Indigenous-Led Environmental Justice as Community Health
Disrupting Neoliberal Biomedical Expectations in the Fight Against Pollutants
Warning: I originally wrote this piece for a professor who values jargon over accessibility. If you only want the examples--less theoretical theory--just read every other section (Intro, Role of Settler Institutions, Environmental Justice Movements).
All your water comes from bottles because there are chemicals in the water—if there’s water—and your fish are farmed, and your farms are soiled—soiled because scientists told you the soil is too contaminated for safe growth. It’s not safe to swim in the river, or walk along its side, or to practice your planting ceremonies. And when the doctor tells you that you are ill and must change your diet, become more active, you are coerced into existing as an isolated, individual entity—divorced from your environment, your cultural practices tied to land, your community—and bound instead into a singular medical body, responsible for your own alignment with a universal definition of health, your situation ignored.
This is often the plight of people subjected to environmental violence in the United States as they try to navigate a medical system based on the Western biomedicalized body. While facing structural environmental injustices, they are expected to make individual lifestyle changes. Many people, though, resist this expectation. They resist the Western colonial mindset that reduces them to individual bodies and broaden efforts toward health to include environmental justice.
When it incorporates the movement for environmental justice, health can be viewed as a community process (not a trait of the individual human body), and responsibility for illness can fall on governments and corporations (not all on personal life-style choices), belying neoliberal assumptions about health accountability. In this post in particular, I’ll be drawing on examples from the Navajo Nation and the Mohawk community in Akwesasne. Both Indigenous groups have high rates of diabetes and other health issues, and both also have community-led cultural restoration programs that offer alternate models of health and healing.
In places where illness is structural—where it is enforced or initiated by the exploitative powers of settler-colonial governance—community-led cultural programs can be a form of medicine. The language of health and health risk in Indigenous-led environmental justice movements, particularly their introduction of institutional accountability and cultural values to public discourse and medical conversations, reflects this framing, one that runs counter to the traditional assumptions of Western biomedicine.
The Western Neoliberal Framing of Health
Medicine as a symbolic form constructs a definition or image of disease and the human (medical) body that is culturally influenced and distinct, and doctors are socialized into such stories about the body/disease during medical training (Good 1993). In the present-day United States, the language of “medicine” is often used to refer to authoritative advice or pharmaceutical products directed toward an individual medicalized body. This association for medicine is common; even in the master’s class I originally wrote this piece for, titled “Language, Power, and Medicine,” the notion of “medicine” was preferentially explored in reference to Western biomedicine, with any mention of “traditional” medicine practices examined primarily for its alignment or integration with Western biomedicine.
In the culture of Western biomedicine, most socialized stories about the individual self and its responsibility for health are influenced by neoliberalism and an ongoing legacy of settler-colonial governance. Ideas of the body—and thus responsibility, cures, and treatments for the body—are simultaneously highly individualized and universilized. Though universal representations/norms may seem like intuitive models to many Western learners, they are, in fact, densely rooted in Western philosophy, the philosophers of Modernity in particular. The concepts of the universal body and normativity were therefore co-constructed with concepts of race and binary gender, and they are tied intrinsically to white supremacy (Jackson 2020).
Furthermore, the employment of neoliberal biocommunication in medicine also furthers the continuation of structural racism, constantly displacing blame for illness onto patients as individuals and directing advisements for change at the microlevel rather than an institutional or ecological one. This impulse to emphasize lifestyle change “reflects a predominant view of the role of the state in the age of neoliberalism that the most appropriate role for the state is to facilitate the assumption of individual responsibility for health by the patient consumer” (Briggs & Hallin 2016, p. 89). Individual responsibility can be used to conceal communal, corporate, or governmental responsibility and the aforementioned effects of structural racism, thereby perpetuating it.
