By Bruce Johansen (reprinted with permission)

Chapter Taken from:

"Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and people"

Clear Light publishers


     For three millennia of human occupancy, the site the Mohawks call Akwesasne was a natural wonderland; well watered, thickly forested with white pine, oak, elm, hickory and ash, home to deer, elk and other game animals. the rich soil of the bottomlands allowed farming to flourish. The very name that the Akwesasne Mohawks gave their land when permanent occupancy began about 1755, near the site of a Jesuit mission, testifies to the richness of game there. In Mohawk, Akwesasne means "land where the partridge drums", after the distinctive sound that a male ruffed grouse or partridge makes during its spring courtship rituals. The area which lies at the confluence of the Saint Lawrence, Saint Regis, Racquette, Grasse and Salmon rivers once had some of the largest runs of sturgeon, bass and walleyed pike in eastern North American.

     In two generations, this land of natural wonders has become a place so poisoned that it is not safe to eat the fish or game. In some locations it is not safe even to drink the water, while in others people have been told not to till the soil. Akwesasne has become the most polluted native reserve in Canada and one of the most severely poisoned sections of earth in the Unite States. Instead of a sustaining river to which the Mohawks traditionally offer thanksgiving prayers, late twentieth century capitalism has offered gambling and smuggling along with proposed incinerators and dumps for medical waste, all operated free from state and federal law under so-called "Indians sovereignty".

     In just two generations the land where the partridge drums has become a toxic dumping ground, a place where any partridge still alive is no doubt more concerned about its heartbeat than its drumbeat. These environmental circumstances have descended on a people whose entire way of life has been enmeshed with the natural world, in a place where the Iroquois origin story says the world took shape on a gigantic turtle's back. Today, environmental pathologists are finding turtles at Akwesasne that qualify as toxic waste.

     The rapidity and manner with which Akwesasne has been transformed from a natural paradise to an environmental hell makes it a metaphor for environmental degradation. A once- pristine landscape of rivers and forests has been turned into a chemical dump where unsuspecting children played on piles of dirt laced with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) dumped by a nearby General Motors foundry. PCBs, chemicals used to insulate electrical equipment before they were banned by the federal government during the 1970s, are highly stable molecules of two conjoined hexagonal rings of varying numbers of chlorine atoms. The number of such atoms determines the degree of toxicity. In some of its forms PCBs cause liver damage and several types of cancer.

     The Mohawks of Akwesasne are not "New Age" converts to environmental consciousness. For many generations they have watched and protested the degradation of their homeland. As early as 1834 their chiefs told Canadian officials that control structures built to channel the flow of the Saint Lawrence River near Barnhart Island were destroying important fish spawning grounds. However, environmental degradation at Akwesasne took a quantum leap after the late 1950s when the Saint Lawrence Seaway opened up bountiful, cheap power. Access to power drew heavy industry that soon turned large segments of this magnificent river into open sewers.

The Worst Place in the World to be a Duck

     Ward Stone, a wildlife pathologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, believes that Akwesasne is "the worst place in the world to be a duck"1 which is not much of an exaggeration. A duck might be as bad off in certain areas of the Mediterranean Sea where the Cetacean Society, a group of Italian scientists, has found dolphins contaminated by up to 1400 times the amounts of DDT and PCBs considered safe, or perhaps a duck sitting downwind of Union Carbide's Bhopal plant in India might have been worse off during a couple of days in early December, 1984, when a chemical leak killed at least 2500 people and injured 200,000 others. However, it is clear that the environment of Akwesasne today punishes any living organisms.

     When Stone began examining animals at Akwesasne, he found that the PCBs, insecticides and other toxins were not being contained in designated dumps. After years of use the dump sites had leaked and the toxins had gotten into the food chain of human beings and nearly every other species of animal in the area. The Mohawks' traditional economy, based on hunting, fishing and agriculture, had been literally poisoned out of existence.

