National Geographic Society Newsroom

Ecological Restoration of an Indigenous Community on the US-Canadian Border

Environmental justice concerns in Native communities across the Americas have been a source of continuing social conflict. Addressing the injustices of the past and rebuilding trust between companies, governments and communities remains a challenge. In this guest article, Kim McRae, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vermont with twenty years of community advocacy experience...

Environmental justice concerns in Native communities across the Americas have been a source of continuing social conflict. Addressing the injustices of the past and rebuilding trust between companies, governments and communities remains a challenge. In this guest article, Kim McRae, a doctoral candidate at the University of Vermont with twenty years of community advocacy experience shares insights from research on the ecological restoration of past industrial pollution at an indigenous community on the US-Canadian border.

Guest article by Kim McRae

The Museum of the American Indian occupies a choice location near the Capitol Building in Washington DC: A restorative educational effort, where lingering legacies of environmental injustice are often showcased. Photograph by Saleem H. Ali

Prior to the American Revolution, the tribal confederation we refer to now as the Iroquois had considerable political power in the Northeastern part of the present-day United States and Southeastern Canada. The St. Regis Mohawk tribe inhabited what they called Akwesasne, or the ‘place where the partridge drums’ within this region, but are now confined to a reservation covers 16,640 acres of land in upper New York State and 7,384 acres in Canada.

I recently conducted a social justice research project at Akwesasne which comprised three case studies of Native American environmental organizations, located in the Mohawk Nation: the Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment (ATFE), the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe Environment Division (SRMT), and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA). The ATFE is a community-based grassroots nonprofit organization, the SRMT is funded by the St. Regis Mohawk tribe’s General Fund and the United States Government’s Environmental Protection Agency, and the MCA receives funding from the Canadian government. The main purpose of the research was to understand how St. Regis Mohawk tribe members organized to address the social and environmental disruption caused by environmental toxins and chemical pollutants, due to emissions from a nearby hazardous waste facility.

The Indigenous Context

The St. Regis Mohawk tribe officially “settled” along the banks of the St. Lawrence River in 1754. It is the only Native American tribe that straddles the northern border between the United States and Canada. For this reason, it is located in a unique geographical area. While most St. Regis Mohawk tribe members live in the northernmost part of upstate New York at Hogansburg, others live on Cornwall Island in Ontario, and in an area called the Snye, along the border of the Province of Quebec. This distinction poses significant challenges when negotiating in the public policy domain, particularly with regard to addressing complex environmental issues in a transnational setting. The St. Regis Mohawks are one of five Iroquoian nations that settled in the area of upstate New York, and approximately 10,000 people live on the reservation, otherwise known as the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne territory. The Iroquoian nations, called the Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse, consist of the Oneidas, Onandagas, Cayugas, and Senecas.

In the 1950s, a complex network of locks and dams were built on the St. Lawrence River, which runs through the Mohawk Nation. The development, called the St. Lawrence Seaway, was built to facilitate economic development, enhance international shipping, and improve access to the Great Lakes. Since that time, the St. Lawrence River has been polluted by several industrial facilities that located in the area during the same timeframe. As a result of industrialization in the area, the byproducts of the manufacturing process polluted the St. Lawrence River with environmental toxins such as Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), fluoride, mercury, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

During the same timeframe, General Motors (GM) built a die casting plant adjacent to the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne territory. In addition, several other industrial plants were built in the area in the early 1950s: ALCOA (formerly Reynolds Metals) and Domtar (a pulp and paper mill located on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River). Toxic emissions from the GM plant created sludge and chemical lagoons in and around this manufacturing plant. As a result of these chemical hazards, particularly PCBs, Akwesasne community members have been exposed to significant levels of environmental toxins. PCBs are also “persistent organic pollutants“, and these environmental hazards have been directly linked to toxic emissions from the General Motors facility.

