Environmental Justice Project.
by Chrissie Rizzo

Akwesasne, the "land where the partridge drums," is home to about 9,000 Mohawks. The territory, also known as the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, is located along the St. Lawrence River. The Mohawk people form one of the six nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (also called the Iroquois Confederacy, Six Nations Confederacy or the Long House People) and have had a presence in this region for thousands of years.
ATFE member Richard David demonstrates how to pound a Black Ash log to separate the wood into strips that can be used in basket making. Richard is an expert basket maker, and a scientist who helped to conduct research into the ecology of Black Ash trees. Photo: Chrissie Rizzo

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has worked in partnership with the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE) since 1986 on a project that addresses serious environmental problems at Akwesasne.

The project has two interrelated, specific objectives: 1) Increase self-help and mutual aid capacities of Mohawk families by redeveloping small-scale land- and water-based economic activities that promote participation in Mohawk culture; and 2) support Mohawk leadership by advocating for the legal and regulatory measures that will clean up the Saint Lawrence, Saint Regis and Grasse Rivers, islands, and shores, that have been seriously damaged by nearby industrial toxic waste. The project takes its direction from ATFE.

The Mohawk Culture
Central Mohawk beliefs include: the earth is our mother; the spiritual world is close to and tied to the well-being of the earth; all things are interconnected; all beings are equal; people are responsible for the greater good of the earth as well as the beings that inhabit the earth; and the need to teach young people that the Mohawk traditions are sacred. These ways of thinking influence the "practice" of Mohawk culture. Thus, the cleanup of the toxic waste is necessary for the physical well-being and possibly the survival of the Mohawks. But the cleanup is gutted of its significance if it is not accompanied by the return to culturally based activities. This return is not a mere repetition of past customs or behaviors, but instead, it is an ongoing interaction of traditional knowledge and beliefs with present conditions. Because of this integral relationship of Mohawk culture to the earth's well-being, the goals of the project include the nurturing and strengthening of Mohawk cultural and subsistence activities, as well as advocacy to clean up the environment.

Too Many Governments, Not Enough Help
Addressing the issues of pollution of the St. Lawrence River and its tributaries has been a complicated affair, in part due to geography. Portions of the territory are claimed by the state of New York and the Canadian Provinces of Quebec and Ontario. This intersection of borders makes governance a challenging prospect. Two federal governments, one state government, and two provincial governments, plus two tribal governments (one recognized by Canada, the other by the United States) and one traditional Council of Chiefs are all involved in decisions impacting Akwesasne.

As a result of the damming of the St. Lawrence to make the St. Lawrence-Franklin D. Roosevelt Power project and the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s, major industries moved into northern New York and southern Ontario. On the US side, Alcoa, General Motors, and Reynolds Aluminum built plants. In Ontario, Domtar built a wood pulp processing plant. Each of these plants is directly upstream from Akwesasne. Each of these plants had a role in dumping PCBs and other carcinogens into the water, or emitting them into the air, which then created land and water pollution. Domtar poisoned the land and water with fluoride. These contaminants resulted in health problems for the animals and people. Researchers determined that it was no longer safe to eat fish caught in the rivers, and the Mohawks lost their main form of protein from their traditional diet. Adopting the typical "American" diet has resulted in an increase in diseases like diabetes among the Mohawks. On this year's list of the Most Endangered Rivers in the US (released by American Rivers) the section of the St. Lawrence shared between Canada and the US ranked fourth worst.

In the early years of our partnership, AFSC stood with ATFE in the fight to end the polluting practices and begin the process of cleanup. Over the years, the tribal governments at Akwesasne have taken the lead on pressuring the US and Canadian governments to force local industries to clean up the rivers. The tribal governments take a role in monitoring the cleanup efforts and pressuring the companies to use the best technologies available. AFSC's partnership with ATFE has moved toward supporting small projects that help local families and the community to improve the health and wellbeing of the land, water, and people.

Working Collectively for Longterm Healing
Throughout our partnership, AFSC and ATFE have collaborated on many different types of projects. In the past, we created a medicine garden, so that Mohawks could learn to identify the plants used in traditional medicines. We also helped to sponsor research into ways of raising contaminant-free fish, especially the highly desirable yellow perch. We set up a greenhouse and built a sugar shack. Currently, projects include: tapping trees and boiling maple syrup in the spring; sponsoring a roadside cleanup day; and starting community gardens. ATFE members are teaching young people at the Akwesasne Freedom School how to tend an apple orchard, including pruning, removing pests, harvesting apples, and making cider, pies, applesauce, and other products. AFSC and ATFE also host a seed and tree giveaway in the spring to encourage families to plant open-pollinated, non-hybrid vegetable gardens, and increase the variety of native tree species on their properties.

Another important project has produced the world's first handbook on the ecology of Black Ash trees. These trees are traditionally used for basket making among many Native peoples in North America. Preserving the Black Ash tree is an important step in the continuation of basket making among the Mohawks of Akwesasne. Black Ash, and all other ash tree varieties, are threatened by a non-native pest species, the Emerald Ash Borer. This insect easily decimates all of the ash trees it encounters and is spreading rapidly throughout North America. It has no natural predators on this continent. The Black Ash project is now collecting seeds from all varieties of ash trees. They will be placed into a seed bank so that the species can be reintroduced many generations from now when the threat of the Ash Borer is past.

The AFSC is honored to work with the Mohawks of Akwesasne in their efforts to heal their community and the earth. We labor together to make a more peaceful, just and whole world.


Chrissie Rizzo is the Area Director of the Upper New York State Area Office of American Friends Service Committee and the Director of the Akwesasne Environmental Justice Project.