The Mother’s Milk Project of St. Regis

Reproductive justice is an issue which questions the control a woman has over her body, as all women have been exposed to various toxic chemicals which jeopardize her chance to conceive, as well as the well-being of her unborn child. “The Mother’s Milk Project”, chapter seven from the book Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice, looks at how the condition of the natural environment has devastated the relationship Native American culture has to the natural process of reproduction. As the chapter states, “[a] woman’s body is seen as the first environment and is not separable form the external environment. […] Degrading the health of mothers and their children is organically connected to the degradation of Native lands” (123).  The St. Regis Mohawk Reservation has a community of about 8,000 Mohawk people who have protested against the General Motors corporation who “stripped the land, operated manufacturing plants that used polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dumped thousands of pounds of PCBs into the St. Lawrence, and poured toxic substances from their unfiltered smoke stacks” (124).

The Native women of the area had concerns about their own reproductive rights, as many faced sterilization abuse (127). There has been an ongoing devaluation of Native approaches to community based health care, and the citizens “saw that the lack of knowledge about their bodies led to a lack of control over their reproductive health” (127). The local women suspected that General Motors had been dumping various chemicals into the environment, which were absorbed into their bodies as fat and high amounts were secreted through breast milk (132). The breast milk of mother’s who had eaten fish from the St. Laurence River had a 200% greater concentration of PCBs than the breast milk of mothers who did not (132). This data has created a national community between Native American mothers, as statistics of PCBs in the food chain have been shared between the Inuit tribes of Northern Canada and Alaska, as well as Quebec (134). These findings have lead to altering many Native women’s lives, now fearing the food they consume from their present environments. For many Native American people, “fish are a symbol of fertility and were traditionally fed to young women who wished to conceived healthy children. […] [M]others had to give up eating fish in order to protect their children and to continue breastfeeding.  The absence of this excellent, low-cost protein has affected the ability of families to feed themselves. This, for Native American women, the right to a non-toxic environment is also a basic reproductive right” (135).

The issue of toxins in Native American mother’s breast milk spans beyond the realm of environmental health, and into environmental justice. Where is the line we can draw between what is natural and what is social. It is clear the women from these Native communities include their own bodies in the natural world and experience an intense relationship to their surrounding environment. This relationship is destroyed when their physical body is damaged.

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