OTTAWA, Ontario — Annie Alowa was a Yup’ik woman, born in 1924 on St. Lawrence Island, west of mainland Alaska, surrounded by the Bering Sea. Just 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle, it is miles away from any industry or agriculture, but the Yup’ik people have thrived here for generations, sustained by greens, berries, fish and marine mammals.
By the late 1970s, Alowa, a respected elder among the 1,600 residents, noticed that cancer, low birth weights, heart disease and miscarriages were afflicting the people of the Northeast Cape unlike ever before. In 1999, Alowa herself died of liver cancer.
Prior to her death, Alowa had started working with research biologist Pamela Miller to establish the Alaska Community Action on Toxics to investigate environmental causes of the high rates of illness. ACAT is still carrying on Alowa’s mission, working with scientists and 15 villages in the Norton Sound region through policy reform, community-based participatory research and wellness and healing programs.
“We have a health care crisis. We have a cancer crisis,” said Vi Waghiyi, a Yup’ik resident of the island and ACAT’s environmental health and justice program director. “Help is coming too late for many of us.”
Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University at Albany, State University of New York, works with ACAT on St. Lawrence Island. His 2011 study found that polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the blood of the Yup’ik are about four times higher than the national average.
The study also revealed the source of the health issues Alowa had been noticing: Oils of the bowhead whale, seals and walrus, a main food source for the Yup’ik, contained PCB concentrations of 193 to 421 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recommendation on consumption limits PCBs in fish to 1.5 parts per billion.
“Our traditional food is killing our people,” Waghiyi, said. “It’s our identity. We’re not going to stop eating our traditional foods. It sustains us, our spirit, physically and culturally.”
“We’re not dumb Eskimos”
The U.S. military is another source of pollutants. The Air Force established a base at the island’s Northeast Cape in 1952. The base closed in the early 1970s, leaving behind about 34 contaminated sites across a 9-square mile area. Some 220,000 gallons of spilt fuel, as well as heavy metals, asbestos, solvents and PCBs, seeped into the land and water. One dump site held more than 29,500 buried drums. Bales of copper wire were also abandoned, entrapping reindeer who then died of starvation.
The Army Corp of Engineers began remediating that site in the early 1990s. Yet there are 700 other former defense sites in Alaska, many close to communities along the coast. Waghiyi estimates it will take more than 80 years to clean it all up.
“They tell us the water is safe to drink but when they bring crews for the remediation, they bring their own drinking water. You can see the (algae) blooms in the water,” Waghiyi said.
There were 19 cancer deaths in the area between 2011 and 2012.
“That’s 10 times more cancer than the national average,” Waghiyi said. ”Our women are concerned about learning disabilities. We have twice as many learning disabilities than the Lower 48 and higher mortality rates.”
Western science is finally accepting traditional knowledge about the environment, but when it comes to health, there’s still a disparity, she said.
“As Annie said, ‘We’re not dumb Eskimos,” she noted, explaining that they’ve been conducting their own research on the connections between the environment and health there since 2000.
Highly contaminated populations
The elders declared a food crisis last year. Waghiyi explained that about 970 walrus are usually brought in between the Gambell and Savoonga to sustain the two communities each year. When ice left them landlocked last year, though, they only got about 340 walrus.
“Our freezers were empty. Our elders and children were hungry,” she said. “It’s not only food through the winter, but the ivory is for basic needs. We need every part of the walrus.”
Further, because of global warming, hunters are forced to travel farther and into more dangerous storms, she said. Their traditional food sources are also limited by noticeable skin lesions on seals and large bird die-offs.
Waghiyi is also a member of the NIEHS National Advisory Environmental Health Sciences Council and travels often to attend grant-finding meetings. She says Alaska Natives are among some of the most highly contaminated populations on earth.
“I never knew there was such injustice,” Waghiyi said. “Our children will lose, knowledge will be lost, if we lose our relationship to our foods.”
The inherent right to food
“This is not just an indigenous issue,” said Simone Senogles, Ojibwe, Food Sovereignty Safety & Health Organizer at the Indigenous Environmental Network. “It’s about our relationship to the land and water and each other.”
The National Family Farm Coalition reports the number of hungry people worldwide has risen from 850 million in 2007 to more than 1 billion people today. It states, “As corporate controlled agriculture spreads across the globe, the social and the environmental costs weigh heavy on our own communities.”
“Whether it’s picking berries with grandmother or fighting pipelines, we’re restoring this relationship,” Senogles said, noting that the global food sovereignty movement is gaining momentum.
