There’s a trend among some Native Americans. They’re trying to return to more traditional diets. Many believe various health problems among Indian populations are due, in part, to adopting a diet much heavier in sugars, starches, and fats than their ancestors’ diet. But they’re concerned that pollution has tainted many of the traditional foods, such as fish. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports in the second of a two-part series on communicating the risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups:
There’s a trend among some Native Americans. They’re trying to return to more traditional diets.
Many believe various health problems among Indian populations are due, in part, to adopting a
diet much heavier in sugars, starches, and fats than their ancestors’ diets. But they’re concerned
that pollution has tainted many of the traditional foods, such as fish. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Lester Graham reports in the second of a two-part series on communicating the
risks of eating contaminated fish to ethnic groups:
A high rate of Native Americans suffer from diabetes and obesity. It’s commonly believed that
the European diet of processed grains, processed sugar, and fatty foods has contributed to the
health problems. So, some tribal members are looking at a traditional diet of fish and game and
the kinds of agriculture practiced by their forbearers. The idea is that traditional foods might be
more healthy for Native Americans.
But it’s become clear that some of those foods, particularly fish, are contaminated by pollutants.
PCBs and methyl mercury have been found in certain fish. Studies show those chemicals can
cause permanent health problems. Tribes have issued advisories, but some tribal leaders are
reluctant to discourage people from eating fish, even if it’s contaminated.
John Pursell works for the Minnesota Chippewa tribe. The tribe has issued advisories about
mercury in fish. But, Pursell says there’s a balance that has to be considered.
“We have to be careful that we aren’t advising people, tribal members, if we say ‘Don’t eat fish
of a certain size or from certain lakes,’ that we’re relatively certain that what they’re going to
replace that protein source with is not going to be more detrimental to their health. And that’s the
Pursell says, for example, his tribe is very concerned about dioxins. The tribe believes that
dioxins are responsible for a higher rate of cancer and other problems. And dioxins might be
present in the foods people in the tribe would eat instead of fish.
“But, we also know from the draft documents that the federal government has issued on dioxins,
that dioxins exist in fairly large quantities in such fatty foods as hamburger and cheeses. And of
course, these are foods that are found routinely in reservation commodity outlets.”
So, if it’s a matter of trading one kind of contamination for another, the logic goes, might as well
eat the healthier food, fish.
But the different tribes have different concerns and no one likes the idea of consuming
contaminated foods of any kind. So, there’s a lot of confusion about the best route to take to
dealing with the health problems among Native Americans.
Kory Groetchs is an environmental biologist with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife
Commission. He says as interest in traditional foods builds, his agency is being asked for
“They have questions about industrial pollution and their impacts on traditional foods and, you
know, the balance between risks of consuming that food and the benefits of consuming it.”
Groetsch says the Commission is looking for funding to study ways to reduce the risk of
consuming contaminants. For example, one study tried to determine what size and where to catch
walleye with lower levels of mercury. He says more studies like that need to be conducted so
Native Americans can avoid the contaminants that might be present in traditional foods.
“And then definitely point out the situations where there is not concern so people can clear their
minds of these, if they have concerns, and they seem to, about industrial pollution such as methyl
mercury in fish, clear their mind of that and go back to a more traditional diet and eat in a more
natural, traditional way.”
Even those who are responsible for bringing the advisories on contaminants in fish to the
members of the tribe are hesitant. Maria Mabee is with the Seneca Nation in New York. She’s
an environmental activist and concerned about the effects of contaminants on health. At the same
time, she says there’s a limit to what she’ll recommend.
“You know, I can’t tell people to stop using fish for ceremonies. I just can’t do it. I won’t do it.
(laughs) I just, you know, I tell them about the risks, you know. I tell them what I know and I tell
them to make the best decisions for themselves.”
The tribes stress that the health benefits of fish should not be ignored. For many tribes, fish is a
staple. The question to answer they say is, if you don’t eat fish because of the risk of
contamination from pollution, will the food you eat instead be any more safe?
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.