A century after the first commercial dam was built on the St. Regis River, blocking the spawning runs of salmon and sturgeon, the stream once central to the traditional culture of New York's Mohawk Tribe is flowing freely once again. As the AP reports, the removal of the 11-foot-high Hogansburg Dam this fall is the latest in the tribe's decades-long struggle to restore territory defiled by industrial pollution, beginning in the 1980s with PCBs and heavy metals from nearby General Motors, Alcoa, and Reynolds Metal plants, a cleanup under federal oversight that's nearly complete. The St. Regis River project is the first removal of an operating hydroelectric dam in New York and the nation's first decommissioning of a federally licensed dam by a Native American tribe, federal officials say. Paired with the success of North Dakota's Standing Rock Sioux in rerouting a pipeline, the dam's removal underscores longstanding concern over the health of tribal lands.
"We look at this not only as reclaiming the resources and our land, but also taking back this scar on our landscape that's a constant reminder of those days of exploitation," said Tony David, water resources manager for the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation. The site will become a focal point in the Mohawks' cultural restoration program, funded by a $19 million settlement in 2013 with GM, Alcoa, and Reynolds for pollution of tribal fishing and hunting grounds along the St. Lawrence River. The program partners young apprentices with tribal elders to preserve the Mohawk language and pass on traditions such as hunting, fishing, trapping, basket-making, horticulture, and medicine. "We're transforming it from a dangerous no-go zone to someplace that's inviting and beautiful," said Eric Sunday, an apprentice. The dam removal re-established the river's connection with the St. Lawrence River and opened nearly 275 miles of stream habitat to migratory fish. The project is part of a larger movement that has dismantled almost 250 dams across the country since 2012. (Read more Native Americans stories.)