Indigenous Food Knowledges Network shows connections between the Southwest and the Artic

Lios Enchniva, my name is Lydia, Huichol on my Mother’s side, Pascua Yaqui Tribe on my Father’s side, and currently a PhD Candidate in Environmental Sciences at the University of Arizona. I study lands impacted by mining, which in our region of the Sonoran Desert is copper mining, and how we can repair these to be healthy soil systems. I have been part of the Indigenous Food Knowledges Network (IFKN) since the inaugural meeting in 2018, as healthy soils are essential to healthy food systems. In June 2019, I had the distinct pleasure of joining IFKN in Alaska, and learning about our Northern relative’s food and land systems.  Before heading to Alaska, I had heard so much about the coal & oil extraction issues in the state. The community we visited, Chickaloon Village, has a history with mining and is currently assessing coal mining impacts to their village and traditional livelihood. 

Through my visit, conversations with tribal members and learning about the important work of Indigenous community driven research projects, like Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT), I learned about how our decisions here in the lower 48 states greatly impact the food and health of communities up in Alaska, especially those who rely on subsistence food systems. One of ACAT’s studies demonstrated that Indigenous communities in Alaska are 4.5-9x more likely to have high levels of pesticides & polychlorinated biphenyl’s (also known as PCBs, which were used in solvents, fuels and plastics), and that it takes approximately 7 days for pesticides sprayed in the lower 48 to reach up to Alaska. These PCB’s and pesticides are at such high levels that they can be cancer causing, and Indigenous Alaskan populations have some of the highest levels of these contaminants globally. Part of the reason PCB’s and pesticides are so high is because of how they concentrate at the Artic pole via air transport, known as the Grasshopper Effect. Another reason is that these contaminates bio-accumulate in animals’ tissues, and lastly, the reliance of Indigenous communities on subsistence hunting practices. Even though there’s increasing awareness by Indigenous communities of the contaminate bioaccumulation, the challenge of food accessibility and ties to traditional livelihoods make eating these foods worth the risk.

These findings really resonated with me personally. My own family has a history of working in agricultural fields and experiencing the impacts of pesticides, and many Yaqui farm traditionally or have worked in the US agricultural industry. In my undergraduate education, I worked with the Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas, learning how to reduce pesticide exposure to farm working families, and how exposure at high levels can have severe developmental and lifelong impacts on these families. Impacts include lower IQ in children, increased risk of attention problems, and shorter pregnancy durations for the mothers. Learning that communities in the Artic have more elevated levels than those who work in the agricultural fields really struck a chord with me.  Especially because these communities are not directly involved in the agricultural industry, but continue to carry the burden of our decisions in the lower 48 states.

What does that mean to us in the lower 48 and what can we do about it? I think first, we must remember that the decisions we make in the Sonoran Desert (or wherever else we are in the world)  impact families in the Arctic, in ways we are just beginning to understand. When we spray pesticides down here, we are not only impacting our local environments, but we are also impacting our friends in the Arctic a week later. Ironically, Arctic residents have to spend significantly more money to purchase foods grown through the agricultural system than those of use who live in the lower 48. Similarly, when Arctic communities lose land base to extractive industries or permafrost melt, it has intense ripple implications for us down here. As the “Gaia theory” of ecology points out (and as many Indigenous Nations have long known), we are complex synergistic systems that impact and regulate one another’s biomes. You change one, you change others, whether you know it or not. 

I share these reflections because so often to us in the lower 48, Alaska is out of sight, out of mind. But our decisions in the lower 48 are having major impacts on relatives fighting tooth and nail to hold on to the beautiful homelands they have always known and to traditional ways of living. Cultural learning experiences like the IFKN allow us to learn from one another’s challenges, see our similarities, and figure out how we can collectively work together to find solutions. I thank the Chickaloon Village and those who gave us the opportunity to learn from them during this visit, as well as the many powerful conversations I had with others in the IFKN network.  Together, through these types of learning experiences, we can identify our community’s challenges, and develop culturally appropriate solutions.