By the 1990s food sovereignty had become a movement of farmers, fishermen and indigenous peoples most impacted by hunger and poverty, first framed by the international peasant movement La Via Campesina at the World Food Summit in 1996.
More than 200 indigenous representatives from the Americas, Africa, Russia, the Arctic Circle, Oceania and Europe met in 2011 to sign the Jokkmokk Agreement at the 1st Indigenous Terra Madre Conference in Sapmi, Sweden. The agreement outlines a commitment to the cultural practices, spiritual values and traditional food practices that maintain the health of both people and land.
Through this commitment to protecting biodiversity, ancestral seeds and traditional agriculture, among others, the agreement says, “we will continue to restore, protect and strengthen our traditional food sovereignty and ensure dissemination of essential knowledge to our youth and future generations.”
In June 2013 more than a hundred participants from over 10 tribal communities gathered at the Hehl-keek ‘We-Roy (Klamath) River in the Yurok Nation Territory of Northern California for Pel’son mehl Ney-Puy (“Big Doings With the Salmon”).
The conference, “An Indigenous Peoples’ International Gathering to Honor, Protect, and Defend the Salmon,” was hosted by the Indigenous Youth Foundation, the International Indian Treaty Council and the Yurok Tribe Wellness Court. People from the Karuk, Hupa, Tolowa, Wintu, Northwest Indian Fisheries Tribes, Chickaloon Alaska, Pit River, Warm Springs, Pomo, and British Columbia coastal tribes attended to participate in the conference for ways to protect the salmon.
Discussion centered on decreased water levels, temperature changes, snowmelt, dam construction, gold mining, and fossil fuel extraction — all of which threaten the health of fish populations and destroy fish habitats and spawning areas. Participants also voiced opposition to the Food and Drug Administration’s tentative approval of genetically engineered salmon.
Conference leaders stated:
“The cycles of our lives and the countless generations of our Peoples are merged with the life cycles of the Salmon. Salmon is our traditional food but also defines who we are. Our spiritual and cultural existence and the survival of our future generations are based on the survival of the Salmon and the exercise of our sacred responsibilities to protect the rivers, oceans, watersheds, and eco-systems where they live. The health of the salmon is one with the spiritual, cultural, and physical health of our Peoples.”
The conference was funded by a grant from First Peoples Worldwide, an international organization led by indigenous peoples dedicated to promoting indigenous economic determination and strengthening projects that create greater native control of their resources.
First Peoples reports that indigenous people make up just 5 percent of the world’s population, but they represent 90 percent of its cultural diversity.
Without greater protections, First Peoples estimates that indigenous people are “in danger of disappearing altogether in the next century. With them will go generations of indigenous knowledge, valuable medical research, vibrant cultures, and worldviews that are unique and infinitely sustainable.”
Protections for indigenous people include food sovereignty — one of the four focuses of the International Indian Treaty Council, along with defending human rights, treaties and environmental health. Rochelle Diver, Ojibwe, IITC’s Environmental Health Program coordinator, says these issues are “all interconnected.”
In response to pesticide use, IITC was among the hosts of September’s International Indigenous Peoples Corn Conference, “Corn is a Gift from the Creator,” with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma.
IITC is also planning a conference in response to the threats to wild rice posed by pipelines upstream. Diver, who is from the Fond du Lac community, said tribes are uniting against the mining in northern Minnesota that leaches sulfites and mercury that is suffocating the rice.
Jim Northrup, Ojibwe, sits at his table in the fall in front of a bowl full of wild rice, picking out the brown kernels that escaped the hulling of feet dancing on the frame outside his Fond du Lac home in Minnesota. He piles these onto a dish to later feed to birds.
The process of harvesting, drying, winnowing, sifting and preparing the wild rice, called manoomin, has brought together the young and old, men, women and children for generations.
“In the old days they’d bring in 500 pounds a day,” Northrup said. “They’d have to stack up rice on the shore and go back out again.”
Manoomin is a centerpiece of Ojibwe stories, thought to be a reason the people migrated west up the St. Lawrence River centuries ago and settled around the Great Lakes where the food grows on the water.
The tall stalks emerge from the lakes in the fall, heavy with ripened seeds. Northrup glides his canoe into the water and paddles through the shallows. In a rhythm handed to him through a line of ancestors stretching back thousands of years, his son Ezigaa sometimes joins him and stands in the front of the canoe, propelling it through the rice with a pole crafted from the spruce or balsam trees that grow nearby. Northrup sits in the back, using two 32-inch cedar knockers to grab the stalks, and strokes the rice to shake it into the canoe.
