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Cultural and health implications of fish advisories in a Native American community


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Introduction Fish advisories are issued in an effort to protect human health from exposure to contaminants, but Native American communities may suffer unintended health, social, and cultural consequences as a result of warnings against eating local fish. This paper focuses on the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, which lies downstream from a Superfund site, and explores how fish advisories have impacted fish consumption and health. Methods 65 Akwesasne community members were interviewed between March 2008 and April 2009. Interviews were semi-structured, lasted from 30–90 minutes and consisted of open-ended questions about the impacts of environmental contamination on the community. Detailed field notes were also maintained during extensive visits between 2007–2011. Interviews were transcribed, and these transcripts as well as the field notes were analyzed in NVivo 8.0. This research received approval from the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment Research Advisory Committee, as well as the Brown University Institutional Review Board. Results Three-quarters of the 50 Akwesasne Mohawks interviewed have ceased or significantly curtailed their local fish consumption due to the issuance of fish advisories or witnessing or hearing about deformities on fish. Many of these respondents have turned to outside sources of fish, from other communities or from grocery stores. This change in fish consumption concerns many residents because cultural and social connections developed around fishing are being lost and because fish has been replaced with high-fat high-carb processed foods, which has led to other health complications. One-quarter of the 50 interviewees still eat local fish, but these are generally middle-aged or older residents; fish consumption no longer occurs in the multi-generational social context it once did. Conclusions Human health in Native American communities such as Akwesasne is intimately tied to the health of the environment. Fish advisories should not be used as an institutional control to protect humans from exposure to contaminants; if Akwesasne are to achieve optimal health, the contaminated environment has to be remediated to a level that supports clean, edible fish.
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RES E A R C H Open Access
Cultural and health implications of fish advisories
in a Native American community
Elizabeth Hoover
Introduction: Fish advisories are issued in an effort to protect human health from exposure to contaminants, but
Native American communities may suffer unintended health, social, and cultural consequences as a result of
warnings against eating local fish. This paper focuses on the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, which lies
downstream from a Superfund site, and explores how fish advisories have impacted fish consumption and heal th.
Methods: 65 Akwesasne community members were interviewed between March 2008 and April 2009. Interviews
were semi-structured, lasted from 3090 minutes and consisted of open-ended questions about the impacts of
environmental contamination on the community. Detailed field notes were also maintained during extensive visits
between 20072011. Interviews were transcribed, and these transcripts as well as the field notes were analyzed in
NVivo 8.0. This research received approval from the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment Research Advisory
Committee, as well as the Brown University Institutional Review Board.
Results: Three-quarters of the 50 Akwesasne Mohawks interviewed have ceased or significantly curtailed their local
fish co nsumption due to the issuance of fish advisories or witnessing or hearing about deformities on fish. Many of
these respondents have turned to outside sources of fish, from other communities or from grocery stores. This
change in fish consumption concerns many residents because cultural and social connections developed around
fishing are being lost and because fish has been replaced with high-fat high-carb processed foods, which has led to
other health complications. One-quarter of the 50 interviewees still eat local fish, but these are generally middle-aged
or older residents; fish consumption no longer occurs in the multi-generational social context it once did.
Conclusions: Human health in Native American communities such as Akwesasne is intimately tied to the health of
the environment. Fish advisories should not be used as an institutional control to protect humans from exposure to
contaminants; if Akwesasne are to achieve optimal health, the contaminated environment has to be remediated to
a level that supports clean, edible fish.
Keywords: Fish advisories, Native American, Mohawk, Haudenosaunee, PCBs, Superfund, St. Lawrence River,
Health risk assessment
We turn our minds to all the Fish life in the water. They
were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They
also give themselves to us a s food. We are grateful that
we can still find pure water. So, we turn now to the Fish
and send our greetings and thanks.
Now our minds are one.
Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address (Patterson 1999)
For traditional Haudenosaunee (also known as Iroquois)
people, the Ohenton Kariwatehkwen or Thanksgiving
Address is recited at the opening and closing of import-
ant events, as a reminder of essential elements to be
collectively thankful for. The translated excerpt above
highlights the importance of fish, which historically were
an important source of food for many Haudenosaunee na-
tions, including the Mohawk.
In communities such as
Akwesasne, the relationship between fishwhose duty it
is to cleanse the water and offer themselves as foodand
humanswhose role it is to respectfully harvest these fish
has been interrupted by environmental contamination.
American Studies and Ethnic Studies, Brown University, Box 1886, Providence
RI 02860, USA
© 2013 Hoover; licensee Springer. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License (, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction
in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4
Because concepts of health for Mohawk people extend be-
yond the individual to the community and the environ-
ment (Arquette et al. 2002), this interrupted relationship
with the fish has resulted in altered diets with resulting
health impacts, and the fear that language and culture re-
Much of the literature on fish advisories has focused
on concerns about whether these advisories properly
inform minority subsistence fishermen and their fami-
lies about the risks of consuming contaminated fish
(Chess et al. 2005; Beehler et al. 2003; Tan et al. 2011;
Imm et al. 2005). Following a conventional human
health risk model in whic h prevention of exposure pro-
tects health, the goal of much of this scholarship is
ensuring that the fish avoidance message reaches all
audiences. Less focus has been given to the impact on
communities who follow these advisories, and the feasi-
bility of ever reversing the impact of these advisories
even after site cleanup.
Through interviews with Akwesasne Mohawk commu-
nity members and environmental officials, I explore the
impact fish advisories have had on this community, the
extent to which the community decreased or ceased
their fish consumption, and the unintended health and
cultural consequences of fish advisories. I also explore
the motivations of people who have decided to continue
to eat fish despite the advisories, and conclude with a
discussion of future research and outreach needed in the
community. The overarching message conveyed by com-
munity members and scholars who are pushing for more
holistic forms of risk assessment (Arq uette et al. 2002;
Ranco et al. 2011; Harper et al. 2012; Donatuto and
Harper 2008) is that optimum human health cannot be
achieved in Native American communities such as
Akwesasne until ecological health is achieved as well.
Akwesasne is a Mohawk community of about 1315,000
that shares borders with New York, Ontario,
and Quebec. Located at the confluence of four rivers
the St. Regis Rive r, the Raquette River, the Grasse River,
and the St. Lawrence Riverthe community relied for
generations on the abundance of fish and wildlife, as
well as the rich alluvial soils for farms (see Figure 1).
The St. Lawrence Seaway project, begun in 1954, wid-
ened and deepened the river, and created a series of
canals and locks that opened the region to ocean-going
vessels. In 1957 the Moses-Saunders Power Dam was
constructed on the St. Lawrence River and attracted in-
dustry with its low-cost hydroelectricity. The Aluminum
Company of America (ALCOA) had already established
a factory a few miles west of Akwesasne in 1903 on the
Grasse River an d was joined by the General Motors
(GM) aluminum plant in 1958 and Reynolds Metals in
1959, both just west of the reservation, upstream and
upwind. On the Canadian side of the river, a paper mill
was built in 1881, which was acquired by Dominion Tar
& Chemical in 1961 and rebranded as Domtar in 1965.
In 1976 Health and Welfare Canada approached the
Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA), the tribal gov-
ernment for the northern half of the community, to de-
termine if there were elevated mercury levels in the
people of Akwesasne, since mercury had been identified
as a problem in Native communities across Canada. The
presence of paper companies such as Domtar adjacent
to, and upstream from, Akwesasne led to the concern
that mercury could be a threat to this community as
well. In 1978 MCA took samples of fish and found
PCBs, mercury, and Mirex, which led them to recom-
mend that women of childbearing age, children under
15, and pregnant women cease consumption of fish from
the St. Lawrence (Hauptmann 1988:64).
In 1981, two dormant sludge pits filled with poly-
chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were discovered behind
GM, adjacent to the Raquette Point region of the reser-
vation, and by 1984 the entire 27 0 acre Gener al Motor s
site was declared a Superfund site. Following tests done
by a NY State wildlife epidemiologist that found high
levels of PCBs in fish and aquatic wildlife, an official
three-part health risk assessment was developed that ex-
amined contaminant levels in fish (Sloan and Jock 1990),
wildlife (Skinner 1992) and breast milk (Fitzgerald et al.
