As an Alaska Native, I spend my summers subsistence hunting and fishing in preparation for the long, cold winter months. It’s what my ancestors have been doing for centuries. But today, like many Native Alaskans, who make up 40 percent of all tribes in the United States, I have concerns about the safety of my traditional foods. I worry about the tumors, pus sacs and lesions I see on the moose, caribou and other animals. But because most tribal people rely on traditional foods for 80 percent of their food needs, we are sometimes forced to consume these foods despite our worries about possible contamination and disease.
The village elders I speak to in my travels as an environmental justice coordinator for Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) and the Indigenous Environmental Network say it did not used to be this way. But like the animals, the people are increasingly getting sick. Our community members suffer with cancers, diabetes, endometriosis, miscarriages, and low-birth-weight babies that were once unheard of. The environment is changing, too, and people attribute these changes to global warming. As the ice melts, traditional hunters are falling through the ice, resulting in a growing number of deaths and a further decrease in traditional food supplies.
Though community members know that the changes in our traditional foods and human illnesses are linked, government scientists continue to deny it. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study of salmon in the south central region of Alaska found toxins such as pesticides and PCBs in the fish. The tribal communities believed that they finally had the evidence to link toxins in fish to cancer in humans. But because the EPA relies on a “risk assessment” method that, among other flaws, bases its assumptions on the fish consumption habits of 170-pound white males, they offered us false assurances that the fish were safe.
For that reason, I don’t believe that the mainstream research model has any place in the environmental justice movement. To get the information communities seek, ACAT encourages communities to rely primarily on traditional knowledge. We utilize Western science as a tool when it supports that knowledge. A few years ago, we partnered with researchers at the State University of New York in Albany to conduct a PCB study on St. Lawrence Island. Community members had their blood tested for toxins; results showed that residents had PCB levels that were several times higher than what’s considered safe even by EPA standards. It was a com-munity-driven project that gave residents ownership over the unsettling information and how it would be used to inform tribal people.
In Alaska most tribes depend on traditional knowledge passed down from our elders as a form of “science.” While Western science tends to separate and break things down, we know that we can’t separate the air from the water from the soil and from our future generations. Our elders often say, “what you do to the earth you do to yourself.” It’s their wisdom that forms the basis of community-driven problem solving and action.
Shawna Larson is environmental justice coordinator for Alaska Community Action on Toxics and the Indigenous Environmental Network.