When it comes to sustainability, the rest of us could learn a lot from Native Americans. While we treat the earth’s resources — land, water, wildlife, fish — as if there’s no tomorrow, they use the resources to sustain themselves while making sure they’re still available in the future.
At least they did, before some of our industrial activities made it impossible. That’s what happened with the St. Regis Mohawks, whose tribal lands along the St. Lawrence River were polluted many moons ago by chemical pollution from two factories.
The owners of those factories, Alcoa and General Motors (which came to the area in the 1950s, when a series of new locks and dams on the river brought cheap hydropower), will pay nearly $20 million for environmental restoration and health and cultural programs for the tribe as part of a settlement finalized last week.
This agreement, which also involved New York state and the federal government, might never have been reached if not for former state wildlife pathologist Ward Stone. In 1987, Stone visited the area at the request of the tribe and discovered extremely high levels of PCBs, insecticides and other toxins in area fish and wildlife (enough, he said, to have them declared a hazardous waste site). And also in human beings: The bodies of young Akwesasne Mohawks, including nursing mothers, were found to contain twice the national average for PCBs. Stone clearly linked the pollutants to the factories just upstream from the St. Regis-Akwesasne reservation.
This wasn’t only a health, environmental and economic disaster for the Mohawks, but a cultural one. Fishing, hunting and farming near the river were a way of life for them, their connection to the natural and spiritual world. And it was a kind of paradise, with thick forests that contained deer and elk, clean water that abounded with sturgeon, bass, trout and other fish, and fertile soil that made it easy to grow crops.
Contamination from the factories turned that paradise into a toxic hell, as the fish and wildlife became unsafe to eat and the soil unsafe to farm. The Mohawks’ traditional economy was replaced by gambling and smuggling, and the rates of unemployment, alcoholism, diabetes and government assistance soared.
The $20 million settlement — which will include $7.3 million for restoring grasslands, wetlands and fisheries and $8.4 million for tribal outdoor education, horticulture, medicine, nutrition, language programs, etc. — can never make up for all that. But, combined with $600 million in expected improvements to the Alcoa plant and a cleanup of the river agreed to by Alcoa that will cost hundreds of millions more, it will at least begin the healing process for the river and the tribe.