Tribes fear `cultural genocide' from Superfund site

Saturday, July 12th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WYANDOTTE, Okla. (AP) -- Paul Barton grew up in the ways of the Seneca-Cayuga, and so he took the snake in the berry patch as a bad sign.

"Snake," he warned, as soft and quick as the slither that parted the grass on tribal land along Grand Lake O'the Cherokees, where berries tempted in fat black clumps.

Others ate the berries, which Barton's people honor in dance. But he did not, and not because of the snake.

"Where is it safe to pick?" he asked, empty-handed in a thicket that scares him because it sits downstream of one of the most contaminated places in America. "This looks great, but the risk factor is high."

American Indians living in and near northeast Oklahoma's Tar Creek Superfund Site worry that traditional ways of collecting food, medicine and ceremonial items from the wild could harm them.

And yet stopping these cultural practices stirs a deeper fear -- the death of who they are.

"If (contamination) levels render tribal practices unsafe," says Earl Hatley, an environmental consultant to six of the eight tribes here, "then cultural genocide will occur and tribes will die."

In the 20 years since the federal government targeted this former lead and zinc mining region for priority cleanup, the tribes say their concerns have gone largely ignored.

Criticism of the government's efforts here is not new. About $100 million has been spent so far, but lead in the soil still threatens children, Tar Creek still flows orange with acid mine water, cave-ins go on and open mine shafts remain.

About 17 percent of the area's population is American Indian. But the Environmental Protection Agency's past assessments of health risks did not take into account how their lifestyles might expose them to contaminants.

Tribal people might be more inclined than the mainstream culture to use plants as medicine, the tribes say, or cook river fish whole.

"I wouldn't say someone is out to get the tribes, per se," said Tabitha Worley, the Quapaw Tribe's environmental director. "But by a lack of action, by no one taking notice, by no one working on fixing the problem, I think it leads to that."

The EPA says it will work closely with its "tribal partners" as it enters the next cleanup phase, which will address giant mounds of mining waste and mill ponds within Ottawa County.

"We will consult with the tribes to ensure our risk assessment is responsive and protective of public health and communities throughout the area," said Region 6 spokeswoman Cynthia Fanning.

But Hatley says that doesn't address lands owned by tribes such as the Wyandotte, Seneca-Cayuga and Eastern Shawnee downstream.

"And they're not going to be studying wildlife, plant life and aquatic life throughout the site, downstream and into Grand Lake," he says.

The Seneca-Cayuga gathering spot lies along Grand Lake about 17 miles south of the Superfund site's epicenter.

Barton points to blackberries and sassafras, poke and wild greens, honeysuckle and buck brush as food, medicine and basket-making supplies.

"Come April," he says, "it's not uncommon for everyone to make a comment about (picking) wild onions."

Barton lives his days in the "longhouse ways" of his tribe's pre-colonial Iroquois roots, something he explains as a combination of teachings, beliefs, languages and religion.

He thanks the Creator when he awakens each day. When he picks blackberries for the berry dance, he talks to them.

"It wouldn't be right," he explains, "to take something with out asking."

As assistant environmental director for the Seneca-Cayuga, Barton also spends part of his time telling tribal members where not to pick, including here.

Just beyond the willows, samples taken by the U.S. Geological Survey last year found lead, cadmium and zinc in lake sediments. The zinc levels exceeded sediment standards for aquatic life.

Barton fears the field could be tainted by these metals through routine flooding. Efforts to keep tribal members from gathering in such areas, however, are not always successful.

"People have that frame of mind, `It hasn't killed me yet,' " he says.

The tribes are doing their own research on contaminant absorption in native plants considered important to their tribal practices.

The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality is close to completing a study that could answer additional questions about the safety of eating fish from the Neosho and Spring rivers.

Some tribal members report open red sores on the fish they catch from the rivers.

"I asked the question in 1997, `Are the fish safe to eat?' I still haven't been able to answer that," Hatley says.

He believes some state and federal officials have been unwilling to consider the tribes' concerns in the past because of the implications for Grand Lake, a prime tourist and fishing destination.

The rivers which flow through the Tar Creek Superfund Site drain into the lake, but he believes commercial interests there would prefer to keep any potential environmental problems quiet.

"But it's kind of like the canary in the cage," Hatley says. "If it's impacting tribes and their practices, then the dominant society is next."

Barton, meanwhile, tries to teach his three children in traditional ways. He says he picks berries but tries to find thickets outside the Tar Creek Superfund Site's watershed.

"You couldn't have a berry dance," he says, "without your berries."

Sure, he could buy the blackberries and strawberries needed for the dance at the grocery store.

But how would he know, he asks, if anyone had talked to them first?