1992). Sloan and Jock (1990:26) found that PCB, dioxin,
and mercury throughout the study area exceeded criteria
for the protection of piscivorous wildlife. Tests done on
343 fish collected from 12 locations on the St. Lawrence
between 3 ppm and 8,000 ppm (lipid basis), which
exceeded the tolerance limits established by the federal gov-
ernment of 2 ppm (wet weight) (Kinney et al. 1997:314).
Following tests do ne arou nd the GM Su perfund site,
the Health Service for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
(SRMT), the tribal government for the southern half of
the community, issued an advisory in July of 1986
recommending that women of childbearing age, preg-
nant and nursing women, and children under 15 should
entirely avoid the consumption of contaminated fish.
They also gave a list of species for everyone to avoid,
and a separate list from which residents should only eat
one half pound per week.
This news furthe r destroyed
the local fishing economy, which had previou sly sup-
ported a number of Mohawk families and had already
begun to diminish after the MCA fish advisory.
The results of the breast milk section of the health
risk assessment (Fitzgerald et al. 1992), as well as contin-
ued studies that resulted from a partnership between
the Akwesasne community and the State University of
New York (SUNY) at Albany, demonstrated that fish
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 2 of 12
consumption led to higher levels of PCBs in Akwesasne
residents. Fingerprinting analyses established that fish
caught in the St. Lawrence River offshore from the GM
site were contaminated with the same lightly chlorinated
PCB congeners as the sediment collected offshore from
the GM plant. This contamination was primarily Aroclor
1248, the PCB mixture used in GMs die casting machin-
ery (Hwang et al. 1993; Fitzgerald et al. 1995). This con-
tamination was then traced from fish to humans: breast
milk samples from women who ate local fish had a con-
gener pattern that was much closer to perch, the pre-
ferred species of fish, than that found in women who ate
little or no fish (Fitzgerald et al. 1998; Hwang et al.
2001). Similarly, Mohawk men who ate the most fish
had a congener pattern similar to the fish studied
(although their serum was more likely to contain more
chlorinated PCB mixtures such as Aroclor 1254 and
1260, which have been traced to the Great Lakes, than
the local mixture, Aroclor 1248) (Fitzgerald et al. 2007).
This series of studies was significant because it demon-
strated how PCBs could be fingerprinted as they
migrated offsite from an industrial source, and traced
into fish and then humans. Many Mohawks I spoke with
referred to the St. Lawrence as the lifeblood of the
community. By the contamination of the river, and
hence the fish, Mohawk bodies were subsequently con-
taminated as well. Therefore cessation of fish consump-
tion, which distanced Mohawks from this river, was
lauded by the public health community as a means for
preventing further exposure to contamination.
Environmental health studies conducted by the SUNY
Albany research team and the Akwesasne community
extended into a second Superfund Basic Research Pro-
ject grant from 19952000. Papers published based on
this project demonstrated that higher PCB levels in Mo-
hawk participants were potential ly connected to abnor-
mal thyroid functioning in adolescents (Schell et al.
2004, 2008, 2009; Schell and Gallo 2010); diabetes
(Codru et al. 2007 ); higher levels of total serum lipids
that contribute to heart disease (Goncharov et al. 2008);
altered cognitive function in adolescents (Newman et al.
2006, 2009) as well as altered cognitive function in older
Figure 1 Map of Akwesasne. Map available at
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 3 of 12
adults (Haase et al. 2009); earlier onset of menarche in
girls (Denham et al. 2005); and reduced testosterone
levels in men (Goncharov et al. 2009).
The General Motors Superfund site has been undergo-
ing remediation for decades but may finally be nearing
completion. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
issued a Record of Decision in 1990 for GMswastewater
lagoons and the contaminated adjacent river sediment and
in 1992 for GMs industrial landfill. The dredging of the
St. Lawrence River sediments, along with a cap in areas
where the cleanup goals were not met, was completed in
1995. From 20002004, GM remediated the inactive
lagoons at the facility, excavating contaminated sludge and
soils, stabilizing them and shipping to an offsite facility.
The Raquette River bank soils and sediments were also
remediated, and contaminated soils were removed at the
toe of the slope of the Industrial Landfill, which reached
out to the Raquette Point portion of the reservation. In
20042005 GM remediated Turtle Cove, which had been
renamed Contaminant Cove by NY State Department of
Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) workers. The
GM plant closed in May 2009, was bulldozed, and the re-
mains shipped to an offsite landfill in 2011 (USEPA 2011).
In 20132015 another four lagoons and two sludge pits
will be cleaned up, and the edge of the landfill will be
pulled back 150 ft from the shore of the St. Lawrence
River and reservation boundary. The last of the general
site cleanup and restoration activities will occur in 2016
(Arquette 2012). According to the EPA website, current
human exposures at this site are under control but con-
taminated groundwater migration is not (USEPA 2012).
In order to explore how a Native American community
located downstream from a Superfund site has been
impacted by contamination and the ensuing environ-
mental health studies, from March 2008 through April
2009 I interviewed 65 Akwe sasne Mohawk community
members, ranging in age from 25 to 90, with a majority
(n = 41, 63%) in their 40s and 50s.
Eight participants
were in their 20s to 30s, and 16 participants were older
than 60. Those in their 40s and 50s were targeted, a s
environmental health studies during the 1980s1990s.
Slightly over half of the interviewees (57%, n = 37) were
All interviews were semi-structured, lasted from
3090 min and consisted of open-ended questions about
the impacts of the environmental contamination on the
community, fish consumption, and current health con-
cerns. During these interviews, I asked 50 interviewees
(18 men and 32 women, 68% in their 40s and 50s) dir-
ectly about their fish consumption, as well as that of
their families, and how this may have changed as a result
of the fish advisories. It is from this sub-sample that the
data for this paper are drawn. Questions included: Do
you still eat fish? As much as you used to? If you
stopped, or reduced your fish eating, at what point did
you do so, and why? Were your changes due to advi-
sories or because you noticed changes in the fish? Do
members of your family all eat the same amount of fish?
I made contact with most interviewees through snow-
ball sampling, and in addition approached two members
of the SRMT Environment Division, two members of
the MC A Department of Environment, and six individ-
uals who were at some time affiliated with the grassroots
organization Akwesasne Task For ce on the Environment
(ATFE). All interviews were recorded and transcribed
with all identifying information removed to protect con-
fidentiality if the interviewee chose this option. For those
who did not choose to remain confidential, I received
permission to use their names. In addition to interviews,
detailed field notes were maintained during extensive
visits to Akwesasne from 2007 to 2011. Transcripts and
notes were then analyzed in NVivo 8.0, a program for
qualitative data entry, coding , sorting, and retrieval. Data
coding was done in an iterative fashion, with additional
readings of the transcripts leading to additional codes as
more was learned from the materials. Prior to
conducting this researc h, I received approval from the
Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment Research
Advisory Committee, as well as the Brown University In-
stitutional Review Board.
Results and discussion
Fishing tradition
Prior to the fish advisories issued in the 1980s, fishing
had been a central part of the diet, economy, and social
culture of Akwesasne for centuries. More than just a
means of acquiring a dietary mainstay, fishing was de-
scribed by community members as a livelihood, a life-
style, and a culture. Almost everyone I spoke to in the
community had a connection in some way to fish or
fishing. The process of ca tching and cooking fish out of
the river was at the root of many of the interviewees
childhoods and something that connected them to their
ancestors. People in their 50s on up through their 90s
recalled with youthful excitement their childhood expe-
riences of going to the fish boxes that each family kept
on the shore of the river to pull out the evenings supper.
People fondly reminisced about fishing with their fathers
on the river, helping their fathers prepare fishing equip-
ment, or helping their mothers clean and cook the fish.
Species such as sturgeon, perch, and bullhead were men-
tioned most frequently, and they were eaten smoked or
fried. Fish was eaten several times a week for an ordinary
dinner, and in large quantities at fish fries to celebrate
special occasions and family gatherings.
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 4 of 12
When fish advisor ies were issued that called for people
to diminish or eliminate fish from their diet, many resi-
dents felt that they had lost more than just omega-3
fatty acids from their diet; another part of their culture
was being eroded by outside influences. A cessation in
fishing gradually diminished Mohawk culture in several
ways. As Henry Lickers describes, the language and cul-
ture around tying knots in nets as well as the social
interactions that occurred around the pro cess of creating
these nets are lost when there is no longer a use for
those nets:
People forget, in thei r own culture, what you call the
knot that you tie in a net. And so, a whole section of
your language and culture is lost because no one is
tying those nets anymore. The interrelation between
men and women, when they tied nets, the relationship
between adults or elders and young people, as they
tied nets together, the stories.. . that whole social
infrastructure that was around the fabrication of that
net disappeared (interview 10).
