Health experts also wonder if industrial chemicals are behind a decline in births of baby boys discovered there. Boys accounted for only 35 percent of births between 1999 and 2003, according to a study by the University of Ottawa. The decline may “partly reflect effects of chemical exposures,” the study says.
But it is unclear whether industrial pollutants such as cadmium are to blame, said Niladri Basu, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan who is conducting a study of chemical exposures at the reservation.
“For decades the community has been pleading for others to provide science-based evidence to uphold their health claims,” Basu said. “People have done their own surveys … and asthma rates are higher, there are greater rates of cancer, and kids just aren’t learning well. But the science linking chemical emissions and health problems is lacking.”
Results of Basu’s community health study are expected early next year.
Anishinaabe also used to gather rocks from local streams for sweat lodge ceremonies – a purifying ritual used by native people to seek guidance. The rocks are now coated in a “slick oily substance,” Plain said. They haven’t been tested, so no one knows what the substance is. But out of fear of rocks that do not look like they used to, the practice, which has been around for decades, wanes.
“What makes us who we are is our connection to the land and the ability to live off it…We have lost that,” Plain said. “We end up completely reforming to North American society. A dying culture.”
Contaminants affect the ability of tribes to live and raise children in their traditional ways, said Elizabeth Hoover, an assistant professor of ethnic and American studies at Brown University who has worked with the Anishinaabe and other tribes on environmental justice issues.
“The problem here is two-fold,” Hoover said. “There’s more miscarriages than there should be, and even if a women can have a baby, she can’t raise it in a healthy environment.”
She said many members have expressed despair in becoming a tribe in name only, “just regular Americans, or regular Canadians.”
Contaminated river, lost identity
Before the St. Lawrence River spills into the Atlantic Ocean, it runs through the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne and for centuries gave them water, food and an identity. Straddling the U.S.-Canada border north of New York state and now home to about 12,000, the territory was settled by the Mohawk Nation in the mid-18th century.
Almost three centuries later, industry came to the shores. And with industry came contaminants. In the early 1980s, the river was polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls – PCBs – from three aluminum foundries upstream of the Akwesasne. The water, fish and people were tainted with toxic chemicals.
But there’s an impact that blood tests can’t measure. The relationships and experiences that took place on the river are now endangered as the community avoids it out of fear.
“Fishing is more than throwing a line and bait into the water. Children learned about our culture and their world on that river,” said Katsi Cook, an aboriginal midwife from the Akwesasne community. “Our social practices and identity are tied into the flowing water – its quality of life directly correlates to the life around it.”
Since the chemicals were discovered, researchers have found a relationship between PCB concentrations in blood and decreased cognitive and thyroid function, and elevated risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension among the Mohawk Nation, said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany.