A Poison Stronger than Love

The Destruction of an Ojibwa Community

Anastasia Shkilnyk

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“I can’t explain it to you, because I can’t explain it to myself. The only thing I know is that alcohol is a stronger power than the love of children. It’s a poison, and we are a broken people. We suffer enough inside, and therefore we understand each other.”—Resident of Grassy Narrows

"A work of luminous compassion and rigorous analysis. . . . Should be required reading . . . for anyone interested in the bonds of community that make people human." —M.T.  Kelly, Toronto Globe and Mail

Grassy Narrows is a small Ojibwa village in northwestern Ontario, Canada. It first captured national attention in 1970, when mercury pollution was discovered in the adjacent English-Wabigoon River. In the course of the assessment of environmental damage, an even more compelling tragedy came to light. For in little more than a decade, the Indian people had begun to self-destruct.

This powerful book documents the human costs of massive and extraordinarily rapid change in a people’s way of life. When well-intentioned bureaucrats relocated the Grassy Narrows band to a new reserve in 1963, the results were the unraveling of the tribe’s social fabric and a sharp deterioration in their personal morale – dramatically reflected in Shkilnyk’s statistics on violent death, illness, and family breakdown. The book explores the origins and causes of the suffering in the community life and describes the devastating impacts of mercury contamination on the health and livelihood of the Indian people.

In essence, this is an in-depth and comprehensive study of the forces and pressures that can rend a community apart. As such it is of interest not only to those particularly concerned with the fate of aboriginal peoples on the continent but also to those more broadly concerned with human collective response to unprecedented stress. 

"Meticulously documented and sensitively told by Anastasia Shkilnyk, the story of the destruction of the community and personal life of the people of Grassy Narrows is all the more horrifying because no one intended harm.  The only note of hope is that its message may have the power to shake all of us in our common and global interests to be concerned that bureaucratic decisions are socially informed and technological expediency is weighed against long range consequences." —Nancy Oestreich Lurie (President, American Anthropological Association 1983-1985)

A "moving document. . . . Ethnography at its most poignant." —Booklist

"The account of human suffering and the sorry performance of bureaucrats and government ministers make the book almost mandatory reading for anyone engaged in social work in an Indian community." —Basil Johnston, The Citizen, Ottawa

"This compelling chronicle of the smash-up of one small Canadian Ojibwa (Chippewa) village is grim evidence of 'how we as humans may respond to conditions of unprecedented stress by destroying ourselves.' . . . All this horror Shkilnyk narrates straightforwardly, producing a cautionary study of the fragility of human communities that is original—though based in the theoretical work of Kai Erikson (who contributes an introduction)—thoroughgoing, carefully documented, and absolutely riveting." —Kirkus Reviews

"This is a horrifying tale of government insensitivity toward, and lack of understanding of, the culture and problems of not just one band but of Native Americans in general.  Recommended for academic libraries." —Library Journal

"A Poison Stronger Than Love is a work of luminous compassion and rigorous analysis. . . . (Shkilnyk) has produced a book that should be required reading not only for members of Indian affairs and Northern Development and those interested in aboriginal peoples, but for anyone interested in the bonds of community that make people human....  The charts, the graphs, the facts that Shkilnyk marshals in presenting the conditions at Grassy Narrows don't slow her book down, but aid the impression of a place so pathological that reading about what goes on there is more than harrowing; at times the truth can hardly be borne....  We have been offered a work of the deepest understanding, informed by love." —M.T.  Kelly, Toronto Globe and Mail

"[A] penetrating and sensitive analysis of the fate of Grassy Narrows."—Norman A Chance, Natural History

"In the seven chapters of Part II lies the book's heart:  Shkilnyk reconstructs the history of Grassy Narrows before relocation, analyses the traditional Ojibwa family and communal order, and takes a strong, hard look at the cultures in conflict.  .  .  .she examines almost every aspect of Grassy Narrows (Ojibwa) society, from diet to philosophy, taboos, and the resulting changes brought about by relocation."—Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Books in Canada

"This book provides a sensitive and detailed insight into the distinctive spiritual and temporal concepts of native people, which were reflected in the life on the old reserve."—Sandy Greer, Toronto Star

"Compassion, sorrow, anger, and futility—these are the emotions aroused in reading this detailed and well-documented analysis of the conditions that have brought the Northern Ontario reserve of Grassy Narrows to the brink of destruction.  Yet it is with a sense of relief that one can now learn the whole story without the confusion of sensational headlines and the indifference and evasive responses of the federal and provincial governments."—Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, Books in Canada

"Anyone moved by Kai Erikson's splendid book about the Buffalo Creek flood disaster will want to read A Poison Stronger than Love. This book is written in the same tradition as Erikson's work and appropriately, Erikson has written the foreword. Inevitably, the work of these authors will be compared; and in my estimation, Shkilnyk's book is an equal achievement. It is well written and moving....This book is a good read and I would recommend it highly to anyone with sociological interests."—C. Matthew Snipp, Contemporary Sociology

"The story of the Ojibwa of the Grassy Narrows Indian Reserve raises timely and difficult questions about tradition, meaning, and human rights....Shkilnyd's book offers chilling witness to the view that the survival of traditions is not only a human right, it is a human necessity."—Jay Mechling, Chronicles

"Shkilnyk's is a hard-hitting book, well  documented, and meticulously researched.  She knows her subjects as people, not as numbers, since she has lived beside them."—Brian Swann, The Amicus Journal

"[A] powerful, moving account about a small Ojibwa Village in northwestern Ontario Grassy Narrows."—J. Frideres, Canadian Public Policy

"Well written, well researched, and the arguments have been carefully thought out.  Whether or not people are familiar with the plight of Canada's Indians, they will benefit from this book.  To be sure, it deals with an extreme, but one that is well worth considering for the lessons it teaches about the Indian people, and the people they live among." —Paul Driben, Canadian Sociology and Anthropology

"A Poison Stronger Than Love will likely become a classic in the literature if dispossessed aboriginal peoples.... All will find this well-written book thought provoking." —Timothy G. Roufs, Applied Anthropology

"An impressive contribution to the growing documentation of the plight of the North American Indians under massive social change.... With objective clarity, deep insight, and warm feelings for the people, the author explains why the forcible resettlement of nomadic or seminomadic populations leads to cultural and social disintegration, as well as to moral weakening and psychological disturbance in the affected people. . . . An important document for the native peoples of this hemisphere, and for all who work with them.  It is of value to those who need to have first-hand information on the sequelae of rapid socio-cultural change." —L. Jilek-Aall, Transcultural Psychiatric Research Review

"This is an important book, a shocking book, a book that tears at our complacency. It is a book for our time; a time of toxic waste dumps, drug abuse, alcoholism and disintegrating communities." —Robert E. Bieder, American Indian Quarterly
ISBN: 9780300029970
Publication Date: March 11, 1985
276 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4