Elizabeth Hoover

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Elizabeth Hoover

Assistant Professor of American Studies

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Native American communities and social science researchers encounter each other fairly often, but the exchanges have not always been productive. Elizabeth Hoover has found that the best results — both for community progress and useful research — come when communities are full partners in the project, helping to shape the questions and conduct the study.

Elizabeth Hoover arrived at Brown in 2001 as a graduate student from Williams College, where she had written an honors thesis titled The Self-Identification of Mixed-Blood Indians in the United States and Canada.

It was a research interest she came to naturally as the daughter of a Micmac and Mohawk family in upstate New York — “Originally from Quebec,” she said, “but everyone has moved down to New York now.”

“I started out at Brown with a master’s in museum studies because I had an interest in living history museums,” she said. “When I completed that master’s, I thought, ‘Well, that was interesting,’ but it didn’t seem urgent.”

The answer to that missing sense of urgency also arrived naturally, in conversations with community leaders, family friends, health workers, and environmental scientists in Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory along the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York and parts of southern Ontario and Quebec.

All was not well in Akwesasne. “This is a community that had relied almost exclusively on farming, gardening, and fishing for food — well into the 1950s. Now they were downstream from three Superfund sites, with air pollution from an aluminum plant,” Hoover said. “I was visiting with some friends in Akwesasne and speaking with a woman named Gina Jacobs. She was telling me that EPA people told her not to plant a garden in her yard because of all the particulate matter. She talked about the psychological impact of that. Working in big gardens was her connection to her parents, to her relatives — a big part of growing up.”

Akwesasne turned out to be a well-studied community, with a variety of environmental assessments by state, federal, and other researchers — but with a difference. Members of the Mohawk community did more than take an interest in the results. They instigated some of the studies, participated in study design and data gathering, and insisted on being partners rather than research subjects. (The rallying cry, “We’re not going to be guinea pigs!” became part of the title for a paper Hoover presented in May 2011.)

Native communities, Hoover found, were well-acquainted with issues of environmental justice, victims of policies that sited polluting plants and mining operations in rural areas where “no one would complain.” Navajo communities had been poisoned by uranium mines long after the mines were abandoned. “I met some people from St. Lawrence Island, Alaska. They have PCB issues, but they also have an atmospheric deposition problem,” she said. “Here they are, a million miles from industry, but air currents carry pollutants and drop them right on their traditional food sources out in the middle of the Arctic.”

Her work expanded, incorporating anthropology and museum studies but also public health, environmental science, and local food movements. Her Brown Ph.D. dissertation (in anthropology, 2010) covered Local Food Production and Community Illness Narratives: Responses to Environmental Contamination in the Mohawk Community of Akwesasne.

“[Environmental science] was a big part of my research,” she said, “not just talking with community members. Community-based participatory research is different from just going in and extracting the data. I needed to get the scientists’ perspective on that kind of study.”

Those perspectives — scientists who want to gather high-quality data efficiently, anthropologists who want to document and understand the larger cultural context, public health researchers who evaluate the impact on a community — make for lively discussions in Hoover’s classroom. “I purposely targeted a wide audience — science students, humanities students, social science students,” she said. “Ethnic studies people might say, ‘We should let the people decide how to run the study.’ They need the push-back from scientists about not drawing the process out. It’s important for students to hear opposing perspectives, because when you get on with a big study, you will have to work with all kinds of people.”

Regardless of perspectives, her classes preserve an anthropological flavor with regular artifacts arriving from the collections of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology, which she has served as a proctor, board member, and faculty liaison.

Last year, Hoover and colleagues put together a symposium to synthesize multiple, even contradictory perspectives. Participants included a Native American midwife, an environmental lawyer, representatives from native communities, and several environmental scientists.

Conferences on environmental justice are no longer unusual. But a symposium on environmental reproductive justice — should data on breast milk be part of an environmental assessment? — is a rarity. Still, the organizers did manage to write a report.

“It’s kind of like the beginning of a bad joke,” Hoover said. “So an anthropologist, a midwife, three scientists, and a lawyer walk into an article …”

Lawsuits and counter suits — a familiar landscape in environmental justice — complicated the conflict of interest disclosures, but the article has been accepted for publication by Environmental Health Perspectives. Revisions are one of Hoover’s summer tasks along with turning her dissertation into a book.

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