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Native American Environmental Health Movements at Culture Lab

by on November 21, 2012

This week’s post is from Liz Hoover, Assistant Professor of American Studies at Brown. Her class recently visited Culture Lab to see Yu’pik materials including clubs, knives, bags, and clothing, as pictured below.


Native American Environmental Health Movements Students at Culture Lab

American Indian reservations are currently home to over 600 Superfund sites, and countless other sources of environmental contamination. Many of these communities are concerned about how contamination from these sites will affect their health, and about how conventional risk assessments done at these sites do not often take Native culture and subsistence into account. In the past, scientists had sometimes descended on the community, collected physical data and personal information, and left without concerns of tailoring their studies to community needs, or reporting results back to the community. Today, many Native communities are taking charge of the research process, and partnering with scientists through a “community based participatory research” (CBPR) approach, which takes a more democratic and ecological approach to the study of environmental health. Native American Environmental Health Movements (ETHN1980J) examines how environmental contamination has impacted the health and culture of different Native communities across North America. We look at three case studies to understand how these communities organized around environmental health issues, how they pushed for results, how they worked with and/or fought against science. Within each case we learn about the culture and history of the community, the more recent histories of environmental contamination, and how the community has organized and sought to draw attention to their environmental health issues. After examining the PCB contamination of the St. Lawrence River that bisects the Akwesasne Mohawk community and the uranium mines that affected miners, their families, and community members who consume contaminated water on the Navajo reservation, the class is now looking at the PCB contamination of food sources for Yu’pik villagers on St. Lawrence Island in Alaska.

We have used Culture Lab as a place to explore the material culture produced by each tribe. Because this class draws an interdisciplinary range of students, ranging from Environmental Studies, Public Health, Ethnic Studies, and Biology majors, for some students this is their first experience in working with museum objects while as college students. These mini-field trips have been a hit! Students find that viewing and handling objects made by people connected to the tribal communities that we are studying makes the interruption of those cultures by environmental contamination all the more real: it is one thing to read about how PCB contamination is impacting Yu’pik resource usage, it is another to witness an entire table filled with a myriad of creative household and hunting items crafted from animal skins, bones, teeth and sinew.

Students Examine a Yu’pik Beaded Mukluk

Recently, the Haffenreffer hosted Akwesasne Mohawk artist Natasha Smoke Santiago. Through her contemporary pieces, students have been able to visually engage with both the Mohawk creation story as well as contemporary health issues through Natasha’s brilliant new piece featuring Sky Woman constructed from insulin bottles. In this way, through the Haffenreffer’s older collections and newer exhibits, students have been better able to grasp what Native people have at stake when they pursue environmental research.

~ Liz Hoover, Assistant Professor of American Studies

For more information about Professor Hoover’s teaching and research, see

Learn more about Natasha Smoke Santiago’s work at

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