Healthy People Healthy Planet

Sacred Landscape

The traditions of native cultures — making reed baskets, eating wild foods, participating in sweat lodges — sustained people for centuries. Now those cultures are threatened by contamination. Researchers from the Umatilla reservation and OSU show why.

Baskets of Concern

By Lee Anna Sherman

Food is only the most obvious way contaminants enter the human body. Poisons also come in through the pores of the skin and the lobes of the lungs.

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Picture this: You come home from work to find a rusty, 55-gallon drum of radioactive sludge leaking on your living room rug.

That’s what the native people of the Columbia River Basin face on a monumental scale. Tribes that have lived for centuries on the sweeping plateaus of northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington are struggling to restore a landscape and a way of life damaged by dams, industrial pollution and nuclear waste from a World War II plutonium factory. And the Columbia Basin tribes are not alone. Degradation and contamination of ancestral lands threaten American Indian cultures across the United States. The Navajo Nation in Black Mesa, Arizona, is battling coal mining. The Oglala Sioux in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, are fighting uranium extraction. Mohawks in Akwesasne, New York, are protesting PCBs in groundwater. The list goes on and on.

“The lives of indigenous people are embedded in, even emergent from, the environment,” observes Barbara Harper, an associate professor affiliated with OSU’s Department of Public Health and manager of environmental health for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR). “It is their living room, their grocery store, their pharmacy.”

To help tribes weigh the risks to health and culture from contaminants, OSU researchers and tribal scientists have developed a unique tool, the Traditional Tribal Subsistence Exposure Scenario and Risk Assessment Guidance Manual. The guidebook, funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), explains how to trace pollutant pathways into natural resources (soil, water and air) and then into the human body (lungs, skin and mouth). And, drawing on historical and archaeological evidence, it recreates traditional lifestyles in scenarios of four Western tribal groups, including the Confederated Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla of the Columbia watershed.

By using the manual to overlay contamination pathways with traditional practices, native communities can quantify the risks of living off the land as their forebears did.

“There are many unique exposure pathways that are not accounted for in scenarios for the general public, but may be significant to people with certain traditional specialties such as basket making, flint knapping, or using natural medicines, smoke, smudges, paints and dyes,” the guidebook states. The report does not focus on existing illness or other health conditions potentially related to traditional or contemporary lifestyle practices.

Tainting Ancient Ways

From Oppression to Religious Freedom

Graduate student Renée Roman Nose in the Department of Anthropology is taking a look at another aspect of Native American traditions: religion.

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The Cayuse, Walla Walla and Umatilla people have lived on the sagebrush steppe beside the Columbia for 11,000 years. In the old days, salmon swam and leapt at the center of their existence. The red-fleshed Chinook was the religious and cultural nexus sustaining spirit as well as body. Like all the original inhabitants of the continent, they were inseparable from the landscape in which they fished, hunted, gathered and studied the complex ways of nature. Millennia of ecological investigation formed the basis of their seasonal traditions and bound them together in a timeless, Earth-driven rhythm.

Today, the Columbia River salmon are depleted. The ones that remain contain mercury and a host of other pollutants from mining, agriculture and other sources according to United States EPA studies. Some of the lands and waters of the plateau tribes became further compromised in 1943 when, as part of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. government sited its Hanford plutonium facility on 586 square miles along the river between the Saddle Mountains and Rattlesnake Hills. Today, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is one of the nation’s most contaminated Superfund sites — places that must be cleaned up under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. The law provides broad federal authority to respond directly to hazardous substances that may endanger public health or the environment.

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management treats and disposes Hanford’s 50 million gallons of ”highly radioactive, highly hazardous” liquid waste stored in 177 aging underground tanks, according to the DOE Web site. Also dumped on the site are 2,300 tons of spent nuclear fuel, 12 tons of plutonium and 25 million cubic feet of solid waste. Leaching into the river are groundwater plumes containing chemicals such as chromium, uranium, strontium-90, tritium and technetium-99.

“Parts of the Hanford site are so badly contaminated with radioactive waste that full environmental restoration is im-possible,” according to the Nuclear Safety Division of the Oregon Department of Energy. “Contamination has reached groundwater and the nearby Columbia River.”