Similarly, the language around the names and descrip-
tions of certain fish is lost. As one older man described
to me, A lot of that has been forgotten, the fish names
in our language. Because a lot of the fishermen when
they go fishing they talk about their Indian names to
them, there is no English part of it, but that has been
sort of forgotten now (interview 39). One young
mother, Randi, described how even though the youth
were learning the Mohawk language, words related to
activities no longer widely practiced, like fishing, are
never going to be spoke again because those things are
now in the past.. . so only very elderly people are going
to know those words, so thats a loss (interview 54).
Changes in community fish consumption
Data gathered during the health studies demonstrated a
decrease in fish consumption among pregnant women
(Fitzgerald et al. 1995, 2004) and Mohawk men (Fitzgerald
et al. 1999). These papers cite fish advisories as the
reason for the decline in fish consumption. Many of the
Akwesasne community members I interviewed also de-
scribed a decline in fish consumption, attributed to the
fish advisories, but also to visual changes in the fish and a
diminished fish population. On the other hand, some
have maintained fish consumption based on a cultural
connection that ties them to fish or because they felt their
age precluded them from the more pressing reproductive
and developmental concerns associated with the main
target demographic of the fish advisories.
When asked whether they still ate local fish, three-
quarters of the interviewees I spoke with (37 out of 50)
replied that they had either dramatically decreased or
entirely ceased their local fish consumption, even though
for most of them it was previously an important part of
their diet. Of those who had decreased fish consump-
tion, eight interviewees described fish meals as a rare,
special occasion treat. As Howard, an elder in his 80s
explained, I eat fish once or twice a year, not like every-
day (interview 13). Another woman remarked that
when she does have a little bit of fish on these occasions,
she worries, You know in the back of your mind that
youre going to be glowing (laughs). You know what I
mean? You know it is there, the fear is still there (inter-
view 27). Others have sworn off fish entirely and express
aversion even to the idea. As Gina described, the only
circumstance under which she would eat local fish
would be, Maybe if somebody raised them and then
threw them in the river and you caught them that same
day (interview 4). Even though the fish advisories
targeted mainly women of childbearing age and children,
three of the men I spoke with shared what they saw as a
common sentiment among men: if it was bad for the
women, they should not eat it either. Nineteen (19) of
the interviewees specified that not only had they given
up eating fish, but so had the rest of their families.
Even prior to the announcement of fish advisories,
which 29 interviewees indicated to me was what drove
them from eating fish, some residents began noticing or
hearing about visual clues that fish were not safe. One
Raquette Point resident, Mark, described to me catching
fish with humongous tumors on them, or funny color
eyes (interview 34). Others (n = 6) recalled how the fish-
ermen were catching fish with black spots on them, with
bugs inside, or with sores. Another man, Robert (inter-
view 32), remembered cutting open fish with black
spines , which he described a s resulting from heavy
metals contamination. Gina recollected, Wed see like a
big black spot on them or a glob of green and they
would tell us thats what the PCBs are doing (interview
4). Whether or not all of these physical changes
witnessed in the fish can be attributed to PCBs is debat-
able, but more importantly, seeing or hearin g about
these physical deformities discouraged Mohawk s from
eating local fish.
Problematically, not all contaminated fish showed such
visual cues. In 19 85, NY State wildlife epidemiologist
Ward Stone took samples of a sturgeon caught by
Mohawk fishermen in order to test it for PCBs. When
he came back with his results, which showed the fish to
contain levels of PCBs above what the USDA considered
safe for consumption, he was aghast to learn that the
fishermen had already eaten the sturgeon.
The fact that fish could be contaminated without
showing visible evidence led many community members
for whom it was financially feasible (including 11 of these
interviewees) to rely solely on outside sources of fish. For
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 5 of 12
three related interviewees, this fish was coming from as
far away as British Columbia. For three others it was from
other communities nearby, such as Tyendinaga.
explained how he gets his perch out of upper Canada
where theyre not polluted yet (interview 32). Some real-
ized the irony in that they were probably still consuming
contamination, just from another place they were less
familiar with. Chris, an iron worker who had spent most
of his life in Akwesasne but had also traveled extensively,
exclaimed how people think that if the fish comes from
someplace else rather than right here, then it is ok. They
dont realize every Great Lake dumps into the next Great
Lake, which dumps into the St. L awrence River. It is one
big sewer (interview 29). To avoid even the concern, four
interviewees reported that they would only eat fish from
the supermarket. As Alice, a lab technician for the health
clinic described, So we end up being supermarket
Indians, buying tilapia from Hannafords, not so much
perch or walleye (interview 62). For those who can afford
to buy fish from outside the community this helped to sat-
isfy the nutritional void created by the fish advisories, but
not some of the social and cultural roles described earlier.
Henry Lickers, who works for the MCA Department
of Environment, described the rapid decline in fish con-
sumption since moving to the community 30 years ago.
When he first arrived in the community, he reports that
90% of the people he visited were eating fish. Then as
the fish advisories became more prominent, people
began changing their behavior. When he would stop by
their house at dinnertime:
Suddenly, the old man or whoever it is was cooking
the fish would put it in the cupboard and shut the
door. And then they would be cooking something
else, you know. Well, you know, Henry has been
talking about this. And you dont want to show him
that you dont believe what hes talking about, because
I really like fish, you know. And besides, Im over 60,
and its not going to hurt me. And I dont want to
have any more kids, so Im okay. But you got funny
things like that occurring (interview 10).
Henry no longer eats fish because he feels that he has
a responsibility to set an example: I dont eat fish from
the St. Lawrence. I believe the same way, if people saw
me eating, then they would say oh, the n we can go
back. And I dont think that thats responsible. If Im
going to tell them not to, well then I better not as well.
At the same time, he recognized that some people do
still eat fish, even if they do not openly admit it. It is
possible that for the earlier cited studies in which
Fitzgerald wa s documenting a decline in fish consump-
tion, as well as in the interviews I was conducting, that
people under-reported their fish consumption because
they recognize that according to the fish advisories they
are not supposed to be eating fish, and they do not want
to be judged for their choices.
One-quarter of the interviewees (13 out of 50) I asked
about fish consumption expressed that they continued
to eat local fish because they felt a cultural obligation to
do so (n = 4), were not concerned about the warnings
based on personal experiences (
n = 4), or have decided
to resume fish consumption now that they are no longer
in their child-bearing years (n = 5). Richard described to
me the traditional connection and responsibility that
Mohawks and the fish have to each other, and for this
reason, he continu es to eat the fish. As he described, the
Creator put the food in the water:
We give thanks for that food and we have to use it...
I mean it doesnt make sense scientifically, but it
makes sense spiritually and mentally that you should
eat that, you know. You cant just put it aside and say,
well your work is not good enough, or something,
you know? Theyre still given out what their original
instructions were, and its us that are at fault, its our
fault that theyre like that, you know (interview 20).
Even though as a Mohawk he is not responsible for
the contamination that has affe cted the fish, as a human
being he is implicated in the problem, and therefore it is
even more important that he works to maintain this re-
lationship with the fish. Because the job given by the
Creator to fish is to offer themselves as food, and the job
given to humans is to respectfully harvest these fish,
people like Richard who are working to maintain trad-
ition feel obligated to maintain these roles. I heard sim i-
lar narratives around the preservation of heritage seed
varieties: the duty of these seeds is to sprout every
spring, and the duty of humans is to plant them. If
Mohawks fail to plant these seeds, the plants will go
back to the Sky World because they volunteered to
come to the earth to help man to survive (Brenda,
interview 21). The concerns around the disuse of fish
and heritage seed varieties stem back to cultural stories
about ungrateful humans who have their food sources
taken from them and who only regain them after learn-
ing lessons about maintaining ceremonies and traditio-
nal roles .
For some community members, an impression that
the site remediation has led to lower levels of contamin-
ation in the fish or a nuanced understanding of more
and less contaminated species and methods of prepar-
ation has contributed to their choice to eat local fish.