     Pollution in Iroquois country is not limited to Akwesasne but it is most acute there. Onondaga Lake, for example, is so polluted that its fish are inedible. The lake that once supplied the firekeepers of the Iroquois Confederacy with food it today dominated by the skyline of Syracuse. The waters of Akwesasne are so laced with PCBs that people whose ancestors subsisted on fish for thousands of years can no longer eat them. "We are still lonesome for those fish," says Tom Porter, one of the nine Akwesasne Mohawk Nation Council chiefs.2 Porter, whose Mohawk name is Sakowkenonkwas, lives at Racquette Point with his Choctaw wife and six children in a house with no electricity that Porter, a carpenter by trade, built by hand many years ago. Until fifteen years ago, when they were warned against eating fish from the waters around Akwesasne, Porter's family, like many Mohawk families, took sturgeon, bullhead, bass, trout and other fish from nearby rivers in their nets, eating what they needed and keeping extra fish for visitors in submerged boxes. Their fishing nets have since rotted, symbolic of the destruction of a way of life as a result of PCBs, Mirex, mercury and other contaminants.

     The Porters now worry not only about the fish but also about the produce they raise in gardens around their house; even the health of the Belgian horses that Porter raises is at risk.

     The rivers of Akwesasne mean more to the Mohawks than fish for eating. They are the center of a way of life that has been destroyed. As with the native harvesters of salmon in the Pacific Northwest, the people of Akwesasne did not just catch and eat fish. They gave thanks to the fish for allowing themselves to be caught and eaten and to nature and the spirit world for providing sustenance.

     The pollution at Akwesasne (and at other points along the Saint Lawrence River) is so acute and widespread it has affected the food chain into the Atlantic Ocean. Sea creatures feeding on fish from the Saint Lawrence River such as beluga whales suffer from various forms of cancer, reproductive problems and immune-system deficiencies. More than 500 environmental contaminants have been measured in autopsies of the wildlife in and near Akwesasne, 125 of them in the fish, with PCBs being only the most prominent. Industrial plants including the General Motors foundry give the area a skyline of spewing smokestacks that popular imagery might associate with New Jersey or Delaware, rather than upstate New York; however, industrial plants that located here were not concerned with aesthetics but with access to international shipping facilities and cheap hydroelectric power.

     The scope of the environmental disaster at Akwesasne began to unfold in the early 1980s as environmental scientists initiated more intensive testing of the area. While environmental scientist were just discovering Akwesasne's problems, farmers in the area had been suffering for years. Lloyd Benedict, a former chief on the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne living on Cornwall Island, said that the number of cattle on the island declined from about 500 to less than 200 during the 1960s because of fluoride poisoning; the cattle were dying and "the farmers just couldn't keep up with replacing (them) all the time."3

     A study by Cornell University indicated that smokestack effluvia from a Reynolds Metals factory also was destroying once-profitable cattle and dairy farms in Cornwall on the Ontario side of Akwesasne. The study linked fluorides to the demise of cattle as early as 1978. Many of the cattle, as well as fish, suffered from fluoride poisoning that weakened their bones and decayed their teeth. Ernest Benedict's Herefords died while giving birth, while Noah Point's cattle lost their teeth and Mohawk fishermen landed perch and bass with deformed spines and large ulcers on their skins. The fluoride was a by-product of a large aluminum smelter in Massena, New York, that routinely fills the air with yellowish gray fumes smelling of acid and metal. Another plant in the same area manufactures caustic soda and chlorine, while another produces pulp and paper.

     The Cornell University study provided an early glimpse of PCB poisoning at Akwesasne. Subsequently, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne filed a $150 million lawsuit against another company, Alcoa, but settled for $650,000. The council spent so much on lawyers' fees that it nearly went bankrupt. Although Reynolds Metals, owner of the aluminum smelter, cut its fluoride emissions from 300 pounds an hours in 1959 to 75 pounds per hour in 1980, the few cattle still feeding in the ara continued to die of fluoride poisoning. The pollution of Akwesasne is accentuated by the fact that most of the plants emitting toxins are located west of there, upstream and often upwind.

     The Saint Lawrence River at Akwesasne also carries pollutants dumped into it from the Great Lakes system as it moves downstream toward the Atlantic Ocean. Akwesasne lies downstream not only from the General Motors foundry and other polluters but also downstream from other infamous toxic areas such as the Love Canal.

     In 1981 the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and the Canadian Ministry of health requested a study of exposure to fluorides, mercury, Mirex and PCBs by the Environmental Sciences laboratory at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. By December, 1981, brief reports alleged the presence of PCBs around the General Motors foundry. The reports were practically on the rumor level at the time. There was no precise information on the degree of PCB contamination or its location. This information was vital to Mohawks in Racquette Point, some of who lived less than a thousand yards from the General Motors' dump site, as well as people whose water intake from the Saint Lawrence River was only a half mile from the plant.

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