The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community

The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. Elizabeth Hoover, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, 392 pp.

The River Is in Us offers a sweeping analysis of the psychosocial and material effects of industrial contamination of the St. Lawrence River on the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. Deftly navigating the overlapping jurisdictions of upstate New York, Quebec, and Ontario, Hoover shows how Akwesasne Mohawks—themselves internally differentiated along an equally complicated tribal council versus traditional longhouse leadership structure—have resisted various private and state efforts at land enclosures and economic rearrangements, brought on by the 1959 development of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.

The Seaway industrialized the region, opening the way for General Motors (GM) and Alcoa to set up manufacturing plants on land adjacent to Akwesasne territory, emitting PCBs, fluoride, and other contaminants into the environment through chemical waste lagoons. The pollution resulted in a range of negative health impacts on humans, cattle, and fish. In 1984, due to persistent mobilization and soil testing led by tribal environmental groups, the GM site was placed on the national Superfund sites list, and the company was found guilty and fined for illegal disposal of contaminated waste. Hoover’s broadest aim is to show how this legacy of industrialization and its polluting effects created a rupture in Mohawk relationships with the river in which they fished, swam, and oriented their lives, and created an incursion on tribal sovereignty by disrupting peoples’ ability to safely farm, garden, raise livestock, recreate, and gather in ways that connected them to the land and to one another, through the land.

Extensively researched over the course of several years, Hoover’s book has two purposes: First, it illuminates the cultural production of confusion over risk and exposure in a location where individual, social, and political bodies (what Hoover terms her “Three Bodies” analytic framework) are entangled in experiences of social and biophysical suffering. Hoover understands illness as wrought not only by late industrial capitalism but also by longstanding colonial dispossession. When human breast milk and fish from the river become untrustworthy due to probable PCB contamination, ecocultural relationships grow thin. Advisories to stop consuming fish place the burden of managing risk on individual bodies, masking the culpability of the bodies of political and capital structures that created the conditions of environmental harm. Living in the shadow of a Superfund site, Akwesasne people were confused about their level of risk and their various symptoms of ill health. This confusion played out, Hoover reminds us, in the deeper and ongoing history of dispossession of native lands and lives, wrought both through structural violence of environmental racism and the fraught political relations with two different settler states.

This experience of dispossession and resistance catalyzed Mohawk projects such as the Akwesasne Notes newspaper, documentary films, and, ultimately, community-based health impacts research. Led by St. Regis Mohawk Tribal health and environment offices, the grassroots environmental organization eventually known as the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment, and the indefatigable Mohawk midwife-scholar Katsi Cook, the community launched a self-study that set a new precedent for community-driven public health risk assessments in indigenous nations.

This collective labor emerges as the book’s second core purpose. Interrogating the politics of knowledge production and scientific research “on” versus “with” an indigenous community, Hoover argues for community-based participatory research (CBPR) as “a new standard” in integrating scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge. CBPR foregrounds the community’s right to participate and to refuse to participate, as the central research ethic for studies in indigenous communities. To make this argument, Hoover undertakes a comparative history of two research projects that aimed to track the effects of industrial-chemical contamination on Akwesasne people and wildlife.

The Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s epidemiological study in the early 1980s failed to engage Akwesasne people in the coproduction of knowledge or to meaningfully return results of the study to the community, resulting in a deep mistrust of scientific research and an exacerbation of confusion about the realities of risk. The subsequent SUNY-Albany School of Public Health (and later Epidemiology and Anthropology) Superfund Basic Research Program study in the 1990s and 2000s extended Katsi Cook’s health risk assessment of Mohawk mother’s breastmilk. SUNY researchers encountered resistance to science when their project began, and they had to mitigate the Mt. Sinai study’s legacy at every step of the way. The First Environment Research Project (recognizing women’s bodies as the “first environment” in which humans are potentially at risk), emerged as a partnership between Cook and her associates and SUNY-Albany researchers. It strove toward the key theoretical and methodological principles of CBPR. Hoover describes in ethnographic and historical detail the leaps forward, and upsets, of this groundbreaking partnership. The project was able to scientifically trace PCBs from the industrial source through fish, and from fish into the bodies of women and newborn children and the contaminants’ effects on sex hormones, cognition, and metabolic disorders, including elevated rates of diabetes.

Working at the intersections of medical anthropology, environmental sociology, science and technology studies, and environmental justice, The River Is in Us is relevant for teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as critical food studies, Native American/Indigenous Studies, environmental studies, and research methods. This book should be required reading for anyone seeking to do collaborative or CBPR-based methods with or in Native nations. One underdeveloped angle is the book’s claimed relation with political ecology: it is not clear how the interdisciplinary literature in political ecology shapes the project or how indigenous political ecology takes a decidedly different tack. Yet Hoover’s rendering offers a richly detailed historical narrative of the cultural values, practices, and impacts of health research, offering a fine historiography of method. In her own research, Hoover’s emphasis on the cultural role of scientists, labs, and scientific methods, along with her insistence that the Mohawk perspective came to inflect scientific practice, brings a distinctly STS or sociology of science flavor to the project.

As an ethnographer, I often hungered for more sense of the texture of contemporary everyday life in the communities, especially in the first half of the book; stylistically, the narrative is historical and sociological, foregrounding “popular epidemiology” and risk assessment. My desire was satiated in the final chapter, “PCBs and Thrifty Genes,” in which Hoover presents an ethnographic picture of diabetes etiologies in play among Akwesasne Mohawks, resulting in a finely complex medical anthropology of illness explanations. Her analysis includes one of the core findings of the CBPR process: the fish advisory had profoundly deleterious cultural effects, especially when reducing fish consumption resulted in only negligible health improvements.

Giving up fish to save one’s body displaced blame away from structural conditions of contamination, and onto individual “noncompliant” bodies. Within one generation, the deep cultural value of fish and fishing was nearly extinguished. In the end, Hoover underscores community-based resistance to these conditions of ecological and cultural injury, highlighting a return to resilience and recovery through tribal and grassroots efforts to direct GM lawsuit settlement funds toward cleanup, and toward ecological, fishing, and cultural restoration projects. The book ultimately provides us with a rich, moving story of indigenous survivance, resilience, and regeneration.

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