For the Anishinaabe people at the southernmost tip of Lake Huron, cedar is not just a tree – it is sacred. Used in medicines and teas, the tree’s roots, bark and sap have been central to their physical, mental and cultural wellbeing for centuries.
“We smudge with it, as singers we inhale it, as a medicine we bathe in it,” said Ron Plain, an Anishinaabe tribe member and environmental policy analyst at the Southern First Nation Secretariat.
But the tribe has abandoned its generations-old tradition. The cedar is tainted with cadmium, a metal linked to cancer and learning disabilities. In this region of Ontario, dubbed “Chemical Valley,” the contamination is part of everyday life for the Anishinaabe.
For decades, indigenous people in the United States and Canada have been burdened with health problems linked to environmental pollutants. But that isn’t their only sacrifice: Pollution is crippling some tribes’ culture, too.
Their native foods, water, medicines, language and ceremonies, as well as their traditional techniques of farming, hunting and fishing, have been jeopardized by contaminants and development. And as indigenous people lose these vital aspects of their lives, their identity is lost, too.
“Animals have died off or left, the water is no good. This is not the world that we know and rely on,” said Kathy Sanchez, a member of the Tewa Pueblo, a tribe in New Mexico that is living with a legacy of pollution from uranium mining.
“It’s contaminated our culture.”
Life in Chemical Valley
About 850 Anishinaabe live on the Aamjiwnaang reservation just east of Michigan’s thumb across the St. Clair River near Sarnia, Ontario. The area has earned its ominous nickname, Chemical Valley, because it is home to 62 industrial facilities – 40 percent of Canada’s chemical industry. Chemicals such as benzene, cadmium, formaldehyde and lead permeate the reservation.
A private lab, commissioned by the tribe in 2006, tested the cedar used for ceremonies and teas, and found elevated levels of cadmium.
While cadmium is a naturally occurring element, industrial emissions in Sarnia totaled 611 tons between 2000 and 2010, according to Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory.
It’s difficult to know whether Anishinaabe concerns over cedar are warranted because it is unclear how much cedar goes into the tea or is used in other practices, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson.
Oral exposure to cadmium can lead to kidney damage, while inhaling it can damage lungs or raise the risk of lung cancer. In addition, children with higher cadmium levels are three times more likely to have learning disabilities and participate in special education, according to a nationwide study of children published in January.
At the reservation, 23 percent of children have learning or behavioral difficulties compared with about 3 to 5 percent of children in a neighboring county, according to a 2005 community study.
In addition, about 40 percent of the Anishinaabe use an inhaler, and 22 percent of children reported having asthma, according to a 2007 study by Ecojustice, a Canadian environmental organization. In comparison, the asthma rate was 8.2 percent in surrounding Lambton County, Ontario, and 9.4 percent for all U.S. children.
Birth complications also are commonplace. Of 132 women surveyed in the community in 2005, 39 percent had at least one stillbirth or miscarriage. The average for women in the United States is 15 percent, according to the National Institutes of Health.