On “All Our Relations”

One book that I had hoped to read for a recent research project–but didn’t because I ran out of time–was Winona LaDuke’s All Our Relations. Luckily, I did have time to do some reading in this text before returning it to the library, and I was stunned at reading of the Mothers’ Milk Project.

LaDuke’s first chapter chronicles the struggles of the Mohawk Indians who live in the northeastern U.S. near a large General Motors plant. The plant dumped toxic chemicals in “SuperFund” sites, and those chemicals found their way into the water supply. LaDuke follows Mohawk activist Katsi Cook, who tries to involve women in activism.

“The fact is that women are the first environment,” according to Cook. “We accumulate toxic chemicals like PCBs, DDT, Mirex, HCBs, etc., dumped into the waters by various industries. They are stored in our body fat and are excreted primarily through breast milk” (18). In fact, a study found a 200 percent greater concentration of PCBs in mothers who ate fish from the St. Lawrence River.

Now, I don’t want to come off as the stereotypical tree-hugging academic liberal. (And, truth be told, I don’t actually have a lot in common with that stereotype.) I have family that has worked for GM, and while the company has been less than generous (or even fair?) to its employees in recent years, it did provide millions of solid jobs for millions of people who would not otherwise have been nearly so well paid over several decades. I do not want to vilify GM. However, it does appear that the company has been less than ethical and responsible in many of its actions pertaining to the environment. Perhaps the more informative question is one of motive. Did GM shirk its responsibilities because of ignorance, costs, or just because it could get away with it?

In 1996, Chief Scientist to the World Wildlife Fund Theo Colburn gave an address at the State of the World Forum in which he said: “Every one of you sitting here today is carrying at least 500 measurable chemicals in your body that were never in anyone’s body before the 1920s” (21). Colburn said 2,500 new chemicals are developed every year. How is anyone supposed to keep up with that much new information, let alone figure out how each of those chemicals might affect the human body?

Can we hold a company like GM responsible for being up to date on all chemicals they use? (That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m not sure of the answer.)

The one surety? Things are always changing, and this presents a challenge for native populations and cultures. But other cultures can make a difference by doing as little harm as possible.

In LaDuke’s final chapter, she discusses the U.S. takeover of Hawai’i, and some bits are stunning in their demonstration of the ignorance of dominant cultures in the area: “The final eviction threat was fulfilled February 14, 1997, when the [National Park Service], hell-bent on its park of historic Hawaiian culture, evicted the Hawaiians” (168). Brilliant, eh?

But there is hope.

I was particularly struck by LaDuke’s account of the island of Kaho’o’lawe, which the U.S. took martial control of the day after the Pearl Harbor bombing. Since that time, it was used as a test site for weaponry … until 1990, when then-President George Bush ended practice bombing there and returned the island to Hawaiians.

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