In this model of the medical system, conversations about health are often narrowed to the scale of patient/practitioner interactions, or addressed to “high risk” groups, but not directed at structural issues and those who play a prominent role in them. This framing relies on a binary of sanitary citizens (those who listen to advice), and unsanitary subjects, whose lifestyles and individual choices are to blame for their ailments. It draws attention to “a failure of individuals to act as sanitary citizens, rather than the distribution of wealth and power” (Briggs & Hallin 2016, p. 90). Though there’s been some encouraging developments recently with medical professionals declaring structural racism a public health emergency and over the summer calling protest a “profound public health intervention” (Ducharme 2020), the idea of health as residing in individual bodies still largely prevails.
Countering that idea, medical anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock offer a model with three levels to the body: 1) individual self, 2) social body, and 3) body politic. Though Western biomedicine focuses primarily on the first listed level, many Indigenous people bring attention to the latter two in cultural conceptions of health, and they address all three in their activism for environmental justice.
The Role of Settler Institutions in Causing Illness
Environmental justice is defined as “the fair treatment of people of all races, cultures, and incomes with respect to the development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (Environmental justice). By this definition, Indigenous people in the United States have, for the entire history of colonization, been denied environmental justice. Coerced onto ever-shrinking reservations on often unfamiliar or less desirable land, Indigenous people experienced, and often resisted, the US government breaking over 500 treaties meant to ensure their sovereign rights and access to their own homelands (Nielsen & Robyn 2019). Currently, reservations are often depicted as either wastelands or sacrifice zones. They are often used for testing weapons, dumping chemicals, and extracting resources, sometimes with tribal permission and sometimes not. As Traci Brynne Voyles (2015) writes in her book Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country, “even the phrase ‘environmental racism’ can seem to lose all meaning in a tribal context, quite simply because ‘racism’ has always meant environmental violence for Native peoples” (p. 23).
One of the most high-profile cases of environmental violence against Native peoples in the US is the lasting impact of uranium mines and mining in the Navajo Nation. Mining began in 1944 with the US military’s Manhattan Project and ended in 1986, leaving open mines abandoned all across the reservation. Government promises of clean-up projects were never followed through to completion, so even those who didn’t work in the mines thus often experienced radiation exposure. The exposure is associated with cancers and weakened immune systems. It also contaminated groundwater, and to this day the water is deemed unsafe to drink, meaning many don’t have ready access to clean water and have to haul it in from outside sources. This lack of clean running water is particularly detrimental with the present COVID-19 pandemic (Hardy, Saul & Smith 2020).
The Navajo Nation, “where the [Diné] people were forcibly resettled by the U.S. government in 1868, covers over 27,000 square miles stretching from northeastern Arizona into Utah and New Mexico and is home to more than 300,000 people,” but there are only 13 grocery stores on the entire Navajo Nation, making it a food desert (Kreider 2019). The combined lingering effects of uranium mining and those of being in a food desert negatively impact Diné people’s health. The factors of colonial displacement and genocide, as well as broken promises to seal off mines and protect workers, fall simultaneously into the realms of crimes against Indigenous people and environmental injustice.
Another notable example of illness-causing acts of environmental violence against Indigenous people is General Motors’ pollution of Mohawk land. Beginning in 1958, GM made aluminum cylinder heads in plants near Akwesasne, polluting the nearby river and illegally dumping heavy metals, PCBs, and other toxins. They dug dozens of landfills on the reservation land, which often sparked fires due to chemical reactions and leached toxins into the ground.
Though Mohawk people reported the illegal dumping and pollutants to US law enforcement and the Environmental Protection Agency—and the EPA even acknowledged that GM was breaking laws and regulations—the US government did nothing to intervene, thus facilitating state-corporate crime. These types of crimes are committed by corporations that “are relatively free of accountability and traditionally have been able to conceal much of their power-wielding activity...Being able to exploit indigenous groups of people is one of the hallmarks of state-corporate crime” (Robyn, p. 95, 100). GM continued with its production and illegal practices through 2009.
In the half century that they were operating there, GM polluted the river and groundwater to the point that Mohawk people were advised to stop all their traditional fishing practices, avoid swimming in the river, and not eat food from their own gardens out of fear of the elevated PCB levels. At the same time they lost access to cultural keystones such as fishing and planting ceremonies, the Mohawk people became at increased risk from the pollutants.
