Biocultural Dimensions of Environment and Health

Bumsted, M. Pamela, Karen S. Young, and Leon H. Tafoya 1994 Biocultural Dimensions of Health and Environment. In John S. Andrews, Howard Frumkin, Barry L. Johnson, Myron A. Mehlman, Charles Xintaras, and Jeanne A. Bucsela, eds. Hazardous Waste and Public Health: International Congress on the Health Effects of Hazardous Waste. pp. 245-252. Princeton: Princeton Scientific Publishing Co. Inc.

Pueblo American Indians regard the environment holistically, not program-by-program, department-by-department, or listed- hazard-by-listed-hazard.

Figure 1.jpg
Figure 1. Holistic perspective of the environment (change with time).

Existing health and environment studies that construe science narrowly and have biomedical or regulatory bias are not capable of evaluating the totality of environmental challenges that confront the Pueblo people.

We need a new way of monitoring environmental change and health effects that realistically encompasses human modes of adaptation-biology and culture. We need to develop a system of health evaluation based on population, time, and alternative data sets (e.g., nonhuman biotic markers, oral histories). As scientists, we need to recognize that if equal involvement of the other experts, the community itself, is absent in all project phases, community health studies will, at best, be scientifically inadequate.


The Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, Inc. (ENIPC) is a nonprofit consortium of eight independent tribes The Board of Governors of ENIPC consists of governors of the Pueblos of Nambé, Pojoaque, Picurís, San Ildefonso San Juan, Santa Clara, Taos, and Tesuque. ENIPC members share many traditions and a similar lifestyle but have individual histories. Two languages are spoken-Tewa (Nambé Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, San Juan, Santa Clara, and Tesuque) and Tiwa (Picurís and Taos). The enrolled population of tribal members registered as Pueblos varies from 132 to 2,466, in a total service population of about 12,000.

The eight Pueblo tribes involved in ENIPC are located from Tesuque (just north of Santa Fé in north-central New Mexico) to Taos, some 70 miles away, and from the volcanic Jemez Mountains and Pajarito Plateau, across the 30+ mile-wide Rio Grande rift valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Figure 2.jpg

Figure 2

Altogether, approximately 400 square miles of land lie within the borders containing ENIPC members. Included within these borders are “checkerboard” areas of non-tribal lands, including the entire, predominantly Hispano, municipality of Española.

Taos Pueblo has the oldest continuously inhabited building in North America, and it has just recently been listed as a World Heritage Site (one of very few in the United States). But expanding tourism and economic development, with their associated solid waste, water, and wastewater needs, are urgent problems. Pojoaque Pueblo has successfully commercialized its limited land base, but this means the Pueblo must prepare for emergency responses to incidents at paint stores, propane storage tanks, or gasoline and chemical trucks on highways that cut through the Pueblo.

San Ildefonso, home of the world-famous potter, the late Maria Martinez, lies at the base of the Pajarito Plateau. Bandelier National Monument on the Plateau was home to the ancestral Pueblo people for centuries. The Pajarito is also home to Los Alamos National Laboratory (immediately adjacent to and upstream of San Ildefonso) run by the University of California for 50 years as part of the United States nuclear weapons complex.

Santa Fé and the area adjacent to the Pueblo of Tesuque is the trendy home of Oprah Winfrey, Cher, Ted Danson, and Don Meredith. Tesuque itself is a traditional Pueblo and home to a project to develop traditional agriculture within a 21st-century market. San Juan Pueblo hosted the first European capital in what is now the United States, nearly a decade before Jamestown and 22 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. But in this area of increasing municipal and rural growth by descendants of Hispano and Pueblo residents of 400 years ago and increasing numbers of relatively late Anglo residents, safe sewage-wastewater disposal and good water quality are concerns of the San Juan and Santa Clara Pueblos. Illegal dumping by non-tribal people is flagrant and dangerous. The Pueblos of Picurís and Nambé have sacred watersheds and pristine streams in this high desert region, which may be harmed if ex-pansion takes place in an insensitive manner at adjacent world-class ski areas.

The Pueblos have a shared concept that ties them to the earth and water. They believe all are one, bound together to bring the riches of the earth to the people of their Pueblos.