Under Superfund law, the tribes have special status as “sensitive populations,” those who are disproportionately exposed. Poisoning the land violates tribal treaty rights, notes Stuart Harris, a tribal member, OSU graduate (Geology, ’91) and coauthor of the manual. The tribes retained their rights to fish and hunt, gather roots and medicinal plants, pick berries and graze horses and cattle on their ancestral lands when they signed the Treaty of 1855. A landmark ruling in 1974, the Boldt decision, affirmed the Indians’ guarantee to traditional salmon harvests.

“The salmon return year after year to the remnants of their homes, as they promised our people in the beginning.”
Stuart Harris, Director, Department of Science and Engineering, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

But exercising those rights “depends on the health of the natural resources,” argues Harris, a scientist for the CTUIR who analyzes contamination risks. Those rights run infinitely deeper than treaty language granting access to particular riparian or terrestrial parcels, Harris says. In fact, they go even beyond Indians’ rights to physical health. What’s at stake is the very culture that the Columbia Basin peoples inherited from ancestors who stood on the plateaus surveying the bounteous waters of the continent’s second-largest river, even as the last ice age was retreating.

“The environment constitutes a cultural homeland where the people and their genetics coevolved with the ecology over thousands of years,” says Harris. “Impacts to the environment directly impact the health of my people and put my culture at risk.”

Heritable Rights

In the old days, a river dweller consumed about 500 pounds of salmon a year. If someone ate that much fish in today’s toxic environment, Harper bluntly predicts, “they’d be sick or dead.” Contamination levels in foods, water and soils have been well documented. And exposure risks for average American suburbanites have been calculated by scientists with the EPA and others. What no one had previously established, however, was the exposure risk for Native Americans who live, or wish to live, a traditional, land-based lifestyle.

“Risk-assessment scientists typically aren’t trained to look at risks holistically, to investigate entire lifestyles,” says OSU Professor of Public Health Anna Harding. “Public health experts, on the other hand, are trained to look at risks very broadly — not focusing only on medical impacts but considering community well-being as well.”

That’s why Harper, Harris, Harding and former OSU nutrition scientist Therese Waterhaus sought EPA support to develop a risk assessment tool tailored to Indian Country.

“It is a matter of environmental justice,” argues Harding who served on an EPA scientific advisory board from 2002 to 2007.

Harding recalls with clarity a crystallizing moment in her career. The year was 1992. The movement for environmental justice (insiders call it EJ) “was just getting up a head of steam,” she says. As a researcher in environmental health, she was invited to attend the nation’s first federally sponsored EJ summit in Washington, D.C. Leaders from tribes and other ethnic communities across the U.S. were there, too, at the invitation of the government. The summit opened with a panel of federal agency reps seated on a raised platform, talking about their accomplishments in EJ. One by one, community members rose from their seats and began lining up at microphones positioned around the auditorium. “They said, ‘We’re not going to just sit here and listen,’” Harding recounts. “‘We need to be the ones telling you what the issues are and what the research agenda needs to be.’”

The organizers quickly adjourned the session, revamped the agenda and reconvened the summit in a collaborative spirit. “It was probably the most interesting and groundbreaking meeting I’ve ever been to,” Harding says.

Returning to the land is an aspiration for many tribes, explain Harper and her colleagues, who have become national leaders in developing ecologically-based traditional lifeways scenarios for assessing risks to tribal members. “Even though tribal lands have been lost and resources degraded,” they write, “the objective of many tribes is to regain land, restore resources, and encourage more members to practice healthier (more traditional) lifestyles and eat healthier (more native and local whole) food.”

The desired goal, they say, “is to restore the ecology so that the original pattern of resource use is both possible (after resources are restored) and safe (after contamination is removed).”

Switching from eating salmon to, say, Bumblebee tuna or Big Macs may seem like a reasonable choice to non-native observers. But such choices are not simply alternatives on a menu. That’s because salmon is not, for the Columbia River tribes, merely a culinary option. It is a cultural imperative. Salmon is not just something to have for dinner. It is the nucleus around which revolve social networks, kinship patterns, seasonal customs, religious beliefs and educational practices. Orbiting around this hub are all the other activities that define the culture, such as weaving baskets or sweating in steam-filled lodges.

“You can’t just substitute something else for salmon,” says Harding. “Whatever you use as a substitute won’t have the same cultural and traditional uses or meanings.”