One woman, who worked on the environmental health
studies as a field assistant and was part of ATFE, de-
scribed how her family continued to eat fish, and her
kids love it. They eat it whenever they can get it. I know
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 6 of 12
that the area has been remediated and the fish isnt that
bad anymore. So I hadnt told them not to eat it. So we
just continue (interview 26). Another ATFE member,
Joyce, described how the levels with the fish going
down, the PCB levels going down...I feel more comfort-
able eating fish now. So I dont think Im going to pick
up that much contamination with PCBs anymore (inter-
view 16). Another woman, Randi, who had relatives who
worked on the health studies and with ATFE, noted that
many people in the community have vilified the con-
sumption of all fish. She noted that if caught eating local
fish, pregnant women could expect a similar reaction a s
though they were smoking or drinking. She expressed
disappointment that the only lesson that people seemed
to take away from the health studies is not to eat fish:
I feel like sometimes I could try to educate people
about what fish is good for you and what is bad for
you, but sometimes it is just, why bother? You know
my 30-second conversation is not going to undo 12
years of ingrained messages—“dont eat any more
fish... So I dont fight it too much, I just eat my fish
in private (interview 54).
She laughed that people could eat fa st food and then
criticize her for eating fish. Similarly, an individual
employed by the Environment Division stated that he
felt the nutritional benefit s of fish outweighed the poten-
tial contamination in fish since the beginning of the
remediation of the industrial sites.
For other community members, personal and family
experience with fish that have not led to ill health has
encouraged them to continue to eat local fish. Agnes,
who also worked on the environmental health studies,
described how we were brought up by the river and on
the river. We were brought up to fish, we were brought
up to swim in the river, and we were brought up on a
boat. I dont have no fear of contamination. It was just a
part of my life (interview 59). She still eats fish as well.
Nelson, a farmer and construction worker from the Snye
region of the reservation, expressed skepticism towards all
of the fish advisories because weve been fishing all of our
lives and were still here. And my aunt, we just buried her
last week. My great aunt was 102 (interview 40).
To a great extent, fish consumption in the community
is divided along generational lines. In several families,
members described to me that younger women who
were planning to have children would not eat fish, but
older women would go back to eating fish. For example,
as Brenda, who is in her 50s, expressed, Im not young
anymore so it doesnt matter. I eat the fish (interview
21). Elizabeth, who is also in her 50s, also described how
she went ten years without eating fish and would not let
her kids have any. But she has gone back to it recently:
Lets just say I
m getting older now. I dont care, I love
(interview 22). However, even though this more ad-
vanced generation has returned to fish consumption,
many interviewees were not convinced that the younger
generation, even if given the chance, would eat fish.
Middle-aged and older community members who had
gone back to eating fish noted that they had not raised
their kids to do so because of the warnings, and now they
didnt develop a taste for it as Joyce describes. Seven in-
terviewees described how their children and grandchildren
currently had no desire to eat fish and are unlikely to show
an interest in it even if it were determined to be clean at
some point. As Agnes described, They werent brought
up with the fish so theyre not going to turn around and
change their ways (interview 59).
Even aside from the issue of contamination, ten of the
community members I spok e with expressed the opinion
that the fish population is too low to suppo rt the com-
munity. As Joyce, whose father was a fisherman, noted,
There isnt enough of a fish population to mak e a living
off of anymore. She and others referred to the cormor-
ant, a voracious bird that is new to the area and has
been decimating fish stocks, especially the perch popula-
tions. Others pointed to the dams and locks now in
place on the St. Lawrence River that prevent the fish
from getting upstream and spawning as they once did.
Ernie, a 90-year-old elder who witnessed the transform-
ation of the St. Lawrence from a river to a seaway, de-
scribed how, in the process of dredging channels and
blasting through rock ledges in the river, the fish
spawning grounds were destroyed.
[The blasting of rocks] affected the spawning grounds
of fish, not only by the blasting but also because of
when the blasting was done, they had to clean out all
the broken bottom soil and then deposit it
somewhere. And of course the easiest place to do it
were the inlet s and the bays where there were
spawning areas and so for a long time fish couldnt
make a living out there and so a lot of their work was
not done. The fish as you know, have sort of a
cleaning action there in swimming absorbing the
water and taking in contaminants, deposit it down in
the bottom of the river, so getting it out of the way.
And so now we had to do without the fish for years.
As mentioned in the Thanksgiving Address, part of
the instruction given to fish is to cleanse and purify the
water. As Ernie has noted, this job has been hampered
by changes made to the river. As Richard remarked
above, the other instruction given to the fish is to offer
themselves as food. Contamination released into the
river and some residents concerns about taking this
contamination into their own bodies have dramatically
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 7 of 12
altered the feasibility for this job to be carried out as
Costs and benefits of fish consumption
For some, current rates of diabetes, heart disease, and
obesity among Mohawks have led them to wonder if
trading local fish for inexpensive processed foods was
the healthiest decision. Currently about 25% of the com-
munity suffers from diabetes (Rourke 2009, director of
Lets Get Healthy program, personal communication).
Of the 38 interviewees who expressed opinions about
the causes of diabetes in the community, half of them
(n = 19) pointed to a change in diet brought about as a
result of the contamination of the environment. One
man, Richard D., who works for the MCA Department
of Environment, wants someone to do a study to see
who currently has better health: the individuals who
ignored the fish warnings and continued to eat a trad-
itional diet or those who heeded the warnings to avoid
fish and instead substituted a high carbohydrate, high fat
diet, like me, and developed obesity and blood pressure
and diabetes and stuff like that. Like whos better off? Id
like to see a study of that (interview 45). He attributes
the high rates of diabetes to the communitys collectively
changed diet. Theres a lack of healthy food here. I
mean, used to be wed get bullheads out of here for con -
sumption. I wouldnt touch them now. So while the fish
advisories were intended to protect Mohawk health, the
shift in diet away from fish to other affordable sources of
nutrition also caused health problems.
Jim, who worked for the SR MT Environment Division
at the time the contamination was discovered, expressed
mixed feelings for the fish advisories that strongly en-
couraged people to change their diets: The problem we
didnt anticipate thoug h was the change in the diet and
the change in lifestyle we feel has contributed to the dia-
betes in the community and to the other illnesses in the
community that has occurred since then. So that con-
cerns me (interview 36). In criticizing the conventional
risk assessment model, Akwesasne community members
Tarbell and Arquette (2000) noted that sometimes the
greatest health effects are seen outside of chemical expo-
sures and are thus not included in risk assessments. At
Akwesasne, health was impacted by the environmental
contamination even without the ingestion of fish: fear of
exposure led to the replacement of this low-fat source of
protein and other important nutrients with high-fat and
high-carbohydrate sources of food. Tarbell and Arqu ette
(2000:102) posit, Diabetes is on the rise because more
people no longer eat traditional foods and no longer par-
ticipate in cultural activities that once provided healthy
forms of exercise. SUNY Albany researchers conducting
environmental health studies with Mohawk adolescents
also noted that while the community might have
decreased their exposure to fish-borne contamination,
they have lost a primary source of protein and other
important nutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc, and
omega-3 fatty acids (Fitzgerald et al. 2004). The replace-
ment of fish with cheap foods has had the effect of fur-
ther exacerbating chronic, diet-related health problems
in the community, such as diabetes and cardiovascular
disease (Schell et al. 2003:961).
Despite these concerns, these researchers have ex-
pressed that reducing fish consumption has been more
beneficial to health than continued fish consumption be-
cause of the risks of contaminant exposure. In a recent
paper, Schell et al. (2012) assessed the benefits of con-
suming less local fish (lower PCB levels in the youth
they tested) versus the costs (cultural loss and higher
rates of diabetes and obesity). They concluded that the
more holistic risk-based environmental decision-making
proposed by ATFE members Arquette et al. (2002)
should be better considered by regulatory agencies, and
human biologists should give more focus to the non-
nutritional components of many foods, such as persistent
organic pollutants (POPs). David Carpenter (personal
communication, 2008) has argued that, especially since
some studies done at Akwesasne have connected PCB
levels with potential health effects, the cessation of fish
consumption was the best option for Mohawks, although
more should have been done to help people find healthier
food substitutes. Carpenter also questioned whether
the touted ben efits of fis h consumption are enough to
counterbalance the potential impact s of the contami-
nants (Bushkin-Bedient and Carpenter 2010). Tu ryk
et a l. (2012) argued that most of our knowledge about
the nutritional benefits of fish consumption is based
on marine fish, which generally have higher concentra-
tions of omega-3 fatty acids than freshwater fish. They
pointed to studies by Philibert et al. (2006) and Godin
et al. (2003) that found no association between local fish
intake and serum omega-3 fatty acids in Great L akes
fishermen. Since omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most
highly cited health-promoting compounds in fish, this has
led Turyk et al. (2012) to conclude that we do not have
enough data to quantitatively analyze the costs and bene-
fits of the consumption of fish from the Great Lakes and
the St. Lawrence River.
