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Water contamination and pollution are plaguing Natives’ lands and are a source of significant health concerns. Native women struggle to address the issues at hand and delve into their traditional relationship with their environment – its shattered past, unfortunate present and hopeful future.

Smoke loiters around her straight black hair as she licks the paper and rolls another cigarette. She wets her lips, takes a drag and begins again.

“A long time ago, we had a lot of relatives who really helped purify the water,” says 54-year-old Debra White Plume, the high plains and ponderosa pine stretching for miles outside her brown doublewide trailer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. “They were all slaughtered as an economic decision of the American government. When they slaughtered the millions of buffalo, they impacted the environment more than they ever knew.”

Nine years ago, White Plume, an Oglala Lakota environmental activist, fell unexpectedly ill. She flew to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and underwent 13 surgeries, including the removal of her appendix and a benign tumor, all connected to an arterial aneurysm.

Comatose. Life support.

Several weeks later, still groggy from the medical procedures, White Plume returned home to find a South Dakota state health official testing her water supply. Her illness, the official confirmed, required this sort of testing.

“So apparently someone, somewhere thought the illness that I had was triggered by something environmentally contaminating me,” she says.

Meanwhile, three of her grandchildren were having unexplained seizures. Other young women were giving birth to Down syndrome babies. Babies with shortened umbilical cords. Sudden infant death syndrome. Everything seemed out of proportion.

The moccasin telegraph was buzzing.

“Our teachings tell us that when millions of buffalo are running—that motion made the water move in the aquifers,” White Plume says between puffs. “These natural ways of keeping the water good are no longer available to us.”

+ Video

Alex White Plume interprets language and the English words for DIRT references agriculture and growing things. In Lakota, the word for dirt means “my sense of being that used to be.”

Today, key water supplies dotting the Pine Ridge reservation carry arsenic, alpha radiation and other contaminant levels up to 18 times the legal limit, according to water tests conducted by Energy Laboratory, an independent, EPA-certified analytical laboratory in Rapid City, S.D. Fifty-eight percent of the private wells, springs and soils tested on Pine Ridge in June and July 2009 showed positive results for contamination by arsenic, lead and/or various forms of radiation.

“Some people who drink water containing alpha emitters in excess of EPA’s standard over many years may have an increased risk of getting cancer,” states the EPA Web site.

Though the origins remain unknown, the recognition of such amplified contaminant levels and potential health risks has encouraged investigation by many parties both inside and beyond the reservation.

“Without water there is no life,” White Plume says slowly, the smoke streaming through her curled lips. “Contamination will affect us and our future generations as well.”

Polluted drinking water on Pine Ridge is just one of many environmental hazards currently plaguing Native lands and tribes today. 317 reservations in the United States “are threatened by environmental hazards, ranging from toxic wastes to clearcuts,” according to the Worldwatch Institute, an independent research organization known for its fact-based analysis of critical global issues. Clearcutting is a controversial logging practice that removes all trees—both young and old—from a harvest area.

+ Video

According to Alex White Plume, American’s are mistaken in their identification of the brain. Identifying the brain separates people from all of nature.

Surrounded by a consumer-driven society, many Native tribes still struggle to maintain their traditional ecological beliefs. Despite contamination, the Oglala Lakota still give newborns a drop of water as their first medicine. Despite pressure for genetic modification, the Anishinaabeg in Minnesota still harvest native rice. And the Onondagas in New York, like most other tribes, begin every ceremony with thanksgiving to the earth. While these tribes battle corporate encroachment, the effort to ensure a healthy environment for future generations is gaining momentum. And more often than not, Native women are leading the change, confronting an array of significant environmental issues that impact many tribal lands. Those issues include:

  • Corporate encroachment that threatens both the environment and the traditional native stewardship of the land.
  • An often-compartmentalized American mindset unacquainted with the traditional Native synthesis of environment and all other aspects of native culture.
  • Development of renewable energy on tribal lands to provide a healthy future for those who have yet to come.

“While Native peoples have been massacred and fought, cheated, and robbed of their historical lands, today their lands are subject to some of the most invasive industrial interventions imaginable,” says Winona LaDuke, a Harvard-educated environmental activist who is trying to reform Minnesota’s White Earth Indian Reservation with a sustainable, green economy.

