Indigenous knowledge teaches us how to walk upon Mother Earth and respect
the sacredness of her creation. Every part of her sustains us in ceremony
and daily life. Water purifies and nourishes our spirit and bodies, and my
teachings tell me that women are the keepers of our sacred waters.
We depend on traditional foods and plants for ceremony and to nourish our
communities. Indigenous people are united by our lands, natural resources,
and traditional knowledge - the foundations of indigenous wealth, strength,
identity and culture. When our water, soil and air are poisoned with toxic
chemicals, our rights to practice our traditional lifestyles and live in a
clean and safe environment are violated.
Persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, disproportionately harm North
American indigenous people.
WHAT ARE POPs?
POPs are long-lived chemicals that often travel thousands of miles from the
point of production or use and build up in the food chain, slowly
contaminating fish, animals and humans.
Indigenous people who maintain a land-based culture can be heavily exposed
to POPs through their diet; in this way, POPs threaten our culture and our
future. Fishing and hunting are not sport or recreation for indigenous
people, but part of a spiritual, cultural, social and economic lifestyle
that has sustained us from time immemorial.
Many tribes possess treaty rights to fish, hunt and gather at all "usual
and accustomed" places. The waters we depend on to support fish, aquatic
plants and wildlife within and outside our reservations have been
contaminated. POP contamination undermines historical tribal hunting and
The United Nations Environment Program determined that dioxin, the
byproduct of some industrial processes and a known human carcinogen (often
called "the most toxic chemical known to science"); polychlorinated
biphenyls (PCBs); DDT and nine other chemicals are "a serious threat to
human health" worldwide.
Numerous dioxin compounds exist; the most heavily studied, 2,3,7,8-TCDD, is
formed during the chlorine bleaching process at pulp and paper mills.
Studies have shown that exposure to this compound increases the risk of
several types of cancer in animals.
Indigenous people have special cultural and spiritual relationships with
certain traditional foods that create increased consumption patterns when
compared to non-indigenous populations.
POP concentrations enter our bodies mainly via food by accumulating in fat,
and increase at each step of the food chain. POPs have been found in
eagles, rabbits, deer, moose, bison, cows, polar bears, seals, fish and
many others; in many indigenous territories, we're told not to consume
these contaminated animals. According to the Environmental Protection
Agency in 2003, fish contaminated with bio-accumulative pollutants prompted
over 386 fish advisories in 48 states.
When we can no longer eat fish and wild meat, we often turn to
high-carbohydrate processed foods like potato chips, french fries and
CHILDREN ARE MOST VULNERABLE
Children are more vulnerable than adults to POPs. Exposure to toxins during
fetal development, infancy and childhood can cause an increased
susceptibility to cancer and immune and reproductive system damage. POPs
can also enter children through breast milk: many have been detected at
significant levels in the breast milk of Mohawk and Inuit women. The impact
on humans is evident in Inuit children, who show an increased
susceptibility to infections and immune system abnormalities.
Alaskan Arctic - Pesticides and PCBs pose critical threats to Indigenous
communities in the Arctic: Aleut, Athabascan, Eyak, G'wichin and Inuit.
Three POP pesticides have been found in the Artic Ocean. Sediment and fish
in Arctic lakes contain measurable amounts of DDT, PCBs and
hexachlorobenzene. In 1997, blubber from four types of seals contained PCBs
and DDT; and beluga whale measurements from the north coast showed four
toxic chemicals in their blubber. DDT and PCBs have also been found in
narwhals, gray whales and polar bears.
Oregon - Dioxin and DDT in Columbia River Basin seafood: Umatilla, Nez
Perce, Yakima and Warm Springs.
Seafood is fundamental to the Columbia River Basin tribal culture. DDT and
PCBs have been measured in shrimp, flatfish, mollusks and steelhead from
offshore locations, estuaries and rivers. PCBs, dioxins and furans have
been found in ospreys and their eggs in this region and in mink and otters.
The EPA estimates a 1 in 1,000 cancer risk for populations that eat as much
fish as do the Columbia River Basin tribes, compared to the "acceptable"
risk of 1 in 1 million. A recent EPA study found high levels of nine toxic
chemicals in fish taken from tribal fish-gathering locations.
Wisconsin-PCBs contaminate the Menominee and Oneida.
PCBs have entered the food chain of Menominee and Oneida tribal members.
Paper mills have contaminated Fox River fish and birds with PCBs. These
tribal lands are now a proposed Superfund site.
New York - PCBs contaminate the Mohawk.
General Motors, Reynolds Metal and ALCOA built factories upstream of the
Mohawk Nation on the St. Lawrence River. PCBs discharged into the river
contaminated water, fish, turtles, frogs, ducks and breast milk. Until
1986, Mohawk children played in GM's landfill because the company did not
put up a fence. PCBs are ranked by the EPA as being in the "top 10 percent
of the most toxic chemicals to human health." A statewide fish advisory
warns people not to eat too many fish because of dioxin contamination.
Maine - Dioxin contaminates the fish of the Penobscot.
Paper mills upstream of the Penobscot Nation have contaminated rivers and
fish with PCBs and dioxin. Another mill discharges directly into
The Department of Environmental Protection found that dioxin concentrations
in all fish samples downstream of paper mills in the Penobscot River exceed
the government's monitoring limit. The rate of cancer among Penobscot
tribal members is twice the state average.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Avoid buying products made from vinyl plastic (PVC). Some carry the
recycling symbol with the number 3 or the letter V. Ideally, choose more
natural materials; if you must buy plastic, select polyethylene (numbers 2
and 4), polypropylene (5) or PET (1).
Avoid burning trash, especially if it contains vinyl plastic containers,
vinyl food wrap or packaging.
Encourage your tribal, IHS or urban health facility to purchase non-vinyl
medical products such as IV bags and tubing.
Join non-governmental organizations, such as the Indigenous Environmental
Network, in calling for the total elimination of POPs.
Ask your tribal representatives to call on the U.S. State Department to
take a total elimination platform within the U.N. treaty-making process.
Send a letter on tribal letterhead urging your U.S. congressional leaders
to support the ratification of the Stockholm Convention on POPs.
Pass tribal resolutions supporting the ratification of the Stockholm
Convention on POPs.
For more information, contact Indigenous Environmental
Network-International, P.O. Box 485, Bemidji, MN 56619, (218) 751-4967,
firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ienearth.org; or Indigenous Environmental
Network-Northwest, 2100 Electric Ave., #415, Bellingham, WA 98229, (360)
305-9166, email@example.com or www.ienearth.org.
Shelly Vendiola, Coast Salish, is an organizer conducting outreach with
U.S. tribes and communities on the need to ratify the Stockholm Convention
on POPs. She works with the Indigenous Environmental Network; is a board
chairman of the Indigenous Women's Network; and is active in the Puget
Sound Indian community on women, youth and cultural issues.