At a recent community meeting (1/11/12) questions
arose around whether the fish advisory had been the
best course of action, considering the unintended health
consequences such as obesity and diabetes that have
been linked to a more modern diet. The researchers
hosting the meeting acknowledged that their data dem-
onstrated that youth born before the fish advisory (1985)
had higher PCB levels than those born after, demonstrat-
ing the effectiveness of the advisory in lowering PCB
body burdens (see Schell et al. 2003, 2012; Gallo et al.
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 8 of 12
2011). One participant pushed furtherwhat about now,
after the remediation work that has been done? In the
discussion that followed, the general consensus was that
more testing needed to be done on local fish populations
to determine current contaminant levels. An Environ-
ment Division employee present at the meeting an-
nounced that there were plans in the coming year to
collaborate with the NYSDEC to repeat a fish study done
in 1988, and efforts were being made to convince EPA to
do fish monitoring at the remedial sites. When I
interviewed an Environment Division employee and asked
if the fish will ever be considered safe to eat again, he re-
plied, I think so. I think thatll be as clean as the fish up-
stream. He remarked that the farther you go from GM,
the cleaner the river gets, and the cleaner the fish get.
So, when you go down into Snye (a region of
Akwesasne east of GM), weve taken the samples of
fish and the fish are pretty clean. I think they are we
are still being cautious; we still dont want to say yes,
you can eat the fish , because we are still not sure
what the proper level is that s safe. Is it going to be
0.05 parts per million, is it going to be 0.5 parts per
million you know, 0.005... you know there is still
science thats going on. So, we want to be very sure of
what were doing before we say its okay. I think its
going to happen eventually you know (interview 15).
In order for the tribal government to be able to prop-
erly advise residents about the risks and benefits of eat-
ing local fish , more testing needs to be done, and the
results conveyed in a manner that the community can
understand and apply.
Risk avoidance and reduction
The case of Akwesasne is illustrative of unintended
health and cultural consequences of relying on risk
avoidance rather than risk reduct ion methods of
preventing human exposure to contamination (ONeill
2003NEJAC 2002). Risk reduction strategies look to risk-
producers to prevent or eliminate environmental con-
tamination in order to avoid human exposure. In the
case of Akwesasne, risk reduction strategies would have
entailed greater monitoring of General Motors opera-
tions to prevent decades worth of PCB contamination
to the surrounding area. A greater enforcement of risk
reduction would also have led to the immediate and
complete removal of PCB-contaminated waste from the
GM site, rather than a decades-long cleanup that
resulted in a 12 acre landfill, and a reliance on continued
fish advisories to prevent Mohawks from being exposed
to contamination. Risk avoidance strateg ies call upon the
risk-bearers to alter their practices so as to avoid the
harms of exposure to contamination. Fish advisories are
an example of this strategy: the onus is on the risk-
bearers, in this case the fish con sumers, rather than
those who caused the risk.
ONeill (2003 ) points out that reducing human health
risks by targeting the first link in the chain that connects
environmental contamination to human healthin this
case removing the source of the PCB contamination
means that ecological health benefits as well. Intervening
late in the chain and breaking the link at the point of
human exposure, in this case by preventing fish con-
sumption, leaves a greater amount of contamination
unabated, has greater negative environmental effects,
and is a form of cultural discrimination.
Risk-avoidance strategies also rely implicitly on the as-
sumption that there are readily available substitutes for
local fish and the customs that accompany their gather-
ing (NEJAC 2002). As we have seen from the case in
Akwesasne, these substitutes were not available to all
residents, and there are no substitutes for the cultural
activities and knowledge exchange that once happened
around fishing. Fish was not just a source of protein for
Mohawks, but a cultural object of importance that could
not easily be factored into the assessment of mortality
and morbidity risks that currently comprise health risk
assessments (Donatuto et al. 2011). In order to properly
calculate whether risk-reduction strategies are an accept-
able solution to environmental contamination, it is ne-
cessary to look beyond the risk to a population of cancer
deaths, and consider the threats to a healthy, culturally
specific lifestyle as defined by the Mohawks themselves.
This more com plete assessment would inc lude cultural
indicators such as access to a traditional diet and the
passing down of traditional knowledge (Johnson and
Ranco 2011).
While fish advisories were necessary in the 1980s to
protect Mohawk health when GMs contamination was
first discovered, EPA has not made any concerted at-
tempts to ensure that advisories will only be necessary
in the short term (ONeill 2003). While fish advisories
are often necessary to protect human health in the short
term, there is a need to emphasize more permanent and
judicious fixes to problems of contamination. The EPAs
most recent Five Year Report about the GM site sta tes
that remedial actions have been completed in the St.
Lawrence River, Raquette River, and Turtle Cove, and,
when combined with the existing fish advisories, these
measures address unacceptable exposure pathways in
these areas (USEPA 2010: ES1; italics mine). This re-
port takes for granted that fish advisor ies are an accept-
able tool for preventing human exposure to
contaminants, similar to a cap on the river bottom that
isolates contaminated sediment. Acceptance of the on-
going fish advisories allows GM and the EPA to avoid a
more thorough and permanent cleanup.
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 9 of 12
Human health in Native American communities is intim-
ately tied to the health of the environment. Akwesasne
Mohawks (Arquette et al. 2002:262) have defined health as
based on peaceful, sustainable relationships with other
peoples including family, community, Nation, the natural
world, and spiritual beings. Health is supported by the
solid foundation of a healthy natural world. Human
health in a community such as Akwesasne cannot be
understood independent of the health of the natural envir-
onment, and especially in this case, the health of the fish.
When Mohawk mothers who participated in the breast
milk study demonstrated that removing local fish from
their diets de creased the PCB contamination in their
breast milk, they showed that exposure to PCBs wa s
avoidable, and thus according to conventional risk as-
sessment the problem was eliminated. What was not
predicted, and the reason why indigenous scho lars such
as Arquette et al. (2002) and Ranco et al. (2011) are call-
ing for more holistic risk assessment, was that avoiding
fish consumption had other health implications, both
physical and cultural. For community members who
continue to consume fish, this consumption is often so-
cially fractured rather than part of a broader social
context. As describe d above, fish is consumed along gen-
erational divides by Mohawks who see themselves as
beyond their childbearing years, or in private as one
woman described, in order to avoid judgment.
If the Akwesasne community is going to achieve opti-
mal health, the contaminated environment has to be
remediated to a level that supports clean, edible fish.
This will not happen as long as fish advisories are con-
sidered an acceptable institutional control to protect
humans from exposure to contaminants. The accepted
culture around environmental cleanup must shift away
from one of risk avoidance, a distributive justice situ-
ation where those who did not benefit from industry are
forced to pay the price in order to protect their health.
At the General Motors Superfund site in Massena, eco-
nomic considerations were given priority over the health
and culture of Mohawk people, in an attempt to secure
a source of employment for the residents of Massena.
Despite these efforts, and $49.5 billion in bailout money,
General Motors filed for bankruptcy in June 2009 and
spun off a holding company to handle its idle properties,
Motors Liquidation Corp. When it emerged from bank-
ruptcy, GM was freed of responsibility for rehabilitating
dozens of toxic waste sites in 13 states where it had
manufacturing plants. Revitalizing Auto Communities
Environmental Response, or the RACER Trust, is an en-
vironmental trust that assumed ownership of 89 former
General Motors properties and is tasked with complet-
ing remediation and selling off dozens of former GM
properties, including the one adjacent to Akwesasne.
The new General Motors, freed of its old liabilities, is
struggling bac k towards success in the auto market,
while the Massena town residents who fought to shelter
the company from high cleanup expenses are left with-
out jobs, and the Mohawk are left living adjacent to an
industrial landfill that they suspect will continue to pol-
lute their environment.
Researchers and environmental officials working in
Akwesasne have stated that a new round of studies deter-
mining current contamination levels in the fish is neces-
sary to determine the safety of local fish consumption.