The Industrial Legacy

Numerous studies, conducted by the State University of New York at Albany (Schell, Hubicki, et al., 2003), (DeCaprio, Johnson, et al., 2004), (Schell, Denham, et al., 2008), (Newman, Aucompaugh, et al., 2006), (Schell, Gallo, Ravenscroft, et al., 2008), examined the impact of PCBs on human health and the environment at Akwesasne. In one study, blood samples were obtained from 753 adult Akwesasne Mohawks between 18 and 95 years of age. Serum blood samples identified the “source and route” of PCB exposure in the Akwesasne adult population (DeCaprio, et. al, 2005, p. 1). Researchers discovered that PCBs were prevalent in all of the subjects that participated in this longitudinal study.   A statistical correlation with age was noted since older subjects had a greater concentration of PCB accumulation in their serum blood samples (DeCaprio, et al, 2005). Significant levels of PCBs were also detected in the breast milk of St. Regis Mohawk mothers, and in the water, soil, plants and wildlife in the area.

Several litigation efforts followed but these were informed and motivated through a strong tradition of civic engagement. The civic participation and direct action strategies that indigenous organizations used to protect the environment are closely aligned with the community activism associated with other important national social movements such as the Anti-Toxics, and Environmental Justice Movements. This intersectionality between social movements and organizational development is intriguing, mainly because it demonstrates the power that ordinary citizens have when they unite together for a common cause such as social justice or human rights.  Throughout the history of social movements, hundreds of grassroots organizations have been established. Many of the leaders at the forefront of these groups have unique leadership styles and often make decisions using nontraditional or alternative methods. The Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment is the only environmental organization that has 501C3 nonprofit status on the reservation. It has become increasingly clear that the strategies that St. Regis Mohawk tribe members have developed to restore ecosystems and remediate toxic hazardous waste are similar to those direction actions undertaken in a number of other communities of color during the EJM.

Towards Understanding Efficacy of Native Environmental Advocacy

The organization that appears to have been the most effective at developing strategies based on community activism, to restore ecosystems and remediate toxic hazardous waste on the reservation, was the Akewesasne Task Force on the Environment.  Volunteering in local 501C3 organizations was also a fundamental strategy used in the larger national EJM movement.  The ATFE incorporates the philosophy of the Haundenosaunee people, in all of their direct action efforts.  This is significantly different from traditional U.S. nonprofits, and an important reason why the Native American perspective is similar in many respects, but also different when it comes to incorporating cultural values as part of their organizational culture and structure.

Akwesasne community members often refer to their Mohawk Thanksgiving Prayer as a source of inspiration.  The Thanksgiving Prayer is oral history passed on  from one generation to the next.  It highlights the tribe’s commitment to environmental responsibility.  The Prayer lists many of the natural resources in the area, followed by an explanation of how tribe members need to work together to protect the ecosystem, even if that means paying attention to the smallest insect. There was also a discovery period, when tribe members were first exposed to the environmental toxins, and they had to do learn more about chemical pollutants and toxic hazardous waste.  They also relied on community activism, protests, and direct action activities to advance their cause.  They were also interested in ensuring they had a voice in the political process, and used networking and resource mobilization to accomplish this goal.  This is closely aligned with community activism that occurred throughout the United States during the development of the EJM. Citizen power is rooted in a philosophy of inclusivity and groups like the St. Regis Mohawks, that have been historically marginalized and excluded from the economic and political process, exemplify how such struggles continue to be manifest.


DeCaprio, A.P., Johnson, G.W., Tarbell, A.M., Carpenter, D.O., Chiarenzelli, J.R., et al., (2005). Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) exposure assessment by multivariate statistical analysis of serum congener profiles in an adult Native American population.  Environmental Research. 98(3), 284-302.

Newman, J., Aucompaugh, A., Schell, L., Denham, M., DeCaprio, A., Gallo, M. Ravenscroft, J., et al. & Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment. (2006). PCBs and cognitive functioning of Mohawk adolescents. Educational Psychology and Methodology, Monograph for course EDU 236, University at Albany, SUNY, 1400, Washington Ave., Albany, NY.

Schell, L., Hubicki, L, DeCaprio, A, Gallo, M., Ravenscroft, J, Tarbell, et al. & Akwesasne Task Force on the Environment. (2003). Organochlorines, lead, and mercury in Akwesasne Mohawk Youth. Environmental Health Perspectives. 111(7), 954-961.

Schell, L, Gallo, M., Denham, M., Ravenscroft, J., Deception, A., & Carpenter, D. (2008). Relationship of thyroid hormone levels to levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, Lead, p, p’-DDE, and other toxicants in Akwesasne Mohawk Youth. Environmental Health Perspectives. 116(6), 806-813.


About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of our world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.