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Toxic Treaties: How Indigenous Americans Inherited Invasive Contamination

Updated: Jan 31

In 1971 a commercial aired on American television that was meant to tug on the heart-strings of environmental activists: a Native American shed a lone tear upon witnessing the pollution and litter that covered his once-beautiful home. The commercial staring “Iron Eyes Cody” is still regarded by some to be one of the best commercials ever made. But there was a major problem with it: Iron Eyes Cody was of Italian descent. Not Cherokee or Cree as he claimed.

The new environmentalist movement in America was founded on the tears of a lie, economizing the mascot and voice of a non-indigenous actor portraying an American Native. The irony is not lost on many Native Americans to this day.

The North American continent has been home to hundreds of native tribes with spiritual, cultural, and geographic ties to the region spanning thousands of years before any European explorers found their way to the North American continent. Yet today the total populations of these tribes and the land areas they live off of – and the health of both – are appallingly diminished compared to pre-European colonization.

According to federal US census, only 2.9 million Americans in 2010 identified as Native American or Alaskan Native (non-mixed race): not even 1% of the total US population.

The United States Geological Survey, a sub-branch of the Department of Interior, states there are 55.7 million acres of land in the United States administered and managed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This is out of a total 1.9 billion acres of total land that make up the lower 48 states of the US. Another 375 million acres makeup Alaskan land “not suitable for agricultural production.”

While many of us living in major cities or suburbs have adapted to a routine of a five-day workweek with readily available groceries and retail outlets to buy whatever we need, Native Americans living on tribal reservations don’t have this luxury. Most can’t afford to live off of reservation land and life on reservations does its best to maintain and honor centuries-old customs and traditions, including hunting, fishing, and trade.

Imagine relying on your land as a source of food. Then one day the government advises you against your way of life because a multimillion-dollar organization polluted the water, land, agriculture and wildlife with poisonous toxins. How would you adapt to this? Do you change your entire lifestyle overnight? Do you ask for help from the very people who diminished your people’s way of life for hundreds of years? Or do you simply ask them to take action and leave you alone?

Unsurprisingly, many choose the latter. And we can’t blame them.

A diagram showcasing how much land in North America has been lost to its indigenous tribes since European colonization.

These problems often foster misconceptions that many Native Americans still live just as they did centuries ago which is simply not the case. Traditions and customs are honored, but Native Americans have modernized just as the rest of the world has. However, a lack of opportunity, an array of domestic issues, and high poverty within reservations prevents many from achieving a quality of life many other non-Native Americans are so used to.

Indigenous people of North America were here thousands of years before us. Their customs and traditions honor the land they lived off of for countless generations. That same land that is now riddled with toxins and contaminants which they had no part in polluting, and yet they face some of the worst adverse effects of its presence.

Just last Friday, the Portland Tribune reported that the Yakama Nation has opted to sue some 30 stakeholders responsible for overseeing the remediation and cleanup of the Portland Harbor Superfund Site in Portland, OR. Some stakeholders include the Port of Portland, the US Navy, and the US federal government.

The lawsuit asks for $283,472 to go to the Yakama Nation in order to cover costs of remediation processes on the tribe’s end. Portland Harbor was declared a Superfund site in the early 2000s but the Yakama claim not only has little been done in the 17 years since, but that cleanup efforts from a 10-mile stretch of the harbor and future plans to remediate portions of the Willamette River leave hotspots of contamination in the Columbia River, under Yakama jurisdiction, unaddressed.

Although based in Washington State, the Yakama Nation says toxic contamination from the Superfund site has managed to spread downstream into the Willamette River and further into the Columbia River in Washington. The Yakama rely heavily on the ecosystem of the Columbia River to provide them with water and fish – both of which are now contaminated – to provide for the needs of over 30,000 people living in the Yakama reservation.

The news of the Yakama Nation’s action against stakeholders comes in light of previous news ecoSPEARS has shared regarding contamination of PCBs and other toxins affecting other Native American tribes, including the Spokane people (also of Washington State) as well as Inuit living near the reaches of the Arctic Circle (post link[s]).