Researchers have additionally called for studies of the
nutritional content of the fish in order to properly conduct
a cost-benefit analysis as to whether the nutritional bene-
fits of the fish outweigh the risks posed by contamination.
Once information about local fish is obtained, it could
be disseminated via a model illustrated by DeWeese et al.
(2009), who produced advisory maps for Anishnaabe com-
munities that provided lake-specific, risk-based, culturally
sensitive consumption advice on color-coded maps for
two groups: children under age 15 years and females of
childbearing age, and males 15 years and older and
females beyond childbearing age. Because the maps were
easy to read and developed in conjunction with commu-
nity members, DeWeese et al. (2009) found they signifi-
cantly increased the percentage of survey participants who
indicated awareness of advisory information and increased
preference for smaller walleye, which contain lower levels
of contamination than larger fish. After future testing
of Akwesasnes local fish population, similar maps could
be produced and distributed as a way of making this
information accessible to the community. At Brown
we are currently developing a project with the
Narragansett Tribe in which local fish will be tested, and
based on the results, cards will be developed and distrib-
uted to fishermen to keep in their tackle boxes to help
them determine which species of fish to keep and which
to toss back based on contaminant levels. We are also
developing fish puzzles for families that help illustrate
which parts of the fish are more or less contaminated in
order to facilitate the consumption of the less contami-
nated portions. Each of these small projects described
above can help a community to maintain some level of
fish consumption rather than cutting it entirely from their
diet, as most people at Akwesasne have even though en-
vironmental specialists in the community point to some
alternatives. What should be highlighted though is that
these alternate species and methods of preparation should
not be considered as a solution, but rather a step along
the process towards remediating environmental contamin-
ation to a level in which culturally preferred fish species
and methods of preparation can be safely utilized again.
Akwesasne is a case where measures taken to protect
community healthadherence to fish advisories to prevent
Hoover Ecological Processes 2013, 2:4 Page 10 of 12
exposure to contaminationhave inadvertently led to diet-
related health consequences as well as concerns around
the loss of language, culture, and social connections at -
tached to fishing. While Akwesasne community members,
environmental specialists, and their allies in the scientific
community are continuing to push for additional cleanup
and fish sampling, this case should also serve as an
example of why risk avoidance methods such as fish advi-
sories should not be considered a viable long-term solution
to preventing human exposure to contamination.
The Haudenosaunee, also known as the Iroquois or
Six Nations, are a confederacy of nations traditionally
from the region that is now New York State, but now
spread across New York, eastern Canada, Wisconsin,
and Oklahoma. The six nations of the confederacy
include the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga ,
Tuscarora, and Seneca. Akwesasne is one of five Mohawk
reser vations , which also includes Kahnawake and
Kanesatake in Quebec and W ahta and Tyendinaga in
Ontario. The Six Nations reser vation in Ontario is
home to Mohawk people as well as Haudenosaunee
people of the other five nations as well.
An estimate of Akwesasnes population is given be-
cause residents in this community are notoriously diffi-
cult to enumerate. Akwesasro:non have been suspicious
of, and resistant to, national censuses, and some resi-
dents are enrolled with both the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe
and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. This estimate
was used in establishing the demographics of the com-
munity for the extensive health studies conducted by
SUNY Albany (see for example Fitzgerald et al. 1998 and
Schell et al. 2009).
Lactating women and women of childbearing age are to
avoid all contaminated fish (carp, catfish and suckers).
Adults should only eat one half pound per week of yellow
perch, pumpkinseed, rock bass, whitefish, bowfin. Every-
one should avoid carp, channel catfish, walleye, pike, red
horse suckers, white suckers, and brown bullhead.
Participants were not asked their exact age. Some
participants offered their precise age, others indicated a
general age range (e.g., 50s) during the interview.
A Mohawk community about 150 miles west of
Akwesasne in Deseronto, Ontario.
The Community Engagement Core of the Brown
Superfund Research Project, consisting of the author,
Marcella Thompson, and Robert Vanderslice, working in
conjunction with Dinalyn Spears, head of the Natural
Resources Department of the Narragansett Indian Tribe.
Competing interests
The author declares that she has no competing interests.
The author woul d like to acknowledge the Akwesasne Task Force on the
Environment (ATFE) and members of the Akwesasne community who
offered their time for these interviews. I would also like to acknowledge
members of Brown Universitys Contested Illness Research Group for
providing feedback on an earlier draft, and Dr. Nicholas Reo for guest editing
this special issue. This research was funded by a National Science
Foundation Cultural Anthropology Dissertation Improvement Grant, a Switzer
Environmental Fellowship, a Lynn Reyer Tribal Community Development
Grant and a Ford Foundation Dissertation Fellowship.
Received: 13 December 2012 Accepted: 12 February 2013
Published: 12 March 2013
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Cite this article as: Hoover: Cultural and health impl ications of fish
advisories in a Native American community. Ecological Processes 2013 2:4.
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... Below I have included the names of interviewees who allowed me to do so, and designated those who wished to remain confidential with a number. This research culminated in a book (Hoover 2017a) and several articles (Hoover 2013(Hoover , 2016(Hoover , 2017bHoover et al. 2012Hoover et al. , 2015. While these other publications Elizabeth Hoover -9781526137005 Downloaded from ...
... Future research could examine the perceptions of this subgroup further. Numerous studies have pointed to the challenges in developing communication strategies for women of childbearing-age [11,32,33]. The differences in risk perceptions for this group confirm the need to better examine the communication needs and opinions of this population sub-group. ...
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Lead ammunition is commonly used to hunt waterfowl and other wildlife in the Arctic. Hunting with lead is problematic because the toxicant can be transferred to the consumer. Therefore, it is critical to evaluate perceptions and awareness of the risks associated with using lead ammunition among Arctic populations. Results of the Nunavik Child Development Study (a longitudinal health study gathering information on health and well-being among Inuit in Nunavik, Canada) included advice to eliminate the use of lead ammunition in hunting practices. We surveyed 112 Nunavik residents (93 women; 18 men) about their awareness of lead related messages, use of lead ammunition and risk perceptions about contaminants. Sixty-seven participants (59.8%) reported there was an active hunter in their household. We found that only 27% of participants had heard or seen the messages about reducing lead ammunition. After participants viewed the Nunavik Child Development Study messages about lead, 44% stated they would stop using lead ammunition. However, 28% indicated that they would continue using lead ammunition. We conclude that, while messages had an overall positive effect, further study is required to understand why people continue to use lead ammunition.
... EMR concluded that "due to their remote location and the current levels of contaminants present, a significant human health and ecological risk is not currently identified" (EMR 2014: 85). Nevertheless, EMR recommended further evaluation of drinking water and human consumption of fish, which is of particular concern for the Ojibwe as wild fish is an important source of nutrition for them, and tribal members may be at greater risk, given high levels of fish consumption (Hoover 2013). ...
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In recent years, the issue of military waste disposal in oceans and seas has gained significant attention; however, the impact of such waste in freshwater deposits has been understudied. The Laurentian Great Lakes of North America contain 20% of the world’s fresh surface water and are particularly vulnerable to environmental stressors such as climate change, invasive species, and toxic chemicals, making the examination of military waste management in these waters crucial. This interdisciplinary study aims to investigate the legacy of two military waste disposal sites in Lake Superior, referred to as Site A (containing barrels) and Site B (containing bullets). Both are located within the ceded territories of the Ojibwe. Despite being in close proximity, these sites have had vastly different outcomes in terms of public concern, state and federal regulatory actions, and tribal restoration efforts. Based on this observation, this study aims to answer the following questions: How did these differences develop? How did military secrecy and the loss of memory influence the management of underwater military waste at each site? How do uncertainties and rumors continue to influence citizen concern and agency management of military waste? We argue for the importance of investigating the environmental legacies of underwater military waste in order to protect inland freshwater resources worldwide.
... Other issues associated with colonization include pollution and contamination of the environments where foods are gathered, resulting in limited harvesting access (e.g., Waitangi Tribunal 1984, 1991, 1998, Kuhnlein and Chan 2000, Simpson 2003, Stewart et al. 2011, Hoover 2013. Human-induced climate change modifies river flows and sea level movements, affecting traditional fishing grounds, so that communities are required to adapt and come to terms with new ways of working in order to flourish. ...