To the traditional Pueblo Indian, life is interrelated, balanced and interdependent. Man is a partner with nature; the two bear a reciprocal relationship. Man performs rites and ceremonies and nature responds with the essentials of life, withholding the bad. Ceremonies must be performed joyfully and faithfully; nature will respond in kind. Man alone can disrupt universal equilibrium by thought, word, ordered. The consequences of imbalance are illness, disasters, drought–any misfortune. Rites and ceremonies properly performed keep the seasons moving, allow the sun to rise and set properly, bring rain and snow, quell the winds, and insure a well-ordered physical environment and society. (Dozier 1970:151)

Pueblo people consider the environment holistically; physical, biologic, and cultural environments interact continuously. But most federal programs consider the environment program-by-program or agency-by-agency (air, water, soil, disease). How can we realistically evaluate Pueblo environment and health?

A biocultural approach to health and the environment considers the adaptation of people within their environment. This holistic study of human change is necessarily cultural, social, biologic, historical, and ecologic. This contrasts with the usual biomedical or regulatory approach that focuses on treating individuals (or individual sites) that suffer from a single, simple proximate cause of illness. A biocultural model of human adaptation to environmental insult is more flexible; enables examination, understanding, and prediction of the disease and health processes; and can consequently enable effective action by individuals, groups, communities, and populations toward the ultimate cause of illness.

The model takes into account the actors and their choices and the constraints operating on both. Armelagos et al (1992) outline the following features:

  • Conditions affecting host (susceptibility to insult) are as important as the nature, degree, and timing of insults;
  • Insults are biologic, but nonbiologic insults are also important to consider in the disease process. (e.g., pathogens, toxins, physical forces, chemical pollutants);
  • Technology, social system, and ideology are important components of the disease process;
  • Social impact and social response to disease are involved;
  • Ideological or religious systems affect susceptibility and adaptation (coping). Row society defines disease becomes important.
  • Coping and adaptive behavior operates at macro and micro levels; health and disease are a continuum; political and economic factors are a consideration.

The cultural system is not only an important potential environmental insult but also a means of adapting to environmental change.

The cultural system buffers the population from insults that originate in the environment. However, cultural systems also may be the source of insults to the individual and segments of the population. The role of technology in the disease process has received the most intense interest from the medical ecologists. The production of insults such as water and air pollution, psychosocial stress, and even job-related trauma are frequently the result of technological processes. Transformation in technology can potentially produce new insults. (Armelagos et al. 1992:37)

A further important aspect of the model that ENIPC and the Northern Pueblos Institute (NPI) emphasize is variability in the disease process as a result of human biologic and cultural variability, and variability in insult(s).

Thus, multiple stressors and populations (or households in a community) must be considered, over time. This biocultural approach affords a unique opportunity to examine the evolution of environmental change and human adaptability. The goal of the biocultural perspective is to characterize the nature of environmental change and its meaning for people. We can then offer people a means and a strategy for directed change that fits with the Pueblo ideal of community (people) and emphasizes using the expertise of the community (i.e., community involvement and culturally appropriate technology transfer).

The implications for change are twofold 1) change emanates from collective action, and 2) when carrying out health programs, existing coping strategies need to be accounted for so as not to remove the power, control, and predictability that already rest within the populations affected. (Armelagos et al, 1992:43)

General Example: Adoption of Maize Agriculture
Adoption of horticulture implies a change in the human environment. The physical environment must be modified for successful cultivation. The cultural environment, whatever its of state of flux, is subsequently altered by the new regimes of seasonal activity, social organization and aggregation of labor, increased sedentism, and often a wider social interaction network with other peoples. (see Huss-Ashmore et al. 1989)
Maize Agriculture Effects

    o Changes soil chemistry
    o Clears fields (often with fire)
    o Attracts deer to open edges
    o Changes soil moisture
    o Changes surrounding plant community
    o Makes erosion, soil depletion possible
    o Organized labor (stone mulch gardens, clearing fields, planting, harvesting, irrigating)
    o Expanded kinship and political system (more relatives to call for help, more places to call if harvest is poor)
    o Seasonal calendar important
    o Year-round settlements possible, increased settlement density and settlement aggregation may increase social tension,
    o Retaining historical knowledge important because climate varies from year to year
    Biology, especially nutrition and disease
    o Reliable food source, increased food means longer life span (elders live longer and know more, but what does community do with them?)
    o More people
    o Political and economic unions affect resource distribution (positive or negative)
    o Cereals bind up iron (therefore ane-mia is problem if meat or other iron sources are scarce)
    o Unbalanced diet decreases immune response, increased settlement density spreads infectious diseases
    o Effect on growth and development may be positive or negative
    o Corn is carbohydrate (sugar), therefore more tooth cavities possible
    o Multiple stressors operate (e.g., soil depletion, caries, monotonous diet, reduced immune response, more social strife, infectious diseases.)

