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Cook: Women are the First Environment

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In the Mohawk language, one word for midwife is iewirokwas. This word describes that "she's pulling the baby out of the Earth," out of the water, or a dark wet place. It is full of ecological context. We know from our traditional teachings that the waters of the earth and the waters of our bodies are the same water. The follicular fluid which bathes the ripening ovum on the ovary; the dew of the morning grass; the waters of the streams and rivers and the currents of the oceans - all these waters respond to the pull of our Grandmother Moon. She calls them to rise and fall in her rhythm. Mother's milk forms from the bloodstream of the woman. The waters of our bloodstream and the waters of the earth are all the same water.

In the early years of my midwifery work at Akwesasne (St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, New York), I was confronted with one mother's question: Is it safe to breastfeed? In 1983 vast contamination of our local environment with industrial organochlorines, PCBs specifically, of which there are over 200 congeners, was disclosed by the General Motors Corporation, the second largest employer in the United States. Earlier veterinary research in the 1970s by Dr. Lenaart Krook of Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine revealed disabling fluorosis in local cattle as a result of atmospheric deposition of fluoride ash spewing from Reynolds Metals smokestacks on pasturelands on our reservation. Ensuing years would see the community's continuing struggle for remediation and restoration with an ever-expanding circle of polluters and pollution sources throughout the Great Lakes Basin.

If you look at a map of the world, you can easily see that 25 percent of the earth's available fresh water is located in the sweet water seas of the Great Lakes Basin. We quickly realized that Akwesasne is a veritable sink of the Great Lakes Basin, downstream and down-gradient from some of the world's most persistent and problematic pollution. On its way through the St. Lawrence River to the Atlantic Ocean, contaminated sludge and sediments bioaccumulate and biomagnify toxic contaminants in the food web of which we are all part.

In what would become the first Superfund site in the country to include human health in its environmental assessments, Akwesasne emerged a leader in environmental justice practice, engaging community members, health care providers and leading scientists and institutions.

Women are the first environment. We are privileged to be the doorway to life. At the breast of women, the generations are nourished and sustained. From the bodies of women flow the relationship of those generations both to society and to the natural world. In this way is the earth our mother, the old people said. In this way, we as women are earth.

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Science tells us that our nursing infants are at the top of the food chain. Industrial chemicals like PCBs, DDT and HCBs dumped into the waters and soil move up through the food chain, through plants, fish, wildlife, and into the bodies of human beings who eat them. These contaminants resist being broken down by the body, which stores them in our fat cells. The only known way to excrete large amounts of them is through pregnancy, where they cross the placenta, and during lactation, where they are moved out of storage in our fat cells and show up in our breast milk. In this way, each succeeding generation inherits a body burden of toxic contaminants from their mothers. In this way, we, as women, are the landfill.

Realizing that mother's milk contains an alphabet soup of toxic chemicals is discouraging stuff. Every woman on the planet has PCBs in her breastmilk. Even in the circumpolar region of the north, our Inuit relatives of the Ungava Bay area of Nunavik (arctic region within Quebec) have the highest documented levels of breastmilk PCBs in the world. Community leaders there state, "We will continue to do as we have always done," and consume an average nine fish meals a month, including sea mammals like whale and seal. The essential fatty acids of this subsistence diet are highly protective of the cardiovascular system.

In a recent document from the Nunavik Regional Board of Health and Social Services to the Quebec Minister of Health and Social Services, the Inuit midwives say:

"There are few issues more fundamental to any people than birth. This intimate, integral part of our life was taken from us and replaced by a medical model that separated our families, stole the power of the birthing experience from our women, and weakened the health, strength and spirit of our communities. Over the last 20 years, however, we have developed a midwifery system that has restored birth to our culture. Birth has come back to Nunavik, and with it, a sense of meaning and identity that can serve to rebuild the health of our communities."

It is well established that the integration of valued lifeways and cultural acts like midwifery and breastfeeding into health care delivery systems are fundamental steps towards good health. In creating how we live, we also create how we die.

Katsi Cook, traditional Mohawk midwife, is director of the Iewerokwas Program of Running Strong for American Indian Youth and a columnist for Indian Country Today.