*  *  *

Unlike their ancestors, the Oglala Lakota are now in a pitched battle for clean water. The Crow Butte Resources uranium mining operation lies 30 miles southwest of the reservation border, just outside Crawford, Neb. Debra White Plume, the Oglala Sioux tribal government and other native and non-native groups, including Aligning for Responsible Mining and the Western Nebraska Resources Council, believe the mining operation is contaminating the reservation water supply through spills and leakage.

“We don’t think they have a viable way to mine uranium that doesn’t toxicate the environment,” says Tom Cook, 61, executive director of Aligning for Responsible Mining (ARM), one of the organizations hosting the legal fight against Cameco, Inc., owner of Crow Butte Resources.

“If something can go wrong, it probably will,” Cook predicts. “There’s going to be a deep freeze. Wells will crack. There’s going to be some guy who didn’t put the glue on right to join two PVC plastics. There’s going to be a crack in the coupling and it’s going to emit this sh*t down the river and contaminate it forever. And for what? For some f**k-up?

“There are two overriding laws involved which they cannot escape from. One is the law of gravity, and the other is Murphy’s Law that something is going to go wrong.”

+ Video

Alex White Plume thinks about the strategy to getting his kids back to being Lakota again. He suggest that everybody on the outside world use their “seed” instead of their “brain” in order for everybody to get along.

Consequently, a number of groups have filed suit against the mining company’s current plans for expansion. Petitioners in the case against Crow Butte include the Oglala Sioux Tribe, Western Nebraska Resource Council, Black Hills Sioux Nation Treaty Council, Debra White Plume and Owe Aku, a Lakota cultural preservation organization. They allege Pine Ridge water tests show maximum contaminant levels—arsenic being the major concern—far above the legal limit. Results from a January 2008 test show gross alpha levels in the Mini Wiconi pipeline, which serves the western ranges of the reservation, at 45.9 picocuries per liter. The maximum permissible level in the United States for gross alpha, a type of radiation, is 15, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

While recognizing these statistics, Cameco representatives deny any relationship between Crow Butte operations and groundwater contamination on the reservation. They cite water tests taken before the uranium mining began and also upstream from the operations, both showing concentrated levels of uranium. In addition to a number of geographic, hydrologic and geologic factors, these tests rule out any association between Crow Butte operations and contaminated drinking water in Pine Ridge, Cameco says.

“Due to the geology of the area and the distance, it’s not physically possible,” said Ken Vaughn, senior communications specialist for Crow Butte. “We’re not affecting the water.”

Yet White Plume blames the swelled contamination levels for her grandchildren’s brain seizures. And Cook blames Crow Butte for his brother’s diabetes and pancreatic cancer. Both point to a 2008 report released by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health suggesting a correlation between inorganic arsenic exposure and type-two diabetes.

Although arsenic contamination was originally admitted by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board as one of five contentions against the Crow Butte expansion, appeals from both Crow Butte Resources and the NRC reversed the contention. According to the NRC memorandum on groundwater contamination, “Crow Butte…does not dispute that the release of arsenic into public drinking water would be harmful. Crow Butte maintains that its operations have not and will not release contaminants such as arsenic…”

Despite the outcome of the current lawsuit, petitioners say they will continue the battle for clean water.

“There’s nothing more precious than water. Potable. Drinkable. Clear, pristine water,” says Tom Cook, a Mohawk who moved to Pine Ridge from the Akwesasne Resevation in New York in 1973. “That’s our fight and it’s going to go on and on.”

Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife and environmental justice activist on the Akwesasne Reservation, helped create the Akwesasne Mothers’ Milk Project. The goal of the project, Cook wrote, “is to understand and characterize how toxic contaminants have moved through the local food chain, including mothers’ milk.”

The Akwesasne Mohawks face a situation similar to the Lakotas on Pine Ridge. They have been fighting General Motors since the 1980s in an effort to clean up PCB contamination emitted from GM’s nearby factory operations decades earlier. From 1959 to 1980, the GM facility adjacent to the reservation used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in its production of aluminum cylinder heads for the Chevy Corvair, according to the EPA.

