in common, and in the past thirty years, medical anthropologists and health care providers have worked to understand both the medical and local etiologies of the disease. Drawing on Margaret Lock’s concept of “local biologies” and Sherine Hamdy’s “political etiologies,” chapter 5 contributes to this conversation, exploring the ways in which Akwesasne community members conceptualize the environmental, social, and physiological origins of this disease. Mohawks do not place the blame only on individual noncompliant bodies; rather, they weave a more complex etiology that indicates direct connections between PCBs and diabetes or points to the role of environmental contamination in limiting the procurement and consumption of local foods.
To address some of these concerns, community groups like Kanenhi:io Ionkwaienthon:hakie and ATFE have developed community gardening projects. Recently the Tribe also reached a Natural Resource Damages Settlement with local industries that resulted in funds being made available for programs to support traditional Mohawk cultural practices, including an apprenticeship program to promote Mohawk language, horticulture, fishing, trapping, and traditional medicine. In addition, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe’s Environment Division has recently created a new fish advisory, based on fish testing and community interviews, which seeks to provide more nuanced information about which fish can be eaten. I explore these programs in depth in the book’s conclusion.
One of the threads weaving all these chapters together is a framework I have assembled from community suggestions for solutions to everything from health study report-back to health interventions, cultural programming, and the creation of healthier bodies through the growing of traditional foods. I have structured the suggested solutions around each of these topics into three layers, loosely incorporating the concept of the three levels of the body (the individual body-self, the social body, and the body politic) laid out by medical anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock in their explication of the different perspectives from which culturally perceived bodies can be understood. I utilize this framework a little differently, as I find that the idea of the three levels of the body is useful for examining what community members see as the sources of some of their health issues, and how those can be addressed. Akwesasne community members’ suggestions for remedies to many of the local issues fell into three categories: individual, social, and structural (involving political bodies). While any issue should be tackled from all three levels, the social level was often the middle ground, where many community members felt that the most feasible solutions would be implemented. In exploring new ways to frame environmental health research report-back, community members pointed to the social body rather than the individual body as a target of information. In discussing better ways of treating and preventing diabetes, interviewees expressed that rather than working with individuals who have already developed the condition to alter their diet and exercise practices, clinics need to work with the family body to modify behaviors.
Scheper-Hughes and Lock describe the first level as the phenomenally experienced individual body-self: “The human body is an imitation of heaven and earth in all its details.” The health of individuals depends on a balance in the natural world, while the health of each organ depends on its relationship to all the other organs. Women’s bodies are important in Mohawk culture, as is demonstrated in the creation story, where all human life on earth begins in Sky Woman’s womb, and the most important foods for Haudenosaunee people come from her daughter’s body. As part of the Ohero:kon rites of passage ceremony, lessons around women’s bodies are framed through the creation story. This is reflected in lessons around ovulation described in the context of Sky Woman’s descent, and in the formation of gardens in the shape of Sky Woman’s daughter, where lessons center on seeds and caring for women’s bodies. It is not surprising that the environmental health studies in this community were begun by a midwife who was concerned about the impact of contaminants on women’s bodies and those of their babies. In discussing the individual body in the context of environmental health research and health issues like diabetes, the Akwesasne community members I interviewed considered the social and political bodies of the community.
Scheper-Hughes and Lock describe the second level, the social body, as a natural symbol with which to think about nature, society and culture. The body in health offers a model of organic wholeness; the body in sickness offers a model of social disharmony, conflict, and disintegration. Reciprocally, society in “sickness” and in “health” offers a model for understanding the body. As Mary Douglas notes, “Just as it is true that everything symbolizes the body, so it is equally true that the body symbolizes everything else.” While this book addresses health concerns around people’s individual bodies, these concerns are situated in the social body of Akwesasne, or the ways that the environment and people of Akwesasne are perceived as one body. Many times interviewees would express to me that “the community” or “Akwesasne” was ill and suffering, indicating that the ailments afflict not just individual bodies but also this greater entity. The social body in Haudenosaunee communities is more inclusive than that in many Western communities. Traditional Haudenosaunee culture conceives of elements of the natural world—in addition to humans—as part of this social body. Enrique Salmón uses the term “kincentric ecology” to describe how many Indigenous people view themselves and nature as part of an extended ecological family. For many Indigenous communities, this means that the “social body” is more inclusive than that of the average American community. As the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment Research Advisory Committee notes:
For Native people, pollution problems also result in lost relationships with the natural world, something that can only be likened to mourning. The people actually mourn the loss of the natural world. At the same time though, the ecosystem mourns the loss of Mohawk people, communities that have always worked to maintain a balance and restrict human activity to ensure the survival of all species. The loss of place, relationships and balance can be culturally devastating.
