Due to the chemicals, the New York Department of Health recommends limiting consumption to a meal a month for most fish, and recommends not eating carp, channel catfish and large lake or brown trout caught in the St. Lawrence River. It also recommends that women over 50 and children under 15 years old do not eat any fish from the river.
Carpenter, who has worked with the Mohawk Nation since the 1980s, said PCB levels in the Mohawk have gone down because they are eating less local fish. But they are still higher than the national average – by almost three times.
“The contamination has been a threat to both their health and culture,” Carpenter said. “When you look at whether or not to fish, people are forced to make a choice – the health of you and your family or preserving your culture. Some still fish, but, not surprisingly, many choose health.”
Cook said fewer children are learning a skill that has defined the Mohawk.
“When I was a girl, our refrigerator was a box of fish in the river,” Cook said. “We had names for fish … like tsikonsis for northern pike, meaning long-nose. Only the elders know that now.
“How you can experience what a tsikonsis is unless u tangled with it at the end of a line … took it to shore, prepared it, cooked it … ate it and shared it with your family? The river, free of these chemicals, is where real learning, understanding and identity take place.”
Plain, of the Anishinaabe in Ontario, said his grandfather would take him hunting for their dinner. And his grandmother and mother would take his sisters out to gather medicine and berries.
“We learn not by being told, but by watching, doing,” he said.
Plain said it was more than just passing down knowledge – it was a way to bond.
“It was a learning experience, but it was also history. My grandfather would point out things like where my father got his first kill,” Plain said. “We’ve lost the stories of our families, connections to our land, food, medicines … everything we know.”
“Food is our culture”
Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island Yupik community, about 800 people, is about 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle – miles away from industry. But chemicals have hitched rides on winds and waters that have carried them there, as the cold climate acts like a sink for pollutants.
The pollutants have shown up in the fat of marine animals that are an important part of their diet.
“Our food is literally our culture,” said Vi Waghiyi, environmental health and justice program director at the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, and member of the Yupik people on St. Lawrence Island.
A 2011 study found that the rendered oils of bowhead whale, seals and walrus contained PCB concentrations of 193 to 421 parts per billion. The U.S. EPA consumption limit for PCBs in fish to avoid excess risk of cancer is 1.5 parts per billion.
The people of St. Lawrence Island have levels of PCBs in their blood about four times higher than the average U.S. population, according to a 2011 study by Carpenter. But there has been no comprehensive study of their health.
Unlike tribes in more urbanized areas, the Yupik are so remote that fishing and hunting continue.
“It’s not an option to change our diet,” Waghiyi said. “But the joy of a successful hunt and sharing the food has been replaced with people wondering, will this harm my family?”
Contamination fears don’t tell the whole story. Farming dropped off among the Mohawk at Akwesasne in the past few decades due to encroaching residential and commercial development, according to a 2005 soil survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Because prime farmland was taken by industry and urban uses, the Mohawk started farming lands more “erodible, droughty and less productive,” according to the report.