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Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental and Energy Policy (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Social Sciences

Advisor 1

Carol MacLennan

Committee Member 1

Bradley Baltensperger

Committee Member 2

Nancy Langston

Committee Member 3

Emma Norman

Committee Member 4

Adam Wellstead


Increased risks due to toxic exposure contribute to numerous health burdens in particular places and lives. In the Great Lakes region, harvesting and consuming fish provide tribes with socio-cultural and spiritual health, and simultaneously, place their physical health at great risk. Using institutional ethnography to explore Lake Superior’s toxic riskscape, this dissertation investigates perceptions of “health” and the ways “health protection” is applied in the daily work of tribal, state, and federal environmental and public health agencies. By drawing on environmental justice frameworks and the “Seven Generations” philosophy, the aim is to explore linkages between health concepts and toxic risk management. In doing so, I ask how particular views of health influence environmental injustice. Constructed from my research data in the agencies I studied, I describe two different health frameworks and the ways each are applied. For tribal agencies, I define health as “life in balance,” a relationship between social, physical, and mental well-being which includes cultural and spiritual dimensions. These meanings are rooted in the fundamental worldview of how Ojibwa tribal communities perceive health and well-being. Therefore, institutional policies support tribes in actively engaging in healing experiences to disembody harm for themselves. For state and federal agencies, the health framework is rooted in legislated mandates, and centers on biophysical health in ambiguous ways. Legally acceptable health terms can be described in terms of environmental health, determined by risk science, and protected as potential pathways and exposures. Restricted to the terms of risk science, state and federal agencies interpret health protection as the management of risks. As a consequence, implementing health policy is removed from the physical, tangible experiences of living with contamination. Crucial to this case, I discern fundamental disconnections between ways of seeing “health” and environmental justice implications for Seven Generations. I emphasize the legal institutional system of health protection as, in actuality, a system that victimizes and re-victimizes sensitive populations. Harm is an inherent feature of health protection policy. Overall, in problematizing health, I draw attention to a health framework paradigm that results in serious ethical implications for the science-policy relationship, and especially, our human relationship with the natural world.