Darren Ranco talks environmental issues on Native American reservations

By Sarah Frazer || Staff Writer

This past Thursday, Darren Ranco, a Professor of Anthropology and the Coordinator of Native American Research at the University of Maine, came to speak to F&M for this week’s Common Hour. His presentation focused on the ways in which Native Americans deal with environmental issues, particularly in the context of working with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies. Ranco explained that indigenous tribes have special research methods that are in line with and respect their respective cultural beliefs.

Ranco began his talk by identifying the severe impact colonization has had on the health of Native American tribes as well as the land on which they live. Indigenous communities have specific scientific and cultural concerns regarding the environmental degradation that has occurred since colonization, and there are numerous statistics that highlight negative health effects indigenous communities have experienced.

It is true, as Ranco pointed out, that native people come from some of the poorest and sickest communities in the country. Moreover, Native Americans have the lowest life expectancy of all races.

Fortunately, Ranco said, there are things Indigenous people can and are doing to “reorient [themselves] after colonization,” which undoubtedly includes rejuvenating and restoring the environment. In terms of decolonization, “there’s definitely a process to reaching it,” according to Ranco, but it is difficult because of forced integration. Ranco stressed that it is more than simply reversing the effects of colonialism, as how the indigenous people respond to environmental deterioration now “marks how [they] want to do so culturally.” Indigenous peoples have largely responded by using their own methods. Ranco surmised that “you’d think people who have been researched as much as native people would have their lives be better.” Since this is not the case, native research methods are preferable, since “it is about helping them.”

Ranco spoke in particular about his Native tribe, the Penobscot Indian Nation, who live in Maine. He explained that they were a unique tribe in that they had not been forced to relocate, like many other remaining Native American tribes. Yet, the Penobscot still were not protected, as a paper company was discharging toxins into a nearby river, which hurt the health of the fish population. While the Native people felt the health effects of the pollution, the EPA was unaware because they had been tracking the community’s environmental impact based on a suburban lifestyle, where people typically ate food from the supermarket. This way of calculating risk assessment is problematic to say the least, Ranco said. This is because the environmental risk can be over 100 times greater, depending on how one lives in and interacts with the environment.

For instance, Ranco demonstrated, indigenous researchers knew that “most Native hunters use traditional means of hunting,” rather than new ones, so they studied the change in a hunter’s air inhalation rate, as he hunted, to measure the effects of air pollution. In this case, younger hunters’ breathing rates increased when they were about to shoot a deer; whereas, older, more experienced hunters became calm and their rates went down. This example shows just how complicated studying the environmental impacts on indigenous communities is, since the EPA study always defaults to the suburban model.

Ranco underscored that the goal was to protect everybody, not only the average, since those whose fish consumption is above average are those who probably are also Native language speakers. And protecting those people is essential to protecting the values of the indigenous population.

Luckily, Ranco reported, the indigenous researchers and EPA “really [found] a way to work together.” They established a “health and well being paradigm,” which allowed them to redefine health from a Native perspective, in a way that respected the values and beliefs of the Native tribe.

Ranco, and those with whom he worked, were able to leave a positive legacy, so that many tribes have been able to address these sorts of issues and talk about the health of their own communities. Ranco concluded that the values they used to work together and find solutions are “the kinds of values you get in kindergarten,” and that most everyone he worked with, scientists and policy makers, had an open mind and was not defensive. Ranco observed, partially reflecting on the current political climate of the country, that “maybe bringing together different perspectives can help us to heal.”

Sophomore Sarah Frazer is a staff writer. Her email is sfrazer@fandm.edu.

print

Leave a Reply