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Sun., Oct. 4
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Mohawks offer input on environmental, cultural restoration proposal


AKWESASNE - Residents who attended a public information session on a multi-agency proposal to restore damage caused by decades of industrial pollutants praised the proposed plan as a much-needed step toward repairing both the local environment and Mohawk culture as well.

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration project proposal comes on the heels of a $19.4 million settlement New York state and the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe reached last month with Alcoa and Reynolds for damages to natural resources, fishing, and Mohawk culture resulting from the release of industrial pollutants into the St. Lawrence River environment since at least the late 1950s. Combined with $1.8 million in restoration funds from a 2011 General Motors bankruptcy settlement, the two settlements will provide some $20.3 million toward environmental and cultural restoration.

The natural resource trustees - the St.Regis Mohawk Tribe, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation - solicited restoration project ideas and developed a restoration plan to address injured natural and cultural resources and address lost human uses of natural resources, such as recreational fishing.

Barbara Tarbell, natural resource damage assessment program manager for the tribe, pointed out that unlike any other natural damage resource settlement, this settlement includes funds toward the restoration of Mohawk culture, which many say was significantly damaged by the release of industrial pollutants. Of the settlement funds, approximately $8.4 million will go toward programs that support Mohawk cultural practices, $8.3 million will go toward environmental restoration and nearly $2 million will be spent by Alcoa and Reynolds to develop and upgrade boat launches to improve fishing and boat access to the Grasse and Racquette rivers.

Cultural restoration programs will include four to five apprenticeships for young adults to teach practices such as hunting, fishing, trapping, basket-making, horticulture, medicinal plants and agriculture. These practices will be taught both in and outside the classroom, and all teaching programs will be “infused” with Mohawk language lessons in an effort to preserve the native language, Ms. Tarbell said.

The apprenticeship programs will sport a two-to-one ratio of apprentices to masters. To be considered, an applicant must demonstrated commitment to learning the practices, such as having prior experience in a nature- or Mohawk customs-themed program, according to Ms. Tarbell.

Fallon Davis feels too many in the community have forgotten many significant cultural practices, such as harvesting their own food or waking up before sunrise for a ceremonial tobacco burning. Ms. Davis and several other Mohawk women have recently organized a group to restore and preserve aspects of Mohawk culture that have waned since the 1980s, when the New York State Department of Health issued an advisory not to eat fish caught from the Grasse River - something which had a significant impact on the health and culture of the Mohawk people.

“We can’t lose any more of our culture. We have to know how to make our medicines, how to grow our own food, how to can our own food. That’s what we are doing, but there are too few of us,” Ms. Davis said.

Cory Tarbell, a volunteer firefighter for the Hogansburg Akwesasne Fire Department, said he felt the apprenticeship programs were a crucial step toward reversing a negative trend among the health and choices of many young Mohawk people.

“Our youth need something here and this is perfect - what they’re trying to do. Our youth are in a serious struggle. You see lots of trouble with our kids and drugs,” Mr. Tarbell said.

He also welcomed efforts to expand teaching the Mohawk language, admitting he himself did not speak the language because “it was lost in (his) time.”

Environmental cleanup efforts will include the acquisition of thousands of acres of land and waterways to restore habitats for birds, fish, mammals, plants and sediment-dwelling organisms. The proposed plan also calls for the removal of 10 dams along the St. Lawrence, St. Regis, Racquette and Grasse rivers.

Ken Jock, director of the SRMT Environmental Division, said the removal of these dams would clear passages for certain species of fish to swim upstream to lay their eggs, which would allow the fish to breed in a more natural and less contaminated waterways. “It (would) basically) turn the river to a more natural state, and provide a cleaner habitat for the fish,” Mr. Jock said.

Mr. Jock said the tribe was still conducting studies to determine how the removal of the dams might affect the DOH’s fish consumption advisory.

As part of the settlement, Alcoa will also spent approximately $2 million to construct and upgrade five local fishing access ramps.

These include a ramp for small boat access in the town of Louisville on the north shore of the Grasse River, a small-boat ramp in the town of Madrid on the south shore of the Grasse, a ramp in Springs Park on the north shore of the Racquette River in the village of Massena, another ramp on the north shore of the Racquette, east of the village in the town of Massena, and a ramp, floating dock and fishing deck in the town of Massena near the Route 131 bridge on the north shore of the Grasse.

Ms. Tarbell pointed out none of the boat launches are located within Akwesasne as it was “not deemed a priority” during the process of preparing a restoration proposal. Mr. Jock said many Akwesasne residents own their own docks or launches to access area waterways.

Ms. Tarbell said if any residents would like to see ammendments to the restoration proposal, they should submit a comment before the close of the public comment period May 4.

There will be another public information session tonight from 6 to 8 p.m. tonight at Dar’s Place in Massena.

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