Anthropologist Elizabeth Hoover (2017) writes in her book The River Is in Us: Fighting Toxins in a Mohawk Community: “The ecosocial history of Akwesasne has been shaped by the interruption and alteration of Mohawk socioecological contexts by settler institutions” (p. 68). The disruption of land could not be separated from a disrupture of culture and health. Thus in order to heal such ruptures “the terrain of human health must be acknowledged as an ‘environment’ in its own right, thus necessitating that we examine (un)healthy bodies within the wider ecological context of (un)healthy landscapes” (Carney 2014, p. 2).
Navigating Environmental Factors and Wertern Biomedical Expectations
Among Indigenous populations in the US, the rate of diabetes is twice that of the rate for non-Hispanic whites. While medical professionals have largely moved on from the (racist) assumption that Indigenous people are genetically more susceptible to diabetes, many doctors still center their diagnosis and advice on individual dietary and lifestyle choices, relying on that neoliberal, individualistic framing. When the blame for diabetes is placed on diet, though, one must wonder: what goes into those dietary decisions?
In the case of Diné people, living in a food desert surrounded by contaminated land may be shaping their decisions. Likewise, Mohawk people were told that tests evidenced the “presence of environmental contamination” in their land and water (Hoover 2017, p. 189). They were then advised by scientists not to eat fish or garden (both of which are important to cultural rites). Reconciling this advice with entextualized, standardized medical suggestions to eat more fresh foods and spend more time moving outside proves difficult.
As Hoover (2017) found in her ethnographic study, many people undergo a complicated risk assessment, in which they rank processed fast foods as “healthier” than fresh fish caught in the river or vegetables from a local garden ( p. 206); thus “[t]he blame is diffuse: it does not rest long on the diabetes sufferer, who may be at fault for eating the wrong foods, but who also cannot trust any food these days, and who has been subject to a half century of pollution” (p. 220). Furthermore, doctors’ recommendations to change one’s diet are often futile because the assumed individualism when it comes to dieting culture in the United States won’t necessarily translate to a community like Akwesasne, where food is part of a social experience and shared during meals with the family.
The struggles of the current biomedical model to address the socioecological elements of health suggest the need for other interventions, ones that look beyond the individual toward their context and community-wide changes. Already, Indigenous-led groups are reframing conceptions of responsibility to acknowledge the role of institutions. In a 1992 press release titled “Mohawk Mothers Responsible to Their Future Generations; Tell Local Industries: Now It’s Your Turn to DO the Right Thing!” one mother is quoted saying: “Why do we have to be the ones to make the adaptations? [...The situation isn’t worse] because we were responsible enough to do the right thing, not because GM did the right thing” (Hoover 2017, p. 95). With these words, the Mohawk mother is working to recontextualize health and subvert the neoliberal impulse of biocommunication. The plan isn’t just to wait for settler institutions to accept accountability, though. The world must be replanted, remade.
Hoover (2017) writes that—though the levels now of contaminants in the soil in Akwesasne, “when considered in the context of scientifically based standards, is safe for gardening” (p. 192)—the history of environmental genocide and civic dislocation by colonial government agencies has ruptured trust (p. 196). That ruptured trust, alongside disrupted land/culture/health, prompts Indigenous organizations to break form from relying solely on —or converting to—standard neoliberal medical intervention and to place power in the communities instead.
The resulting environmental justice movements speak, and act, into being an alternate language of medicine and health. One Mohawk man, speaking on the difference between Western and Mohawk medicine, said: “Corn, beans, and squash—that also is a medicine. It’s not just a food. It’s medicine too...I’ve been in a hospital, and they’ll kill you from the kitchen. They certainly don’t believe that food is a medicine” (Hoover 2017, p. 211). Because of the importance of food and land to Indigenous medicine and health, it is little wonder that so many of the community cultural restoration programs growing out of environmental justice movements center gardening.
