— When a snapping turtle from the St. Lawrence River was found to be so laden with PCBs that its fat could qualify as toxic waste, the Mohawk Indians regarded it as an especially significant omen.
In the mystical religion of the Mohawks, the turtle is symbolic of the very foundation of the natural world. Tribal elders pass on an ancient story of creation in which the Earth took shape on a turtle's back.
Now, the turtle has taken on a somber new symbolism for the Mohawk Nation of the Iroquois. Its tainted flesh is a sign of the defilement of nature, of the poisoning of the bountiful river from which the Mohawks have drawn sustenance and inspiration for centuries.
Let Nets Rot
"I used to have my nets in the river," said Tom Porter, a Bear Clan chief at the St. Regis Reservation, which the Mohawks call Akwesasne. "My family ate fish almost every day. Then they told us of mercury contamination, mirex and PCBs. I pulled my nets out and let them rot."
To traditional Mohawks like Porter, who are trying to maintain their cultural identity by living off the land according to age-old customs, the environmental ills are more than a health threat. They are seen as a threat to the very fabric of Mohawk society.
"Our traditions survive in doing things the Mohawk way," said Katsi Cook, a Mohawk midwife. "Our whole ceremonial life, our cosmological life, is based on nature. Without that river, we lose Akwesasne."
Akwesasne--"Land Where the Partridge Drums"--is a 25-square-mile reservation that spans the St. Lawrence River and the international border between northern New York and Canada. It is home to about 8,000 Mohawks.
To outsiders whizzing down the state highway that cuts across it, the reservation is a brushy flatland cluttered with garish tourist traps--bingo halls, truck stops, drive-through, tax-free cigarette stands.
Less obvious to the casual observer are the fishing villages along the river, the prolific vegetable gardens, the marshes teeming with ducks, the new cultural center displaying intricately woven sweet grass baskets and beadwork wrought by Mohawk artisans.
Just beyond the western boundary of the reservation, industrial complexes sprawl along the river.
Cheap hydroelectric power and access to international shipping on the St. Lawrence Seaway made the remote rural area near Akwesasne an attractive location for aluminum smelters, foundries, chemical factories and paper mills.
A General Motors foundry abuts the western edge of Indian land, with a Superfund-listed, PCB-filled dump perched at the very brink of the river. Wild animals caught nearby have been found to be loaded with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Mohawks fear that the game that supplements the diets of many families is no longer edible.
Cattle Wiped Out
A yellow-gray haze of metallic-smelling smoke laden with fluoride drifts over Cornwall Island, the agricultural center of the reservation, from a nearby aluminum smelter. Mohawk cattle herds were virtually wiped out more than a decade ago, the animals wasting away with brittle bones and rotting teeth. A Cornell University study confirmed fluoride poisoning.
Reynolds Metals Co. cut its fluoride emissions from 300 pounds per hour in 1959 to 75 pounds per hour by 1980. Reynolds and Alcoa in nearby Massena agreed to pay $650,000 in damages two years ago, to settle a $150-million lawsuit brought by the Mohawks. But the cattle herds have not recovered.
"When I was a teen-ager, my friends and I always talked of one day having farms on Cornwall Island," said Cook, 35, who delivers babies on the reservation but lives in Ithaca, about 220 miles southwest. "We left because of the pollution. It's hard to build a traditional life style on a pile of toxic waste."
Cook has become one of the leaders in the fight to clean up the pollution in the place where she was born.
"I never wanted to be an environmental activist," Cook said. "I just wanted to deliver babies." But she saw several infants with birth defects such as cleft palate, deafness and intestinal abnormalities, and wondered if the pollution was affecting human health.
In 1985, Cook turned to Ward Stone, a New York state wildlife pathologist whose work has been influential in spurring environmental cleanup. She asked him to investigate whether pollutants were moving through the food chain at Akwesasne.
Stone tested the flesh of a snapping turtle captured within 300 feet of the GM landfill. He found PCBs at a level of 835 parts per million (p.p.m.) in the turtle's fat. A level above 3 p.p.m. in poultry fat is deemed unfit for human consumption.
"In soil, 50 p.p.m. on a dry weight basis is considered hazardous waste," Stone said. "So you could say this animal would qualify as hazardous waste."