“The consumption of fish or wildlife from contaminated areas is of special concern because of the proximity of the Mohawk Tribal lands,” states the National Priority Site fact sheet for GM’s Central Foundry Division, published Dec. 8, 2008, by the EPA. “Fishing remains restricted by the New York State Department of Health and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. Individuals ingesting fish from the St. Lawrence River or ingesting or coming in contact with contaminated surface water, groundwater, soil sludges, or sediments are potentially at risk.”

One 1998 study by the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health shows a link between consumption of contaminated fish, a major part of the Mohawk diet, and augmented breast milk PCB concentrations.

“The reduction in breast milk PCB concentrations parallels a corresponding decrease in local fish consumption and may be the result of the advisories that have been issued over the past decade recommending against the consumption of local fish by pregnant and nursing Mohawk women,” the report, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, states.

“The fact is that women are the first environment,” Cook says in “All Our Relations.” “We accumulate toxic chemicals like PCBs…dumped into the waters by various industries. They are stored in our body fat and are excreted primarily through breast milk. What that means is that through our own breast milk, our sacred natural link to our babies, they stand the chance of getting concentrated dosages.”

Just 150 miles southwest from the Akwesasne reservation lies Onondaga Lake in south central New York, where the Onondagas believe their chief was persuaded to accept the Great Law of Peace. Today, Onondaga Lake is considered one of the most polluted lakes in the country, according to the New York State Dept. of Environmental Conservation. An estimated 165,000 pounds of mercury entered the lake between 1956 and 1970 through the Honeywell Corporation’s chloralkali process, the NYSDEC reports.

“Contamination in Onondaga Lake presents risks to human health that are above USEPA guidelines,” states the NYSDEC’s remedial investigation report for Onondaga Lake. “In addition, the primary sources of cancer risks and non-cancer hazards are due to mercury, PCBs, and PCDD/PCDFs as a result of the consumption of Onondaga Lake fish. The finding of elevated risk and hazard estimates for mercury and PCBs is consistent with the fact that concentrations of these chemicals in fish tissues collected from Onondaga Lake exceed US Food and Drug Administrations action limits.”

The report later concludes that “Almost all lines of evidence indicate that the Honeywell-related contaminants and ionic waste in Onondaga Lake have produced adverse ecological affects at all trophic levels examined.”

Another traditional homebirth midwife, 64-year-old Jeanne Shenandoah of the Onondaga Nation, serves on the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force, a delegation of Iroquois representatives committed to preserving their indigenous resources. According to Shenandoah, the physical degradation of the lake has equated to a loss of traditional Onondaga practices.

“Our people historically lived around this lake. They took most of their foods from the lake,” she says. “The fishes are no longer there. The plant life that was there and our traditional medicines are gone. We’re having a difficult time passing some of this knowledge down because we’re unable to practice some of it.”

In traditional Lakota culture, the word “wasichu” means “the taker of the fat.” Those Natives who have fought for their human rights to clean air, clean water and clean, healthy land believe greed is largely to blame for the decadence of their once-pristine environment.

“Fat was a prized possession in pre-contact days. It was a limited resource,” White Plume says. “One winter, a wasichu (white person) took all the fat during a blizzard and left none. It’s this concept of greed, of the self-image being more important than anything or anyone. When one is a taker of the fat it throws everything out of balance.”

Yet Native America has a long way to go to clean up its own house. Plastic trash bags bought and used by the Oglala Sioux cling to barbed-wire fences throughout the reservation and Styrofoam cups litter the front yards of many Pine Ridge residencies. Although the surrounding hills make postcard material, the reservation communities often resemble small landfills—a visual nightmare of garbage mounds, tire-filled creeks and flyblown trash.

62-year-old Loretta Cook, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s public relations officer, says a history of dispossession by the American government accounts for the extreme poverty on Pine Ridge, and is therefore to blame for many Oglala Lakota’s poor environmental habits.

“After several generations in a welfare state system, any population would develop bad habits,” says Cook, who is also Tom Cook’s wife of 33 years. “The mix-up of values in everyday Pine Ridge society reflects the onslaught of American society, its institutions, ‘values,’ and of course, alcohol.”

