Pollution Doesn’t Care About Borders: A Conversation with Elizabeth Hoover

Headshot of Dr. Hoover and book cover

Dealing with environmental contamination from Superfund sites is difficult under even the best circumstances. But the Akwesasne Mohawk community in what is currently Canada and the United States has to deal with multiple jurisdictions over environmental clean-up. The community is downwind and downstream from three Superfund sites and has seen the effects of contamination in their gardens and and fish—and in their bodies.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoover, in her book The River Is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community, brings attention to ongoing efforts of the Akwesasne to reclaim bodily sovereignty and heath in the face of industrial colonialism. Dr. Hoover emphasizes the work of Tribal members to develop a community-based approach to health research.

I sat down with Dr. Hoover on February 16th during the Center for Culture, History, and the Environment’s 12th Annual Graduate Symposium at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she was the keynote speaker.

Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Sheamus Johnson: I understand that the food production and particularly gardening was a central concern in in your book The River Is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community. Can you tell us more about that project at the intersection of food and health?

Elizabeth Hoover: The book is about Akwesasne, an Indigenous community bisected by the Saint Lawrence River in upstate New York. The act of gardening is central to Mohawk culture and the community relies on fishing and farming, so the book looks at the effects of environmental contamination on food production. In the 1950s a hydroelectric dam was put in and brought an aluminum foundry plant called Reynolds to the area. In the 1970s a lot of the fluoride that was coming out of the smokestacks of the factory was blowing over Cornwall Island and ended up decimating the dairy cattle population from fluorosis. They put scrubbers on the smokestacks, but people were very discouraged about trying to rebuild farms after that.

Map of Akwesasne Territory

Map of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne. Photo by University of Albany School of Public Health.

Then in the 1980s, it was discovered that another adjacent factory, General Motors, had been leaching PCBs into the river. There were fish advisories that used fingerprinting analyses to show that PCBs had migrated from the General Motor site into the sediment, the fish, and even the breast milk of women in the community. The public health response was, “don’t eat the fish,” and people said, “well, what are we supposed to eat?” Fish are part of a broader cultural system, so when people stop fishing there’s a disruption in language transmission of the words around the names for the fish, the colors and the textures of fish, and the relationship that you’re building with your grandfather when you’re tying nets in the winter or that time with your grandma when you’re cooking the fish. All of that changes when you stop.

Woman sits on the ground husking corn

Elizabeth Hoover helps with a corn harvest. Photo by Dan Cornelius, 2016.

SJ: You’ve said that you got the mandate for the book project from someone you knew in the community, and you mention in the book’s introduction that you conducted your interviews as visits. Can you talk about the importance of visiting as a method and working closely with the community to carry out research like this?

EH: I wanted it to be a project that was meaningful and useful to the community and not just something that was theoretically interesting to me. So, the project was developed in an iterative process with members of the community like Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook. I found that when you make relationships with people working in their gardens, helping them pull weeds, helping them butcher chickens, you develop a different kind of rapport and they are more likely to agree to sit down and give you their time.

Making it a visit was important to set people at ease and show that I was invested in this community. And that doesn’t just stop when your project is done. It’s also about maintaining reciprocity afterwards.

SJ: Can you comment on how political and physical geography has an effect on environmental contamination and clean-up efforts?

EH: Part of what made the environmental cleanup of the Akwesasne site complicated is that there are three tribal governments involved, and the United States and New York governments, and Quebec and Ontario provinces. There were so many different entities with a sense of who had jurisdiction over the clean-up. But it’s important to recognize that pollution doesn’t care about boundaries. How do you determine the boundaries of a Superfund site when contamination moves and volatizes and travels with people and fish? Pollution is going to move where it’s going to move, but where it lands temporarily and whose jurisdiction it falls under impacts how it gets cleaned up.

Rowen and Zach Paige from the White Earth Land Recovery Project, teaching workshop participants at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit how to select seed corn. Photo by Elizabeth Hoover, April 2015.

SJ: This book highlights the ways in which the environmental contamination is linked to health but also food sovereignty. What is food sovereignty, and what are the different ways you see it getting employed in Indigenous communities across North America?

EH: I’ve heard people say over and over you that can’t say you’re sovereign if you can’t feed yourself, so it’s about who has jurisdiction over your food and how tribal governments can pass legislation to support local food producers. It’s not just about whether you have enough calories in your house; it’s  about whether people have access to the means of production and have culturally appropriate food available to them. If somebody controls your food system, they control you, so how do you wrest that control for the fate of your community away from multinational corporations? There’s also a big focus on education and how to involve young people so they will teach their own kids and improve health statistics in that way.

SJ: Can you tell us a little bit about what’s on the horizon for you and in relation to seeds and food sovereignty?

EH: The book that I’m working on right now is called From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds: Indigenizing the Local Food Movement. The first chapter talks about definitions of food sovereignty and the second chapter is on seeds and people’s ideas around seed sovereignty. I asked people how they define a heritage seed or an heirloom seed. People told me it was important to preserve these seeds because the crops are needed for ceremony, they’re needed for biodiversity, and they’re needed to connect people to their ancestors and to these landscapes.

Featured Image: Elizabeth Hoover. Photo by Adam Sings In the Timber. / The River Is in Us book cover.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Elizabeth Hoover is Manning Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown University, and teaches courses on environmental health and justice in Native communities, indigenous food movements, Native American museum curation, and community engaged research. Her book  The River is In Us: Fighting Toxics in a Mohawk Community, is an ethnographic exploration of Akwesasne Mohawks’ response to Superfund contamination and environmental health research. Her second book project From Garden Warriors to Good Seeds: Indigenizing the Local Food Movement explores Native American farming and gardening projects around the country. Website. Contact

Sheamus Johnson is a graduate student at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the Anthropology Department at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His current research is in collaboration with the 1854 Treaty Authority to inventory climate resilient stands of sugar maple in the 1854 Ceded Territory. His research interests are environmental anthropology, political ecology, and treaty rights. His last contribution to Edge Effects was “Indigenous Youth and the Changing Face of Settler Colonialism: A Conversation with Jaskiran Dhillon.Twitter. Contact.