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Driven by Necessity:
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Develops Environmental Expertise
by Lawrence C. Swamp


Akwesasne is a small Mohawk community located along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in northern New York State. In the past 40 years, Akwesasne has had to unequivocally contend with the pollution problems of its three industrial neighbors, upstream from the reservation.

In the '50s, General Motors (GM), ALCOA, and Reynolds Metal Company built their production plants next to the reservation. For years, their presence created job opportunities and a boost to the local economy. However, while the companies accumulated million of dollars, they were simultaneously generating thousands of tons of hazardous waste. To the Mohawks, the monetary gains have certainly not outweighed the risks associated with toxic chemical exposure. It has been the role of the Tribe's Environment Division to prevent disease and injury, while at the same time promoting lifestyles that respect, preserve and enhance the environment. Driven by Necessity, the Environment Division has become one of the most advanced tribal environment programs in the country, party due to its experience with the severe contamination from the aforementioned industries. However, if it wasn't for the strong-willed character of the Mohawk people and the pursuit to carry on our cultural heritage, the current environmental picture may have looked much worse.

Small Beginnings

The Tribe's Environment Division grew out of a single position sponsored by the Indian Health Service. Beginning in 1977, an environmental health technician was hired to be solely responsible for the water safety needs of the community. The technicians primary duties included testing water a residences and seeking out funds for septic systems. In 1980, a community based school was started in Akwesasne to further meet the cultural needs of Mohawk youth, especially in regard to the Mohawk language. The Freedom School. as it was called, also indirectly provided the impetus to create a separate division to focus on the environmental issues facing the community. The Freedom School was situated virtually yards from General Motor's property and it didn't take long for people to notice a change in their children's health. The kids began to complain about headaches, nausea and sore, itchy eyes. Worried about the well-being of their children, the parents formed a group called Mohawks Agree on Safe health (MASH) to ensure that the highest health standards were available to all community members. The group was determined to find out what effects the pollution was having not only on human health, but the entire ecosystem of the St. Lawrence River.

At the point, samples needed to be collected, New York State Wildlife Pathologist Ward Stone was asked to come into the community by Katsi Cook, a Mohawk Midwife, who has read one of his papers on the use of turtles to monitor environmental health. He began to take samples. What Stone uncovered staggered the community. Tests on small mammals like shrews, frogs, ducks and snapping turtles revealed a record amount of PCBs in the animals fat. PCB content was so high that most of the samples could have been considered hazardous waste. Naturally this stirred a sense or urgency in the community. People wanted to know how far along in the food chain the contaminants had migrated.

In 1987, three studies were initiated to examine the effects of pollution on human health, wildlife and fish in Akwesasne. The three studies were part of a risk-assessment study co-sponsored by the New York State Department of Health and General Motors. The breastmilk study was the first to take a serious look at the extent of the toxic effects of PCB exposure. It was during this transitional phase that the Tribe increased efforts to secure funding and hire additional staff. The Tribe hired a lawyer to seek funding for programs to improve the air and water quality of Akwesasne. Through negotiations with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Tribe was able to create two programs that specifically dealt with clean water and clean air quality.

With initiation of the air and water quality programs, the Tribe's Environment Division steam-rolled itself into a position so that no one would be able to ignore it. Finally, government agencies and industries alike would have to deal with the Tribe on a government-to-government basis. As meetings progressed between the Tribe and EPA, it became clearer in which direction the Tribe was going. Jim Ransom, the first Director of the Environment Division said, "We are looking to create our own water and air quality standards. And we want a water-monitoring system in the St. Lawrence River, as it is our drinking source." Soon after, the Tribe was busy formulating its own standards. These standards known as ARARS or Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Standards, were developed for the specific needs of the reservation.

Self Reliance and Direct Confrontation

By 1990, the Division has gained much ground in the fight to clean up the water, soil and air of the Mohawk Territory. The community was awakened to the real risks associated with toxic waste and the deteriorating effect it was having on the culture as a whole. Eventually self-reliant, the Division was able to do its own environmental sampling, monitoring and assessing. It also developed a multi-media program that helped assess and examine the community's environmental needs and concerns. Through this program, it became clear that the Division needed to embark on other environmental activities unrelated to the General Motors clean up. Specifically, natural resource protection, solid waste and gas station regulations became important priorities in the Division's plans. From this point forward, the Environment Division evolved into an advanced, sophisticated unit that has become a model for other tribal environmental programs nationwide.

A key element in the Environment Division's success is its negotiating strategy and relations with other agencies. The relationship between the Tribe and EPA was a little rocky at the beginning because the EPA did not recognize the need to work with the Tribe on a government-to-government basis. In past years, the federal government had dealt with some tribes indirectly by going through either state or provincial governments to handle affairs that directly affected American Indians. Through persistent pressure and tough negotiations, the Tribe was able to muscle its way into the negotiation process as a legitimate partner. Currently, EPA/Tribal relations are good except for differences of opinion regarding a proposed change in the amount of PCB contaminated materials to remain at the GM site.

Many other organizations built good rapport with the Division. In fact, these relations had a major impact on the growth of the Division. For example, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has a good working relationship with the Environment Division. On a technical level the DEC has been instrumental in providing services such as proper data collection techniques and data analysis. Research institutions have also been valuable to the Division's enhancement. Universities like St. Lawrence University, Clarkson University, Syracuse University, Cornell University and SUNY Albany have all contributed their expertise in one area or another for the overall improvement of the environment at Akwesasne.

On the other hand, the industries and the Tribe have not seen eye-to-eye on many environmental fronts, including the extent of the pollution problem. The industries view themselves as good upstanding citizens, who have contributed to the economic well-being of the North Country. Conversely, the residents of Akwesasne perceive the industries as having a complete disregard for the livelihood, health and way of life. Probably the biggest dividing point has been the incompatibility of two models of economic development. One is based on resource extraction, pollution and profit. The other is based on spiritual, social and cultural relationships with the natural world. Mary Fadden, environmental toxicologist for the Division, suggests, "Industries have little appreciation or respect for the alternative subsistence economic development. If only the Environment Division could convey to the industries that showing respect for the earth now will benefit everyone in the end. Hopefully, the industries can come to that realization."

Lawrence Swamp, Mohawk, is Environmental Health Education Specialist for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. He holds a B.A. in anthropology from St. Lawrence University.

Published in the Summer 1996, Winds of Change