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Mohawks gather to symbolically heal the Grasse River

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MASSENA - Following a public hearing Thursday night in Akwesasne on the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Grasse River Remediation Project, some two dozen members of the Akwesasne community held a tobacco-burning and healing ceremony as a “wake-up call” to area pollution and to symbolically heal the Grasse River.

Louise McDonald, who spoke during much of the healing ceremony, touched on spiritual and environmental beliefs of the Mohawks, which she felt were absent from the previous night’s public hearing.

“The water is a woman. All of us were born in a vessel of water,” Ms. McDonald said. “Water is so valuable, like our women, like our mothers, like our grandmothers. It’s precious.”

“We belong to the river, the river doesn’t belong to us,” she added.

EPA officials have noted Alcoa released wastes from its aluminum production and fabrication facilities, including polychlorinated biphenyls and other industrial pollutants, from the 1950s until the mid-1970s onto the facility’s property and into the Grasse River.

Those actions have resulted in contaminated sediments in the waters near the Alcoa West plant and approximately seven miles downstream. Alcoa is liable for the costs of the cleanup.

The proposed plan recommends dredging approximately 109,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in areas close to the shore. In the river’s center, approximately 225 acres of sediment would be capped with clean sand and gravel to isolate the contamination. Another 59 acres would receive an additional “armored cap” of large rocks to further isolate that area’s contamination.

Akwesasne residents and officials said at the public hearing they want to see all toxic contaminants removed from the river - to provide a healthy environment for the next generation - no matter what the cost or time-frame.

Ms. McDonald noted the significant impact that the ban on consuming local fish - due to high levels of carcinogenic PCBs - has had on the Akwesasne community.

“When that river got taken away from us, the men got involved in other things, and those other things were not good,” she said.

The ceremony was held at 10 a.m. Friday near the Park Avenue bridge, on riverfront property that is owned by Alcoa.

Charles J. Kader, clerk of the men’s council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse, noted the property was originally promised to the St. Regis Mohawks in a 1796 treaty, and the ownership of the poperty is currently under dispute.

The ceremony, attended by residents of Akwesasne and Massena, began with a ceremonial burning of tobacco and sweet grass, both once considered Mohawk herbal medecines. Tobacco burning is seen as a way of giving thanks, promoting unity and remembering one’s ancestors, Mr. Kader said.

“We were trying to add positive energy to the river and to the environment,” Mr. Kader said. “There was good unity at the ceremony. There needs to be more people who are conduits between our communities.”

After the symbolic burning, the ashes of the sweet grass and tobacco were placed in a bowl that was filled with water from an Alcoa storm-drain. The bowl was passed around so that each person in attendance could place their hands in the water. The water and herb mixture was then poured into the river, in a symbolic ritual to heal the river.

“Your hand is your spirit, your contribution to the river,” according to Barbara Tarbell, who helped organize the ceremony.

Following the offering of sweet grass and tobacco, those who gathered held hands and swayed to the current of the river, while several men’s council members sang native songs. A few in attendance wore traditional clothing and head-dresses.

Ms. Tarbell said the ceremony was a response to the EPA’s proposed remediation plan, which many in the community feel does not go far enough to remove contaminants from the Grasse River.

“This was necessary as our way to help the river,” she said. “We’ve been fighting the EPA on the remediation project, but this is our way, our tradition.”

Mr. Kader expects many more tobacco burning and healing ceremonies to be held in the near future, in response to the EPA’s proposed Grasse River Remediation Project.

“All of those feelings (on pollution in the Grasse River) were galvanized at the public hearing,” Mr. Kader said. “It served as a wake-up call that this is a time for action.”

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