Elders half a century ago warned Cook and other young Mohawk that the world was changing and that the first signs would be in the food by way of agriculture. And they were right, said Cook, who is now 60.
“After the contamination, gardening and agriculture slowed down out of fear … Our connections to the land were slowly lost,” she said. “The nutrients from food we would catch or grow with our hands are replaced by the standard American diet.”
Losing people, wildlife
While elders like Cook and Waghiyi attempt to revive ways of life in the face of pollutants, culture is meaningless if there are no people.
“There were 4,000 of us at one time…32 villages,” Waghiyi said about the Yupik. “Now we have two villages with 800 people [each]. We’ve faced starvation, epidemics, and illness brought from western contact. And now chemicals, chemicals everywhere.”
In the Southwest’s Tewa Pueblo community, mining left uranium and PCBs contamination. Once over 3,000 people, the tribe has dipped to around 1,500, said Sanchez, co-founder of Tewa Women United.
The tribe suspects that health problems and populations drops are linked to their proximity to the old uranium mines and the Los Alamos National Laboratory. However, there is no scientific evidence to back up their fears. No studies have been conducted.
“We never knew things like cancer. Now everyone has cancer,” she said. “You can’t say that all of these birth defects and miscarriages aren’t connected [to the contamination].”
Some wildlife becomes contaminated – some vanishes.
The Gabrielinos, an indigenous community in Southern California, use coastal sage scrub just as the Anishnaabe use cedar – a cleansing, purifying plant for smudging and sweat lodge ceremonies. But it's nearly gone because it was growing on coastal land bulldozed for multi-million-dollar homes. California officials estimate 70 to 90 percent of coastal sage scrub has been destroyed and that nearly 100 species of plants and animals that inhabit it are classified as rare, sensitive, threatened or endangered.
The Tewa Pueblo in New Mexico used to have a clan system – over 250 clans – to “teach children about the world,” Sanchez said. “There was a deer clan, a beaver clan, a water clan and so on.”
Sanchez said the clans would aspire to the positive attributes of their symbol. Children would hear teachings about the history of each clan and how it came to have its symbol, so they would learn about wildlife and their culture at once, Sanchez said.
“But we’ve lost that,” she said.
She said a Los Alamos National Laboratory expansion in 2008 displaced more wildlife – citing less beaver and deer sightings.
Leslie Hansen, a wildlife biologist at the Laboratory's Environmental Protection Division, said, “there is no doubt that there have been dramatic changes in the landscape.” But she said many factors, including human population growth, drought, wildfires and beetle infestations, “could possibly be contributing to changes in wildlife numbers.”
Tribal leaders see the modern threats to their culture as a continuation of the mistreatment suffered decades ago through land grabs, genocide and indoctrination.
“We have battered wife syndrome,” Plain said. “Industry and government contaminate our land, apologize for it, and do it again. And again. And again.”
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.