One of my recent teachers is fourteen year old Jamaica Johnson, a beautiful Mohawk girl with the courage to face death before she has even had a chance to fully experience life. Jamaica grew up in a home next door to an old Esso gas station in Hogansburg, New York, a township that cuts into our reservation. The station exploded in the early 1970s, leaking gasoline into the surrounding groundwater. While the limits of science make it difficult to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between Jamaica's exposure to hydrocarbons via groundwater consumption from a private well to her chronic kidney disease, we do know that an association exists between her disease, Good Pasteur's Syndrome, and exposure to hydrocarbons. We also know this: cause-and-effect relationships at the individual and small community level cannot be found by science.
Several major epidemiological studies have ground away the years seeking to identify exposures and characterize health effects while our medicine people, who are keen observers, tell us that there are fewer herbs, that "everything in nature is going down." Science might never tell us for sure, given its primitive methods for investigating environmental health issues. But those of us who work every day with our peoples' health are increasingly alarmed as we compare notes. Beverly Jackson is a nurse practitioner at Akwesasne who has monitored the health of our community for more than a decade. She sounds a warning about "the increasing complexity of new disease states" that she is finding, and how these are commonly auto-immune in nature. "This is alarming and further burdens the community emotionally and financially," she says.
Since, as scientists tell us, our community does not have a large enough population to prove conclusively the effects of contaminants on human health, we must rely more than ever on our own empirical observations. In any case, just when study is indicated more than ever, the national and state agencies that are charged with giving us voice are being stifled by the general political rampage against environmental protections.
By definition, environmental justice supports sustainable communities, "where people can interact with confidence that their environment is safe, nurturing, and productive…and where both cultural and biological diversity are respected" (pii, Executive Summary of Recommendations, Symposium on Health Research and Needs to Ensure Environmental Justice). But like so many Native American and other disenfranchised communities in North America, we are high-risk populations and have been made to bear the brunt of environmental contamination with limited resources. Environmental injustice is a condition of life for us.
Not so long ago, my people lived a self-sufficient, natural, and clean existence. We fished the St. Lawrence River and farmed good bottom-land while working a variety of professions. Even 300 years after first contact with European societies, into the 1950s, our rivers were pollution-free and we could trust that the environment would support us. As a traditional midwife, I was enjoying the return among our new mothers to natural birth and breastfeeding.
Now forty years after our beautiful river was dynamited and dredged into the St. Lawrence Seaway and twelve years after being declared a Superfund Site because of massive PCB contamination of our environment, I find that my people are generally distrustful of nature, of science, and of the future itself. Our river, the intestine of the Great Lakes, is a dumping ground for industry and municipalities. We are told to not eat the fish-it carries high levels of PCBs and other organochlorines, and mercury. Mohawk mothers tell me, "We want to nurse our babies, but we are aware that poisons concentrate in our breast milk and that as we nurse we may dump our own lifelong accumulation of toxic chemicals into our babies. We know the nursing baby is at the top of the human food chain and so we are traumatized and indecisive about what to do."
Looking into Jamaica Johnson's lovely young face not long ago, I was deeply moved by the strength with which she faces her painful disease. For Jamaica, and for all our young mothers and children who will face new illness and pain-both spiritual and physical-we must rely on our own awareness, knowledge, and values. We may not be able to prove that Jamaica's disease results from toxicity in our community, but we can't be wrong to assume it and to look with both instinct and science-Western and indigenous-for the truest possible solutions.
Mohawk traditions tell us that if the cycles of creation are truncated and disregarded, nature's ability to nurture us will decline. From where I stand, this is a great loss-one that we cannot afford. In our community, we have organized across political boundaries to form the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment. Our task force's message is quite clear: scientists working in our community must take direction from us. We respect scientific methodology, but the purposes of all studies must be guided by our own need to know what is happening to us-individually and as a community. After all, the answers to our questions and the solutions can only come from us.
Katsi Cook is a traditional Mohawk midwife and director of the First Environment Project.
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