Part of this inclusion of “nonhumans” into Mohawk family systems is achieved through the structuring of Mohawk society around a matrilineal clan system. The clans at Akwesasne are mainly Bear, Turtle, and Wolf, as well as Snipe. The clans originated when, during a time of social unrest, the Creator came to the people and instructed them to break into groups led by elder women, who were directed to go to the river to draw water and take note of the first animals they saw. These animals determined clan names and are held in esteem by clan members today.
As described in the preface, the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen addresses aspects of the environment as family—Mother Earth, Grandfather Thunderers, Elder Brother the Sun, Grandmother Moon, and so on. The responsibility that some Akwesasro:non feel toward fish and heritage seeds (described in chapter 4) connects back to the Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen. In addition, specific crops are given family titles, like the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash), which grow symbiotically in the garden and also work together to provide optimal nutrition when prepared as a meal. Because traditional Mohawk people assign great value to elements of the natural environment, organizations like ATFE have taken it upon themselves to push for a cleanup of the contamination that will restore nature in addition to protecting human health. Some members of the community told me that they were convinced that if the environment could be healed, the community’s health and social ills would be healed at the same time. They viewed the health of one as intrinsically tied to the health of the other.
This notion of a social body also came out in discussions with Akwesasro:non around their thoughts on how risk assessment, environmental health research, and health care could be conducted differently—considering “social bodies” rather than just individual bodies. As Harris and Harper write in their work on establishing more effective risk assessment models, “Human health effects can also be synergistic with ecological or cultural effects (and vice versa) to affect not only an individual’s personal health but also the health of the community as a single social organism. A true systems approach to assessment is needed, since system-level impacts are more than the sum of individual metrics.” Articles and press releases by ATFE, which will be explored in greater depth throughout this book, have similarly called for a more culturally relevant consideration of the social community body and its nonhuman relatives.
The stability of the body politic rests on that body’s ability to regulate populations and to discipline social bodies. The regulation, surveillance, and control of bodies (individual and collective) in reproduction and sexuality, in work and leisure, and in health are all goals of the body politic. The body politic can also exert its control over individual bodies in more mundane ways—Scheper-Hughes and Lock note that Foucauldian analyses of the roles of medicine, criminal justice, psychiatry, and the various social sciences in producing new forms of power/knowledge over bodies are illustrative in this regard. Native studies scholars have examined political bodies such as tribal governments, which determine which individual bodies are recognized and included, and which, in turn, are frequently reshaped and remade by their constituents. Some Native political scholars have called on the leadership of their tribal communities to reform—to decolonize and reshape themselves based on traditional Indigenous principles. Similar discussions have arisen in Akwesasne around the myriad political bodies governing the community.
Politics can be complicated in any Native American community, but in Akwesasne they are especially contentious. As noted earlier, exerting some level of control over Akwesasro:non are two federal governments, two federally recognized tribal governments, and a traditional Haudenosaunee Confederacy–backed government. Three state/provincial governments are also involved. There are two separate longhouses, in addition to a number of other religious establishments (including Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Jehovah’s Witness churches). There are two separate health clinics—the Saint Regis Mohawk Health Services clinic, funded by the U.S. federal government, and Kanonhkwat’sheri:io, which receives funds from the Canadian government. Similarly, there are two separate federal environmental authorities. Each of these various bodies seeks to control some aspect of the fate of Akwesasro:non, and most elicit some level of distrust from community members. The contentious relationship that Akwesasne has had with outside political bodies (described in chapter 1) has colored community members’ perceptions of whether these bodies can be trusted. Indeed, when I asked people what could be done to improve the health of the community, many pointed straight to the tribal governments and their agencies and wondered what they could do to support families and individuals.
The struggle to achieve environmental justice in Akwesasne, which involves the restoration of the natural environment, traditional foods, and good health for human and nonhuman communities, includes roles for each of these three bodies and the social layers they entail. In this book’s conclusion, I highlight the ways in which Akwesasro:non are drawing on Indigenous regeneration and survivance to promote the rebuilding of their relationships with the environment and with fellow community members.