Contemporary Example:
University of California-Los Alamos National Laboratory (UC-LANL)

UC-LANL monitors its physical environment, but the Laboratory restricts where to look, when to look, who is to look, and what to look for.

    o Within Laboratory boundaries only
    o Specific hazardous materials and specific radionuclides only
    o No pre-LANL conditions
    o Time span of interest is 5-10 years of regulatory concern

Human pathway monitoring is limited to a few radionuclides in selected food items, circumscribed by Laboratory boundaries, and without an overall research design, not even to assess the scientific meaningfulness of the analyses. Pre-Laboratory (pre-1943) conditions have not been assessed to recognize and begin to understand subsequent changes. We know the fate of Pu or 3H in some pathways. We don’t know what other pathways or what other systemic changes have significance to Pueblo health.

Other state and federal agencies also do limited, particularistic study.

    Environmental Effects
    o U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
    o New Mexico Environment Department (NMED)
    o Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)
    Health Effects
    o Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR): Health Consultation (completed 1992); Health Assessment (in progress)
    o New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) with the University of New Mexico Tumor Registry(NMTR): Cancer Rate Study of Los Alamos County (preliminary study completed, 1993)
    o National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): five studies of employee mortality (in progress)
    o Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Dose reconstruction (proposed, not yet confirmed)

But, problems exist with these approaches as viewed from a Pueblo (biocultural) perspective. Each agency limits what to look for, when to look, who is examined, and who is to look. These limits are put into operation and are imposed, even though not consciously, by—

    o Biomedical or ‘Western” model of health;
    o Clinical expressions of disease levels;
    o Specific causes of disease-etiologies (i.e., lead, radiation above background, listed hazardous materials) rather than multiple, interacting stressors;
    o Individual characteristics (require cooperative, living patients or decent medical records) not community or ecosystem (but why not examine plants or animals in addition, as surrogates for people? oral records of environmental change, health, disease?);
    o Limited span of interest– only 1 or 2 generations

Community of Concern
The community of concern is not just employees or those living in Los Alamos County. American Indian employees are only 1% of full-time UC-LANL employees. But they have a home community outside LANL boundaries that is also affected by LANL activities.

Multiple stressors operate on contemporary Pueblo populations. Examples of stressors operating on this community include

    o Earthbound
    o People tied to Pueblos culturally, spiritually, historically; familiar surroundings
    o People tied to Pueblos legally (Spanish grants or reservations). Cannot move away from environmental degradation and still retain identity.

    Another common and interesting phenomenon of the Tewa, but perhaps more widely distributed among the Pueblos, is the association of the ecological environment with the socioceremonial organization. Thus, each Tewa village has concentric ecological zones emanating outwards from the center of the pueblo to the peripheries of the Tewa world. Each zone has four shrines located in approximately the cardinal directions, but in prominent physical locations, mounds, hills, cliffs, and the like. First is a zone encircling the pueblo, second, a zone extending to the edge of the cultivated fields, third, a zone including the uncultivated plains and foothills, and finally a fourth zone of the encircling mountains. In the last zone are the directional mountains or peaks bounding the Tewa world, each containing a spring and a shrine. (Dozier 1970:208).

    o Altitude: from 6,000 to 8,500 feet above sea level
    o Natural radiation: geology as well as altitude
    o Resource-limited
    o Enclaved: surrounded by culturally different communities; bias in employment, development, and education
    o History: population size and variability (biologic and cultural) greatly reduced with Spanish conquest and later American occupation.

Therefore, conducting holistic environmental and health studies is essential to understanding the true picture of effects. We need comprehensive identification and assessment of human pathways, relevant to Pueblo communities. American Indian communities are in continuous, not intermittent contact with their environment is it safe to live here? As one tribal leader explained, unlike other communities, Pueblo communities cannot move away from environmental degradation.