The warm sun dries the rice, then Northrup and his wife Pat parch the rice by stirring it in an iron kettle over an open fire in their yard. To separate it from the chaff, the rice is tossed in fanning baskets that Northrup makes himself from strips of the inner bark of basswood trees stitched together the outer bark of birch trees and the branches of green willows to form the frame.
“These things I do are treaty rights,” he said. “I always thought Anishinaabe put those in there because they knew we’d survive if we had this.”
Northrup says there is usually a cycle of good years of harvest and bad years.
“We are worried about the mining being done to the north of us because the rivers are all connected and the toxic materials could come down the rivers and aquifers to us,” he said.
“Then we would have bad years, followed by bad years and an occasional bad year. We are also concerned about the transportation of oil, crude or otherwise, coming near our water systems.”
The Fond du Lac Ojibwe cancelled their harvest in 2012. There were better crops farther west and north, where less rain fell during the crucial spring “floating-leaf” stage of the plant.
The Bad River Reservation in northern Wisconsin canceled their harvest in 2007 and again in 2012 after a mild winter left water levels low.
Mild winters with high rainfall in spring are associated with climate change, said Peter David, wildlife biologist at Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission.
“Wild rice, especially northern wild rice, adapts to severe climate but does not do well with mild winters,” he said. “It’s a food unique to the heartland, growing in northern Wisconsin,
Minnesota and adjacent areas in Canada.”
David says the wild rice is beginning to suffer from brown spot, a fungal disease stemming from wet weather and high temperatures. The first major outbreak was in 2005, and another hit in 2010.
“Every scenario of climate change brings change that is detrimental to wild rice,” David said.
Many try treating the fungus, but he says this is “not something we’re interested in doing across the landscape.”
“And we don’t want to genetically manipulate it,” he said, explaining that the rice is a gift from the Creator, given in the form the Creator intended.
“We need to be in control of our own food. We need to be able to sustain ourselves. If you can sustain yourself, you can sustain your people,” said Flo Anne Perkins, an Akwesasne Mohawk.
Perkins participated in Kanenhiio Farmers Market of Akwesasne, New York, that held its second annual Farmer’s Market over the summer.
Genetically-modified foods and the recent success of corporations such as Monsanto in suing farmers who use the corporations’ patented seeds restrict resources. GMOs are in as much as 80 percent of the processed foods sold in the U.S., according to the Non-GMO project, a nonprofit committed to informing the public since 2005.
The organization reports that a poll revealed 91 percent of Americans want labels on foods containing GMOs and 53 percent would not buy GMO-containing foods.
In Akwesasne a collective of students, teachers, parents and community members plant the lettuce, peas, beans, carrots and sunflowers sold at the farmer’s market. The market benefits Akwesasne’s K-8 Freedom School which owns the 10-acre site of the garden, a greenhouse and cannery.
The Kanenhiio workers also participate in the nationwide Center For Whole Communities, a collaborative response from more than 1,200 people from different sectors, races, professions and ideologies who are building bridges between each other.
Kanenhiio also works with seed keepers across the Haudenosaunee Confederacy to preserve the integrity of traditional seeds.
A sacred plant to the Haudenosaunee, corn is considered a gift from Sky World at the beginning of creation. The seeds are planted with beans and squash to help each other’s growth. Placed on a mound, corn forms a support for pole beans to climb. Bacteria growing in the roots of the beans change nitrogen into nitrates that fertilize the corn and squash. Low to the ground, squash helps control weeds, prevents soil erosion and increases rain soaking into the soil.
The sight of the stalks returning each summer reminds the people of the spirit of corn, the Mother of the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — which sustained all their ancestors into today and would be sustenance for their children into tomorrow.
They carefully bred more than a dozen strains. After Europeans arrived in the 15th century, corn from North America spread to the rest of the world. The tall sweet-scented harvests have since become the most-planted, most-subsidized crop in the U.S., where more than 80 million acres of corn are planted each year. Corn is used in a seemingly endless amount of products, including cosmetics, fuel, food products for both human and animal consumption, among many others.
Today’s hybrid corn varieties will yield a harvest, but seeds must be purchased again next year from companies like Monsanto, which are taking a monopoly on all the plant offers.
When the Kanenhiio Farmer’s Market closed for the season on Sept. 8, it did so with a note on Facebook thanking those who support the market and urging the importance of food sovereignty.
“We have always felt that to be absolutely sovereign we need to be able to feed ourselves. From the saving of our seeds, planting, to the final harvest,” the group posted. “Many of us have lost sight in exactly what it entails to be able to grow food to sustains (sic) us.”
“Hopefully, Kanenhiio helped plant the seeds in our younger generation to be able to carry this forth.”