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Cultural wellbeing and resilience are of key importance in many Indigenous communities impacted by colonization processes. Reciprocity and the sharing of an intergenerational way of life in extended family collectives is an enduring cultural obligation. For many communities, hosting large gatherings expresses customary philosophies and practices and brings families together, and food and food systems are central to these events. We partnered with two Indigenous Māori communities in Aotearoa New Zealand to explore how these communities embody resilience in their food systems. We collected data from two large pan-community gatherings or poukai in the Waikato-Tainui tribal calendar that have been held annually for more than 100 years. The first took place in a remote, rural, coastal community, Marokopa, whereas the second took place at a tribal hub, Tūrangawaewae, that frequently hosts international visitors. Most visitors were > 50 years old, consistent with the purpose of this gathering, with more women elders than men attending. At Marokopa, volunteers returned from a variety of locations, mostly by car, in contrast to Tūrangawaewae where volunteers generally lived close and either walked or drove short distances to the poukai. Gifted contributions of food and supplies from local gardens continued a history of reciprocity and connection to traditional food systems at Marokopa. At Tūrangawaewae, most provisions were store bought, but there was a strong focus on healthy eating. Both events produced little waste. Despite a shift from traditional foods and self-sufficiency in food systems, these communities demonstrate collective resilience in their motivations for hosting, cultural vitality in their expressions of manaakitanga (hosting), and a commitment to kaitiakaitanga (stewardship) in their focus on healthy foods, recycling, food waste, and intergenerational learning at these events.
... Adapting to major environmental shifts (e.g., climate change and chemical contamination) can be more effective when Tribal experts are able to lead and support community priorities (Schramm et al., 2020a;Schramm, et al., 2020b). Because of place-based cultural practices, Indigenous, Tribal, and First Nations often value landscapes beyond a monetary framework (e.g., Hoover, 2013;Poe et al., 2016). Results from this work demonstrate the importance of policy evaluation metrics relevant to the primary concern, that might vary among communities and be closely tied to values. ...
The central theme of this dissertation is relationships – building relationships as research partnerships, disrupting relationships through chemical contamination, and upholding existing relationships (i.e., responsibilities) to address industrial legacies. In partnership with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians (KBIC), this dissertation focuses on rebuilding fish-human relationships within the context of chemical contamination. By quantifying combined toxicity and evaluating the efficacy of cleaning up contamination, conclusions from this work help empower people to maintain practices and knowledges related to fish. In chapter 1, I positioned myself, a white, American settler scholar, within the context of Indigenous research grounded in Anishinaabe philosophies. My research is predicated on knowledge being a collection of practices that builds and maintains relationships with people and the environment. Being an indigenist researcher means being accountable to those relationships. In chapter 2, I co-created a research guidance document with KBIC to provide holistic guidance and specify support that enriches their efforts to protect and restore land and life. Our guidance uses the Medicine Wheel to illustrate an interconnected system of partnership teachings that include systems of mutual expectations and responsibilities. The guidance aims for balance between and among four seasons of research: relationship building, planning and prioritization, knowledge exchange, and synthesis and application. In chapter 3, I used a national database of fish tissue contaminant concentrations to evaluate frameworks for quantifying toxicity, spatial distributions of the components of toxicity, and variations in relative importance of chemicals in different fish types. Based on the results, I argue for using the most sensitive endpoint for components of a chemical mixture rather than the current framework that expects a shared toxic pathway. Research results show that the former is more protective and therefore represents a more appropriate strategy for protecting human health and the environment. In chapter 4, I compared PCB trends in the Great Lakes basin to evaluate the efficacy of Canada’s 2008 PCB reduction policy. My results show that local reductions of PCB stocks significantly reduced atmospheric PCB concentrations, but a comparable response was not seen in fish tissue. I suggest that fish tissue, as the primary exposure pathway, should be the medium monitored to evaluate policy efficacy.
... Civic science projects (sometimes referred to as "citizen science" projects) can involve exposure assessments conducted, at least in part, by community participants. Studies involving civic science exposure assessments span a number of environmental health topics, including the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster on fishing communities [39], the quantification of heavy metals in water used by Native American tribes [40] and the consumption of fish by tribal populations in heavily polluted areas [41], and others. The development of relatively inexpensive sensors for environmental pollutants has made civic science projects even more feasible and allowed for communities to be active participants in the collection of exposure data; as described above, passive sampling monitors allow communities to evaluate pollution releases near manufacturing facilities [42][43][44]. ...
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Background Understanding, characterizing, and quantifying human exposures to environmental chemicals is critical to protect public health. Exposure assessments are key to determining risks to the general population and for specific subpopulations given that exposures differ between groups. Exposure data are also important for understanding where interventions, including public policies, should be targeted and the extent to which interventions have been successful. In this review, we aim to show how inadequacies in exposure assessments conducted by polluting industries or regulatory agencies have led to downplaying or disregarding exposure concerns raised by communities; that underestimates of exposure can lead regulatory agencies to conclude that unacceptable risks are, instead, acceptable, allowing pollutants to go unregulated; and that researchers, risk assessors, and policy makers need to better understand the issues that have affected exposure assessments and how appropriate use of exposure data can contribute to health-protective decisions. Methods We describe current approaches used by regulatory agencies to estimate human exposures to environmental chemicals, including approaches to address limitations in exposure data. We then illustrate how some exposure assessments have been used to reach flawed conclusions about environmental chemicals and make recommendations for improvements. Results Exposure data are important for communities, public health advocates, scientists, policy makers, and other groups to understand the extent of environmental exposures in diverse populations. We identify four areas where exposure assessments need to be improved due to systemic sources of error or uncertainty in exposure assessments and illustrate these areas with examples. These include: (1) an inability of regulatory agencies to keep pace with the increasing number of chemicals registered for use or assess their exposures, as well as complications added by use of ‘confidential business information’ which reduce available exposure data; (2) the failure to keep assessments up-to-date; (3) how inadequate assumptions about human behaviors and co-exposures contribute to underestimates of exposure; and (4) that insufficient models of toxicokinetics similarly affect exposure estimates. Conclusion We identified key issues that impact capacity to conduct scientifically robust exposure assessments. These issues must be addressed with scientific or policy approaches to improve estimates of exposure and protect public health.
Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. The environmental risk factors that worsen cancer risk and outcomes are often overlooked and these factors are disproportionately concentrated in communities that have been subjected to marginalization. This chapter provides an overview of discriminatory systems, policies, and practices that contribute to cancer disparities and perpetuate environmental injustice. Using two major sources of environmental exposures as examples (i.e., industrialized food systems and the fossil fuel infrastructure), we discuss how systems of power restrict the choices available to communities targeted for marginalization and lead to worse cancer risk and outcomes for the entire population. We intentionally incorporate environmental justice principles throughout the chapter by moving beyond reporting disparities and by centering the voices of those who are disproportionately impacted—especially when identifying potential solutions—while recognizing that environmental hazards have detrimental health consequences for the entire population. We also highlight the important role of public health professionals in promoting environmental justice given their roles and spheres of influence. We conclude with a call to shift from a settler colonialism mindset of domination and hegemony towards a kinship mindset as a means of reducing cancer disparities and promoting the health of the entire population.KeywordsEnvironmental justiceCancerHealth disparitiesSettler colonialismSystemic racism
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a common environmental contaminant. The NYS Department of Health (DOH) issues fish consumption advisories to limit consumption of PCB contaminated fish. Fish consumption advisories are utilized as institutional controls within the Hudson River Superfund site to limit exposure to PCBs. There is a "Do Not Eat" advisory for all species caught in the upper Hudson River, from Glens Falls, NY to Troy, NY. The section of the river below Bakers Falls also has a catch and release regulation issued by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. There is limited research on the effectiveness of these advisories in preventing consumption of contaminated fish in the context of superfund site risk management. We surveyed individuals actively fishing on the upper Hudson River in the area with a "Do Not Eat" advisory, specifically between Hudson Falls and the Federal Dam in Troy, NY. The goal of the survey was to assess knowledge of the consumption guidelines, and if the guidelines are effectively preventing exposure to PCBs. A subset of individuals continue to consume fish caught from the upper Hudson River superfund site. Awareness of advisories was inversely related to fish consumption from the superfund site. Age, race, and possession of a fishing license were associated with overall awareness of fish consumption guidelines; age and possession of a license were associated with awareness of the "Do Not Eat" advisory. While institutional controls appear to have a beneficial impact, there is incomplete awareness and compliance with advisories and regulations aimed at preventing exposure to PCBs from fish consumption. Risk assessment and management strategies for contaminated fisheries should consider imperfect adherence to fish consumption guidelines.