Our last blog post mentioned how high concentrations of PCBs in Inuit people has been a known issue for nearly thirty years. Despite playing no part in spreading PCB contamination, Inuit possess some of the highest recorded concentrations of PCBs ever found in humans – predominantly in the breast milk of Inuit mothers – largely due to the nature of PCBs to bioaccumulate as they move up through the food chain. Inuit diet has remained virtually unchanged for centuries, and a diet that consists heavily of fat-heavy meats from predatory ocean mammals leads Inuit to ingest the PCBs which have bioaccumulated throughout the food chain thus far, nearly five times higher than what is considered “safe” by the Canadian Health Ministry. Previous studies done on Inuit women who were breast-feeding their newborn children found that Inuit breast milk contained more than five times the concentration of PCBs than non-native Canadian women.

The only other humans on record to have similar or higher concentrations of PCBs in blood and breastmilk than Inuit are victims of industrial accidents, where unsafe exposure to PCBs has lasting and detrimental side effects.

Diagram showing the ways and effects of PCBs bioaccumulating through the food chain.

As with Native Americans in the United States, Inuit people in Canada and the Arctic maintain not only a diet, but a lifestyle of customs and traditions which they have maintained for thousands of years before European settlers began colonizing the Americas. Along with PCBs, Inuit are also at a higher risk of exposure to heavy metals such as mercury, as well as dioxins, DDTs and other Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) – not only through their diet but simply from residing in the Arctic.

Just as PCBs bioaccumulate as they move up the oceanic food chain, a number of PCBs and other POPs are swept up to the Arctic on wind and marine currents. Some may become trapped underneath Arctic ice but are later exposed during melting periods gradually releasing POPs back into the Arctic’s ecosystem. Ice melt brings POPs into the Arctic’s water where they once more begin to bioaccumulate and are again consumed by more Inuit.

Reports of many young Inuit children, some as young as five years old, already have shown subtle impacts on their neurological and cognitive function. Inuit living in Greenland contain such high concentrations of POPs in their bodies – including PCBs – that their breast milk and bodily tissue could be labeled as hazardous waste material under recommended safety regulation thresholds.

Arctic Inuit fear that the contamination affecting them is forcibly changing their way of life. If the Inuit must be forced to rapidly change their diet, millennia old hunting practices will begin to phase out of Inuit culture, impacting their internal trading customs and likely causing a new array of health defects. If the Inuit cannot hunt it’s only a matter of time before their new way of life becomes sedentary.

The Arctic Circle was once considered one of the world’s last pristine natural reserves, untouched by man. Now our studies and sciences show it has become a forum for deadly toxins and contaminants more immense than any seen before in nature.

20th-century radar stations remain a source of persistent Arctic pollution. (source: Richard Lautens – Toronto Star)

To the south of the Arctic, along the US-Canada border by the St. Lawrence River, residents of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne have been asked to undergo blood screenings to test for PCB concentrations in their blood. The round of screenings and tests is not the first to be conducted in the region. Depending on the results of the tests the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe has said it plans to file a lawsuit against three manufacturers known to have discharged PCBs into the St. Lawrence River during the 20th-century: General Motors, Reynolds Metals, and Alcoa.

PCBs are known to cause cancer as a side effect of exposure. Due to this, Mohawk Nation and St. Regis Tribe members who have either personally been diagnosed, or have a family member who has been previously diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, melanoma, or breast cancer are predominantly being asked to participate in the screening.

Alcoa and Reynolds Metals have previously reached a $20 million settlement in 2013 for damage caused to the St. Lawrence River from discharging PCBs and other carcinogens into the river.

Contamination within the St. Lawrence River and Seaway addresses concerns similar to those of contamination in the Hudson River Valley. We have to not only look at contamination within the river itself but how it can spread and bioaccumulate throughout the surrounding ecosystems, affecting the lives of those who rely on the watershed for sustainable living.

While the Hudson River flows south from the Hudson Bay in the Arctic to the American Atlantic coastline, PCBs and other POPs have still managed to find their way upriver into the Arctic. Contaminants in the St. Lawrence River not only flow downriver into the North Atlantic but other hazardous waste runoff from the Great Lakes Basin flows through the lake system and into the St. Lawrence Seaway.

A diagram showcasing the flow of water throughout the Great Lakes water system and the St. Lawrence River Seaway. (source: Michigan Technological University)

With a combined coastline of linear 11,000 miles and a watershed system that spans nearly 95,000 square miles, the combined Great Lakes watershed makes up the largest freshwater system on Earth. Millions of people in the US and Canada rely on the Great Lakes for transportation, recreation economy, and available drinking water. Millions more jobs rely on the Lakes for the same reasons. 20th-century economic and industrial growth has had clear and present impacts on the Great Lakes ecosystem. Even with cleanup progress made after implementation of the Clean Water Act and other federal regulations such as CERCLA meant to expedite the cleanup process, contaminants such as PBDEs and DDTs (which pose similar health risks as PCBs) remain a persistent threat to the water system.