How Environmental Justice Movements Address Structural Illness
Community cultural programs, led by the community, can help to restore health to the land, society, and human bodies, for they offer solutions beyond those suggested to the individual biomedicalized body. One example of an Indigenous-led environmental justice movement is the Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (Diné CARE), which is based on the Diné philosophy of Beauty Way. Diné CARE mobilizes to block dumping, initiate clean up projects, plan reforestation efforts, and present legal action. Among their accomplishments are getting the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act passed and co-founding the Indigenous Environmental Network. These actions addressed, and moved to prevent or repair, structural harm by emphasizing Indigenous epistemologies and value systems. Other organizations tied to the Navajo Nation are Tó Nizhóní Ání (Sacred Water Speaks) and the Black Mesa Water Coalition.
Among the Mohawk people, the integration of cultural restoration and environmental justice is especially pressing since “growing food was important to the identity of the community...to understand and be a fully active participant in Mohawk ceremonies, people need to have experience planting” (Hoover 2017, p. 179). The Mohawk programs, then, even more clearly link cultural and environmental restoration.
The Mohawk Healthy Heart Raised Bed Gardens, a diabetes program, brought in topsoil from outside the reservation and built raised gardens, in which participants planted traditional seeds, establishing over 50 sites of growth. This program promoted the practice of traditional planting methods and outdoor activity while also working around fears of contamination and insecurities about lost knowledge.
Kanenhi:io Ionkwaienthon:hakie (We Are Planting Good Seeds) is another grassroots organization, this one focused on community kitchens and teaching permaculture. One distinct feature of this organization is that it only takes funding from tribal governments and grants (not US government programs) as a way of establishing independence and asserting sovereignty (Hoover 2017, p. 264). Elders continue to teach Ohero:kon (rites of passage), such as fasting, cutting cedar, and certain planting rituals to the youth, and the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE) aims to get people “off subsidized foods and back to growing and eating healthy traditional foods” (Hoover 2017, p. 18; 263). Similarly, the Ase Tsi Tewa:ton Cultural Resurgence Program is concerned with restoring land-based cultural practices and promoting Mohawk language use (Hoover 2017, p. 267).
All these organizations work at the intersection of the cultural and environmental, and they uplift health on multiple levels: ecological, communal, and personal, simultaneously.
The Indigenous groups mentioned in this paper were able to reframe conversions about health to incorporate their socioecological situatedness, and they practice healing by demanding accountability, advocating for their communities, and reviving cultural practices. Cultural restoration is medicine, and it treats bodies that extend beyond the human skin. The focus on community health and ecological frames displaces neoliberal assumptions about the body, what counts as medicine, and sovereignty. Indigenous-led environmental justice groups thus don’t only bring these issues to the conversation table, but they radically transform the foundations to the building of these ideas. As Briggs (2005) writes, changing only the way we communicate isn’t enough; confronting communicability instead “involves radical changes in the distribution of capital and power just as much as efforts to challenge racism and health disparities” (284).
The Diné and Mohawk groups are by no means the only Indigenous people who are working toward radical change, as is evidenced by the growing momentum of the #LandBack movement, which, according to the Lakota People’s Law Project:
calls for a much deeper reckoning. This approach to addressing historical injustices fundamentally rejects the premise of land ownership and confronts colonialism head-on. Opposed to the traditional nation-state models, for Indigenous communities, natural resources and land are not commodities that exist for the benefit of the individual or collective. (“#LandBack is Climate Justice” 2020)
The LandBack movement is a reminder that decolonization is not a metaphor: it’s an action that can be embodied and enlanded. Returning stolen lands is a way of redistributing power and enabling cultural-based healing. As Hoover (2017) writes, “Indigenous resurgence involves supporting and promoting political movements that assert Indigenous visions of ecologies” (p. 275). Like corn and squash and beans, land rematriation is a type of medicine, and it’s the next step in healing Indigenous bodies, communities, and lands.
“#LandBack is Climate Justice.” (2020, October 14). Lakota People’s Law Project.
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My roomate was one of the writers for this article!
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