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Mohawks gather to symbolically heal the Grasse River

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MASSENA — Two dozen members of the St. Regis Mohawk community held a tobacco-burning and healing ceremony Friday to draw attention to pollution and symbolically heal the Grasse River.

The tribal members’ ritual followed public hearings this week on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Grasse River remediation project.

Louise McDonald, speaking during the ceremony, touched on the Mohawks’ spiritual and environmental beliefs, which she felt were absent from the previous night’s public hearing.

“The water is a woman. All of us were born in a vessel of water,” Ms. McDonald said. “Water is so valuable, like our women, like our mothers, like our grandmothers. It’s precious.”

“We belong to the river; the river doesn’t belong to us,” she added.

Manufacturing waste from the Alcoa plant from the 1950s to the mid-1970s resulted in riverbed sediment tainted with polychlorinated biphenyls and other harmful pollutants. The proposed $243 million cleanup plan proposed by the EPA, for which Alcoa is liable, has been the subject of the hearings, with many residents urging a prompt fix at a cost that doesn’t drive Alcoa away.

The proposed plan recommends dredging approximately 109,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in areas close to the shore. In the river’s center, approximately 225 acres of sediment would be capped with clean sand and gravel to isolate the contamination. Another 59 acres would receive an additional “armored cap” of large rocks to further isolate contamination.

Despite the economic argument, tribal officials expressed that they want to see all toxic contaminants removed from the river — to provide a healthy environment for the next generation — no matter what the cost or time-frame.

Ms. McDonald noted the significant impact that the ban on consuming local fish due to high levels of PCBs has had on the tribe.

The ceremony was held at 10 a.m. near the Park Avenue bridge, on riverfront property that is owned by Alcoa. The St. Regis Mohawks dispute that ownership, however, maintaining that the property was promised to them in a 1796 treaty.

The ceremony, attended by residents of Massena and the reservation, began with a ceremonial burning of tobacco and sweet grass, both once considered Mohawk herbal medicines.

Tobacco-burning is seen as a way of giving thanks, promoting unity and remembering one’s ancestors, said Charles J. Kader, clerk of the Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse.

“We were trying to add positive energy to the river and to the environment,” Mr. Kader said. “There was good unity at the ceremony. There needs to be more people who are conduits between our communities.”

After the symbolic burning, the ashes of the sweet grass and tobacco were placed in a bowl that was filled with water from an Alcoa storm-drain. The bowl was passed around so that those in attendance could place their hands in the water. The water and herb mixture was then poured into the river, in a ritual to heal the river.

“Your hand is your spirit, your contribution to the river,” said Barbara Tarbell, who helped organize the ceremony.

Following the offering, those who gathered held hands and swayed to the current of the river, while several Men’s Council members sang native songs. A few in attendance wore traditional clothes and headdresses.

Ms. Tarbell said the ceremony was a response to the EPA’s proposed remediation plan, which many in the community feel does not go far enough to remove contaminants from the Grasse River.

“This was necessary as our way to help the river,” she said. “We’ve been fighting the EPA on the remediation project, but this is our way, our tradition.”

Mr. Kader expects many more tobacco-burning and healing ceremonies to be held in the near future, in response to the EPA’s proposed Grasse River Remediation Project.

All of those feelings on pollution in the Grasse River “were galvanized at the public hearing,” Mr. Kader said. “It served as a wake-up call that this is a time for action.”

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