Pueblo culture today is basically in the same form it has been since the first European settlers appeared in the early 1500s. The Pueblos have shared a concept that ties them to the earth and water, believing that they are one: bound together to bring the riches of the earth to the peoples of their Pueblos. This concept has (given the Indian people foresight to understand the uses and capabilities of what could be produced and created for generations to come. Although yearly the uses of water may have changed, the ideology remained the same, binding water and earth with the people who use them for the community’s survival.

In modernizing, the Pueblo people have always looked at alternative uses or actions so that water and land are neither abused nor taken for granted. Pueblo belief stresses that life is given back to the Indian people– through the use of waters, earth, and sowing the land– to be used and reused. Pueblo communities have a responsibility to use the environment wisely in return for nature’s bounty.

However, the coming of manufacturing processes, industry, and government weapons laboratories has caused or added to major impacts on Pueblo lifestyle. The land changed through resulting chemical and physical imbalances, changing the ways animals, birds, fish, and other wildlife used to survive in decades past. Even plants have responded with new composition and growth patterns. Some responses are good, others are not. These changes have caused a new increased awareness and therefore a renewed effort to bring the land, water, and community back into balance. Pueblo people have created new ideas, learned new technologies, and understood others’ thinking in an effort to promote a kinder environment. The new techno-political-economic structure also opens up a new avenue for Indian people to voice their concerns and to argue for better controls and systems to keep the lands and waters safe for human consumption and agricultural uses.

As scientists, we must recognize that community health studies at best are scientifically inadequate without equal involvement in all project phases of those other experts–the community itself. Community-based applied and basic research will incorporate and build on an empirical knowledge of the environment inherent in the Pueblo way of life. We are looking to develop new, appropriate standards of health, risk, and nutritional Status for northern Pueblos. Existing environmental, growth and development, and health standards are based on studies primarily of Anglo populations at low altitude. These studies used by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, EPA, or the state are inappropriate to assess short- and long-term physiologic and health effects on Native American men, women, and children, especially Pueblo tribes who live above 5000 feet elevation, as minority, enclaved communities. Most studies consider effects over one or two generations, not the centuries of Pueblo concern.

We must work together. Only if all the community is involved can we produce better science. Pueblo people should be involved on an everyday basis — environment, health, education — for the sake of the next generations.

Armelagos, GJ, Leatherman T, Ryan M, Sibley L. (1992). Biocultural synthesis in medical anthropology. Medical Anthropology 14:35-52.

Dozier EP. 1970. (1983). The Pueblo Indians of North America. Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press.

Huss-Ashmore R, ed. with Curry JJ, Hitchcock RK. (1989). Coping with seasonal constraints. University of Pennsylvania: MASCA.

Sando JS. (1992). Pueblo Nations: Eight centuries of Pueblo Indian history. Santa Fé: Clear Light Publishers.


Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, Inc. 1994. Eight Northern Indian Pueblos 1994 official visitors guide. San Juan Pueblo: ENIPC, Inc.

Ford RI. (1987). The New Pueblo Economy. In: Herman Agoyo and Linwood Brown, eds., When cultures meet: Remembering San Gabriel del Yunge Oweenge. pp. 73-91. Santa Fé: Sunstone Press.

Suzuki D, Knudtson P. (1992). Wisdom of the elders: Honoring sacred native visions of nature. New York: Bantam Books.

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5 responses to “Biocultural Dimensions of Environment and Health

  1. Commentary to volume, biocultural dimensions

    Representing The Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, Inc., Pamela Bumsted presents a paper on the biocultural dimensions of health and environment in northern New Mexico. This paper covers the Eight Northern Indian Pueble tribes and their historial and cultural approaches to dealing with environmental health. Bumsted calls for cooperation of Pueblos and modern civilization cultures [sic] to promote better lifestyles.
    ATSDR – Hazardous Waste Conference 1993-Role of Communities-Commentary in
    ATSDR – Hazardous Waste Conference 1993: “Hazardous Waste and Public Health: International Congress on the Health Effects of Hazardous Waste, May 3-6, 1993, Atlanta, Georgia.”

    [“Pueblos and modern civilization cultures” are one and the same, of course, but not everyone is up to speed yet]

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