You are not logged in.
'Between 1990 and the present, Canada has spent about $2.5 billion on policing Akwesasne. A fraction of that money could instead have cleaned the river and sustained community health.'
F. HENRY LICKERS, Mohawk Council of Akwesasne
In seeking good health, be mindful of the lessons of the moose, experience of native people suggests
Jul 22, 2007 04:30 AM
Special to the Star
OTTAWA – When loss of habitat resulted in a decline in the moose population in the Opasquayak Cree Nation in Manitoba, hunters were unable to provide for their families. They went on welfare and began drinking. The women no longer had the work of preparing meat or hides. Sons no longer had pride in going out with the men. Rates of abuse, crime and diabetes went up.
The government poured money into diabetes prevention programs – toward monitoring symptoms and glucose in the blood. The rates of diabetes and of crime continued to rise.
"But as we watched the moose population go up after a moose management program was instituted in 1975, we saw the diabetes and abuse go down," said Henry Lickers, a Seneca Indian, Turtle Clan, and director of the Department of Environment for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. "There's now about 1,250 moose. Men are out on the land. Sons and daughters have duties. Even the worst hunter in the community can bring home a moose."
Biologists had measured the moose population. Health Canada had measured the diabetes. But no one had thought of the two as interlinking components of the community's health. When the Mohawk department of environment partnered with the University of Ottawa's Institute of Environment and several First Nation communities to take a new look at the problems, the result was a community health indicator study, launched in 2000.
"When we went to the elders, we were told that `we do not need non-natives to study us and tell us we're not healthy. We know that,' " said Lickers. "They asked, 'who among you studies life?' "
Western culture tells people what is wrong with them by measuring descriptors such as disease, suicide and death, but not causes. It brings no hope, Lickers said.
The Circle of Health Indicator on this page is divided vertically. The right half of the wheel represents the spiritual side. The left side represents the corporal/physical world.
The circle is then divided in half horizontally. The upper half represents the intellectual aspect of the community. The lower half represents the visceral aspects.
In the centre is "Health." The segments around the circle are divided into eight opposite life indexes that balance each other: Environment/Morale; Economics/Values; Religion/Spirituality; Politics/Responsibility.
For the Cree Nation, Economy represented the number of moose and Value represented the number of successful hunters. Today, all because the moose are present, the community today has its own school, water treatment plants and a hotel. Energy once spent on bureaucratic issues has shifted toward youth programs.
"When we asked communities what we could measure in their community to indicate health, not one ever said death or illness," said Lickers.
A Davis Inlet community said a well-lit recreational centre was a component for their health. Environment, the amount of bright sunlight, was balanced with Morale, the community gatherings of picnics.
IN THE MIAWPUKEK First Nation in Newfoundland, playing drums equalled spirituality and having drums equalled religion.
"So they counted the number of drums and found there were more than 100, but no one was playing them," said Lickers. "The link between spiritual and religion was broken."
The community began singing and invited others to join them. They were again working together and motivated.
"The indictor has to give hope," said Lickers. "It has to give something that the people can do."
Lickers and George Haas, a research associate at the Institute for Environmental Research, began working on the health indicator study because of the impact of pollution in Akwesasne.
Akwesasne spans the St. Lawrence River where Quebec, Ontario and New York State meet. In 1957 the St. Lawrence Seaway was completed. On its shores, the Reynolds Metals Company emitted thousands of pounds of fluoride that settled on the lands, crops, animals, water and people in surrounding communities. Tons of PCBs were dumped into the river.
In the 1970s, people of Cornwall Island began to study the effects. But in 1985, health studies done with Health Canada and others concluded there was no link between the pollution in the river and the community's declining health.
"But diabetes was found in 75 per cent of adults," said Lickers. "The people had stopped eating fish, a high-protein diet."
As the Mohawk department of environment studied the river, they watched the impact on the people. Because of the warnings about toxic fish, fishermen were laying down their nets and turning toward new income found in border smuggling.
By 1990 there were also five casinos, causing splits in the community as some supported the gaming and others fought against it. In the summer of 1990, an army was sent in to quell a violent outbreak.
The governments were doing the same thing over and over again expecting to get a different result, Lickers said. Haas and Lickers sat down and asked how could they break the insanity.
"In the past, a doctor was the single extender of health into a community," said Lickers. "Then public health came in and doctors worked with doctors. Then there was a need for a team surrounding a doctor, such as nurses and midwives. Why do you believe health is from one doctor? It takes sociologists, psychologists, environmentalists, all the fields working together with communities to have health."
A community knows what is important to it, said Haas.
"Native communities were being told that diet and exercise would fix everything," said Haas. "That's offensive. It fixed nothing."
Haas said that when they asked the community about its health, the people said that pollution, high population density and men working isolated outside of their communities were major stressors.
"We structured a research model that was designed by the community and found exactly what they said – the high pollution, population density and working outside the community were all factors where we found diabetes," said Haas. "The way they look at it is different from the western components of diabetes."
The way many aboriginal people look at the world is as circles within circles.
"In the smallest circle that we can look at as an example is a sub-cell," said Lickers. "Then at an individual. Then a family or group. Then community. Then nation. Then nation within a Confederacy. Then in the spiritual realm around us. So when we say diabetes, we see it as a whole. We don't just treat the individual. We treat the family too, as, for example, encouraging gardening. Family is in community, so we look at that too."
IN THE EVENTS that arose in Akwesasne after the river was polluted, the sub-cellular level was the fish. Then the individuals, the fishermen, took the consequences.
"Then the family lost that income and had to look for another income," said Lickers.
"Then community respect of trade between fishermen and farmers was lost and politics changed. Then the nation approaches the issue.
"The Confederacy is now impacted. Canada and United States call in the police, call in the army and spend billions of dollars since 1990."
The cause of the uprising and the diabetes at Akwesasne was not economics, he said.
The cause was PCBs in the river.
"Between 1990 and the present, Canada has spent about $2.5 billion on policing Akwesasne," said Lickers.
"A fraction of that money could instead have cleaned the river and sustained community health."