Perhaps a more contemporary example of possible contamination facing Native American tribes is that of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Heavy protests spawned during the construction of DAPL in South Dakota attracting international attention and, at their peak, roughly 10,000 protestors including celebrities, environmental activists and politicians. The protests also saw what may be the largest-ever recorded coming together of native tribes and people in the United States.

Protestors argued against DAPL’s construction, citing that portions of its planned route disturbed sacred indigenous sites of extreme cultural importance including burial grounds. Those in favor reported claims that DAPL would become the nation’s safest method of transporting crude oil from North Dakota to Illinois rather than having to ship barrels of oil at a time to refineries. Another key argument against the pipeline’s construction was the likelihood of spills which could contaminate surrounding soil and drinking water with crude oil. Sure enough, DAPL leaked no less than five times in 2017 after its construction with spills ranging from 21 gallons at a pump station to 168 gallons near its endpoint in Illinois.

DAPL’s sister project, the Keystone XL pipeline received less international attention overall but still drew the wary eye of environmentalists, and rightfully so. In November of 2017 TransCanada’s original Keystone pipeline spilled some 210,000 gallons of crude oil into South Dakota farmland.

TransCanada’s Keystone pipeline spilled roughly 210,000 gallons of crude oil into South Dakota farmland in November of 2017.

Many arguments against the continuation of fossil fuel systems such as crude oil and pipelines parallel complaints familiar to those who fight for the remediation of harmful toxins, contaminants, POPs and carcinogens from their ecosystems: they pose a threat to the environment and are not sustainable.

Since the turn of the new millennium the world has seen a surge of interest and investment into more sustainable renewable methods of energy and technology. Mere decades ago China was one of the world’s leading sources of air and water pollution; however in 2015 the country narrowly surpassed Germany as the largest producer of solar technology. By 2020 it is expected that roughly 15% of China’s energy will come from renewable resources be it solar, wind or hydropower.

The vision of ecoSPEARS is to clean the world’s waterways to create a cleaner future. We align this vision with the claim that the current status quo in environmental remediation is unacceptable: we do not discredit what has already been done or who by, regardless of liability. We exist solely to provide a sustainable solution for those affected by PCBs and other toxic POPs our technology can remove and destroy from the environment. Every life on Earth deserves access to clean water. To deny this is to deny a right to life.

Banning the production of various POPs hasn’t affected the amount that flow into the lives of those who played no part in their production. Contemporary remedial solutions have no way to better the health of those with PCB concentrations ten times higher than what federal governments advise as “safe.” It seems the only way to halt the future spread and bioaccumulation of PCBs and other destructive POPs is to remove and destroy them at the source before they are given a chance to leech deeper into the world’s ecosystems.

It’s very easy to sit here and talk about all the negatives in the environment. After all there are so many negatives to focus on and it’s incredibly easy to give up in the face of such a daunting shadow.

But imagine yourself canoeing through the fenced off creek that flows into the lake behind your neighborhood.

But imagine being able to swim in the Great Lakes during a hot summer afternoon.

Imagine being able to eat the fish you catch from the Hudson River.

This is the vision ecoSPEARS wants you to help us create, and it doesn’t start with us – it starts with you. We refuse to accept the current state of our environment simply because we know how possible it is to do better.

If you want to learn more about the indigenous people and tribes mentioned in this blog post please click the following links:

Want to learn more about how ecoSPEARS? Our technology can help your community clean PCBs, PAHs, dioxins and other contaminants from water and soil.

Email our team and let us know where we can help!

Read our study done with NASA and Golder Associates.

Read about the first ever field study done with SPEARS technology.

Interested in meeting our team? ecoSPEARS will be attending the following conferences and trade shows:

March 6-7, 2018: Emerging Contaminants Summit The Westin Westminster 10600 Westminster Blvd., Westminster, CO, 80020

April 8-12: Conference on Remediation of Chlorinated and Recalcitrant Compounds Palm Springs Convention Center 277 North Avenida Caballeros Palm Springs, CA, 92262

August 22-24, 2018: Georgia Environmental Conference Jekyll Island, GA

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