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The paper provides an overview of methods that can be used to develop exposure scenarios for unique tribal natural resource usage patterns. Exposure scenarios are used to evaluate the degree of environmental contact experienced by people with different patterns of lifestyle activities, such as residence, recreation, or work. In 1994, Executive Order 12898 recognized that disproportionately high exposures could be incurred by people with traditional subsistence lifestyles because of their more intensive contact with natural resources. Since then, we have developed several tribal exposure scenarios that reflect tribal-specific traditional lifeways, These scenarios are not necessarily intended to capture contemporary resource patterns, but to describe how the resources were used before contamination or degradation, and will be used once again in fully traditional ways after cleanup and restoration. The direct exposure factors for inhalation and soil ingestion rates are the same in each tribal scenario, but the diets are unique to each tribe and its local ecology, natural foods, and traditional practices. Scenarios, in part or in whole, also have other applications, such as developing environmental standards, evaluating disproportionate exposures, developing sampling plans, planning for climate change, or evaluating service flows as part of natural resource damage assessments.
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Environmental justice in the tribal context cannot be contemplated apart from a recognition of American Indian tribes’ unique historical, political, and legal circumstances. American Indian tribes are sovereign governments, with inherent powers of self-government over their citizens and their territories. Their status as sovereign entities predates contact with European settlers. This separate status, nonetheless, was af- firmed by the United States early on and is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Tribes today continue to exist as distinct sovereigns within the boundaries of the United States.
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Government agencies fail to communicate effectively to key audiences about the hazards of eating self-caught, contaminated fish. As a result, government is not pro-tecting African Americans, Latinos, and other ethnic groups that are disproportio-nately exposed to chemicals that contaminate the catch of recreational anglers. This review argues that remedying this environmental injustice requires agencies to change ''government-speak'' (bland, generic communication) to communication that is culturally relevant to minority audiences. We summarize research indicating that these audiences understand the meaning and significance of properly targeted risk communication. Finally, we explore the organizational problems within government that may hinder effective communication, perpetuating this environmental injustice., Center for Environmental Communication, Environ-mental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, NIEHS (ESO 5022, JB), Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and Consortium for Risk Evaluation with Stakeholder Partici-pation (DOE, DE-FG 26-00NT 40938). Tom Rudel and other members of the Department of Human Ecology provided useful insights as part of the departmental seminar series, in which some of this research was presented. Jeff Calia provided valuable research assistance. The results, conclusions, and interpretations reported herein are the sole responsibility of the authors, and should not in any way be interpreted as representing the views of the funding agencies.
Case studies exploring how experts' encounters with environmental justice are changing technical and scientific practice. Over the course of nearly thirty years, the environmental justice movement has changed the politics of environmental activism and influenced environmental policy. In the process, it has turned the attention of environmental activists and regulatory agencies to issues of pollution, toxics, and human health as they affect ordinary people, especially people of color. This book argues that the environmental justice movement has also begun to transform science and engineering. The chapters present case studies of technical experts' encounters with environmental justice activists and issues, exploring the transformative potential of these interactions. Technoscience and Environmental Justice first examines the scientific practices and identities of technical experts who work with environmental justice organizations, whether by becoming activists themselves or by sharing scientific information with communities. It then explore scientists' and engineers' activities in such mainstream scientific institutions as regulatory agencies and universities, where environmental justice concerns have been (partially) institutionalized as a response to environmental justice activism. All of the chapters grapple with the difficulty of transformation that experts face, but the studies also show how environmental justice activism has created opportunities for changing technical practices and, in a few cases, has even accomplished significant transformations.
In this paper we discuss several methods used to 'fingerprint' the PCB congener patterns of a known point source of contamination and compare it to the pattern found in a variety of fish samples. The point source studied is the General Motors - Central Foundry Division (GMC) Superfund hazardous waste site. It is less than 100 feet west of Akwesasne, a Native American community of approximately 10,000 persons. This community encompasses 29,000 acres and is located along the St. Lawrence River in New York, Ontario, and Quebec. For the past 25 years, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-contaminated sludge has been deposited on-site by GMC in several lagoons and landfills. We will demonstrate that fish collected near GMC imitated more closely the congener pattern of Aroclor 1248 (the primary PCB mixture used at GMC) than fish caught further away. Our conclusion is that the major source of PCB contamination among fish at or near Akwesasne were the GMC facilities, with additional PCB contributions from the nearby ALCOA and Reynolds Metals. The methods used in this article can be applied to assess the exposure of the surrounding human population to PCBs from these facilities.
This article begins with the recognition that environmental justice for Native peoples requires attention to the interrelated cultural, spiritual, social, ecological, economic, and political dimensions of environmental issues. It observes, moreover, that “environmental justice requires an appreciation of each tribe’s particular historical circumstances and contemporary understandings, including each group’s aspirations for the flourishing of its culture.” It contends that some environmental decision makers and commentators have increasingly come to embrace “risk avoidance” – strategies that call upon risk-bearers to alter their practices in order to avoid the risk of environmental harms – in lieu of risk reduction – strategies that require risk-producers to cleanup or eliminate contamination that gives rise to risks. After noting the perils of a shift to risk avoidance from the perspective of the general population, the article focuses on the environmental justice implications of such a shift. It explores the resulting injustice in terms of distributive inequity and cultural discrimination. It argues, first, that the burden of having to undertake avoidance measures, such as reducing one’s fish consumption to avoid mercury contamination or staying indoors to avoid ozone pollution, is likely to fall disproportionately on American Indian tribal members and other indigenous peoples, as well as on other communities of color and low-income communities. It argues, second, that risk avoidance is only likely to be the strategy of choice when the practice or lifeway to be altered is not valued or thought indispensable by members of the dominant society. Yet the values and cultural understandings of the dominant society will often be different, sometimes profoundly so, from those of indigenous peoples. Environmental policy that is inattentive to this observation, the article contends, will continue to perpetuate cultural discrimination.
Current United States government risk assessment and management regulations fail to consider Native American definitions of health or risk. On the invitation of the Coast Salish Swinomish Indian Tribal Community of Washington State, this study examines local meanings of health in reference to seafood where contamination of their aquatic natural resources has been found. By conducting two series of interviews with Swinomish seafood consumers, experts and elders, the study allowed interviewees to provide a more complete picture of the implications of seafood contamination alongside consumption habits within the community. Study results demonstrate that seafood represents a symbolic, deeply meaningful food source that is linked to a multi-dimensional 'Swinomish' concept of health. A health evaluation tool using descriptive scaled rankings was devised to clarify non-physiological health risks and impacts in relation to contaminated seafood. Findings demonstrate that food security, ceremonial use, knowledge transmission, and community cohesion all play primary roles in Swinomish definitions of individual and community health and complement physical indicators of health. Thus, to eat less seafood (as prescribed on the basis of current physiological measures) may actually be detrimental to the Swinomish concept of health.
Food has nutritional and non-nutritional components. The latter are not well-studied despite the fact that food adulteration has been common. Food adulteration may have reached its peak in cities of Western Europe and the US in the 18th and 19th centuries when foods were often purposely contaminated with additives to increase bulk, attractiveness, disguise spoilage, and increase profit. Effective regulation of food began in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Nevertheless, today food recalls for bacterial contamination are common, while pesticides and compounds from manufacturing are detected in many foods. Foods with strong reputations for healthiness, such as salmon, may have sizable contaminant contents. The contaminant content of many foods varies by origin and season. Nearly all commercially raised salmon has higher contaminant levels than wild caught salmon. Opting out of the commercial food distribution system is an option, but the value depends on the habitat in which the food is obtained. Traditionally, the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation has depended on local fish and wildlife for their diet. Now pollution of local waterways has led to the contamination of many local foods, and levels of the contaminant polychlorinated biphenyls in the Akwesasne Mohawk people reflect current or past dietary patterns. Many other communities in nonurban settings are exposed to contaminants through long-trail distribution of contaminants in food, air, and/or water. Human biologists considering nutrition, disease, growth, reproduction, aging, to name a few areas, may consider the non-nutritional components of food as many have the ability to alter physiological functioning.