*  *  *

Many Native lands currently in rebirth are partly the result of painstaking defensive efforts by women like Debra White Plume, Winona LaDuke, Jeanne Shenandoah and others. Although their efforts are considered “environmental activism” in mainstream society, most of these leaders don’t consider themselves either activists or environmentalists.

“I don’t think I made a conscious decision to do it,” Shenandoah says. “It’s just following the beliefs and teachings of my people and the beliefs I hold within myself.”

For many traditional Native people, practicing responsible environmental stewardship is not a “conscious decision.” Historically, most indigenous cultures view environmentalism and spirituality as one and the same, a reality Natives say they try to reaffirm in U.S. courts.

“These people don’t even think about the spirit of the water or the plants and grasses that grow there,” Shenandoah says. “Or the spirit of the fish. We realize we have to remind these people that they have no kind of spiritual concept in their thinking. It’s very frustrating, very time consuming and tiring.”

Shenandoah’s complaints emphasize what Loretta Cook believes is a cultural discord between native and non-native spiritual convictions. Non-natives, Cook says, tend to use religion for one hour on Sundays.

“The difference between our spiritual ways and non-natives’ spiritual ways is that we never put it [spirituality] down,” Cook says. “Some choose to compartmentalize it so that it sits in little boxes and you take it out as you need it. But you should have it all out in front of you so it’s free and out there so you can work with it.”

In the Lakota language, mitakuye oyasin means “We are all related.” For the Lakotas and other Native cultures that believe “we are all related,” environmental conservation and the defense of unsullied Native lands against outside encroachment is also a family obligation.

“Everything in our creation is our relative. Earth, water, air and all the standing silent nation—we are all related,” White Plume says. “Part of our spiritual and social and political obligation is to protect our relatives.”

*  *  *

Today, a number of Native tribes, from the Lakota in the Dakotas to the Iroquois Confederacy in New York to the Anishinaabeg in Wisconsin, battle to preserve the environment for those who are yet to come. The next seven generations, the Lakota say, depend upon it.

“Traditionally, we’re told that as we live in this world, we have to be careful for the next seven generations,” says Loretta Cook. “I don’t want my grandkids to be glowing and say, ‘We have all these bad things happening to us because you didn’t say something about it.’

Part of this family and spiritual obligation to preserve the environment for future generations has taken the shape of renewable energy efforts and re-localized Native economies.

“If nuclear power is the answer, I don’t know what the question was,” LaDuke said recently at a lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “If you want peace, you need some kind of economy based on justice—not just with the people, but with the natural world.”

LaDuke and other “environmental activists” hope to create that justice, that re-localized economy, through wind and solar energy on Native reservations. Locally produced, neither wind nor solar power “need to be purchased by Halliburton,” LaDuke says. “If you’re waiting for the guys in Washington to come up with a plan, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

Current efforts on Pine Ridge, “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” as White Plume calls it, include both wind power research and Henry Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Enterprises, one of the nation’s first 100 percent Native owned and operated renewable energy companies.

Since 2004, Lakota Solar Enterprises has assembled and installed more than 250 solar heating systems for tribal homes. A direct descendent of Chief Red Cloud, Henry Red Cloud has been recognized as a 2009 Innovative Idea Champion by the Corporation for Enterprise Development.

Meanwhile, the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, under the leadership of Anishinaabeg leaders like LaDuke, is currently a hotbed for Native sustainability efforts. Through the White Earth Land Recovery Project, the reservation hosts not only a 20-kilowatt wind turbine, but also works to support weatherization and alternative heating, especially solar panels, for local homes and housing units. Major efforts also have been taken by the recovery project to make traditional food sources available on the reservation.

“Our people spend a quarter of our money on food at Wal-Mart,” LaDuke said. “When you buy from local producers, that money circulates in your community…Food prices will keep going up, so we need to keep it local. And it helps with diabetes and other health-related issues.”

*  *  *

A narrow dirt road leads from the small reservation town of Manderson, S.D., to White Plume’s home 3 miles north. Two vehicles—an old blue van and muddy pickup—sit idle in the unpaved driveway, accumulating dust carried from the long, dry hills surrounding them. Inside, White Plume lights a bundle of sweet grass and stares out the window.

“You know how it feels when your mother holds you in her arms?” White Plume sighs. “The comfort, nourishment, love and peace? That’s how I feel about the land.”

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