Local Food Production and Community Illness Narratives: Responses to Environmental Contamination and Health Studies in the Mohawk Community of Akwesasne

Elizabeth Hoover
Dept. of Anthropology, Brown University
July, 2010
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The Mohawk community of Akwesasne relied on fishing and farming for its livelihood until the discovery of environmental contamination from neighboring industries. The community and a university embarked on a decade-long community based participatory research project (CBPR) to determine if the health of the community had been impacted by contamination exposure. Through a study of the project's final reports, and interviews with the scientists, community fieldworkers, and study participants, I evaluate the benefits and challenges of CBPR for effective research in Native American communities. I draw on study participants' suggestions for more effective and culturally appropriate report-back methods to develop a framework that incorporates individual and political bodies, but targets social bodies like extended families as the primary audience. I also argue that knowledge gained from these CPBR experiences can be applied to other health interventions. Akwesasne has seen a rise in diabetes, an illness the dominant biomedical paradigm ties to maladaptive genes and individual lifestyle choices. Some Akwesasronon however see these choices constrained by the limits that environmental contamination has placed on their food supply. Others argue that Akwesasronon need to take responsibility for their own choices, but agree they need the support of their families and the community, as well as more structural support offered through clinic programs. Future successful health interventions will need to incorporate environmental testing and outreach, in conjunction with social support programs to help families as a unit work on diet and exercise. Recognizing that a dramatically altered diet is at the root of many health problems, some Akwesasronon have begun promoting a return to the food growing practices at the heart of Haudenosaunee ceremonial culture. Organizations like Kanenhi:io Ionkwaienthon:hakie (We Are Planting Good Seeds) are working to provide Mohawks with the means to grown their own food. In describing some of the successes of, and challenges faced by this organization, I also incorporate community members' suggestions for how individual motivation, social support and structural contributions to projects like these can work to ultimately assist the community in becoming healthier and more food sovereign.