It’s enough to make one swear off eating seafood altogether. But Anderson contends that being informed about fish isn’t different from learning how to limit our intake of saturated fat or salt. The basic guidelines are simple, he suggests: Know where your fish come from, and eat a variety of types, especially smaller, short-lived species low on the food chain, such as bluegills, yellow perch and small rainbow trout. And most Wisconsinites consume fish once a week or less, hardly enough to worry about.
“Most people don’t eat that much fish,” he says. “They could probably stand to eat more.”
This may be true for many Wisconsin families, but it’s hardly the case for Mic Isham. A leader of the Lac Courte Oreilles band of Ojibwe in northern Wisconsin, Isham and his family follow a traditional lifestyle that revolves around Ojibwe customs, encompassing language, culture and spirituality. Tribal members gather and hunt indigenous foods such as wild rice, berries, venison and fish, which form a significant portion of their diets. The serving of these traditional foods is also required at feasts, funerals and other tribal ceremonies. And in northern Wisconsin, any traditional feast is bound to include plenty of walleye—ogaa in Ojibwe. This means that when the ogaa spawn in the spring waters around Lac Courte Oreilles, the Ojibwe fish. And fish. And fish.
“We harvest them,” says Isham. “We get 300 fish, we put them in the freezer, and we’re eating a lot of meals a week with our children and our families.”
The Lac Courte Oreilles alone take between 1,900 and 2,500 fish during spring spear-fishing season, says Isham, who helps manage the annual harvest for his band. Yet cherished as the tradition may be, it too has been touched by modern day concerns about chemicals. When Isham chooses the 15 or so lakes where the band will spear, for example, he takes a step his ancestors never did: He consults a set of maps issued by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, detailing which lakes carry the highest risk of methylmercury exposure. At the same time, tribal members are encouraged to catch and eat mostly smaller fish, both during the spear-fishing season and throughout the year. Because families freeze so many fish to eat later, they’re also taught to label each bag with the weight and species of fish, along with where it was caught, to help them monitor their families’ exposure to methylmercury and other contaminants.
But these are far from the most significant changes the tribe has seen. “Cleaning up certain things, like mercury in a lake, is really, really hard. The obvious way to go is to prevent any further contamination,” says Isham. “So now we’re really environmentally active.” The Ojibwe have been vocal in calling for regulation of mercury emissions from coal-burning plants, for example. But they work on many other issues, as well, including mining, shoreline development, forestry practices and dealing with invasive species.
Why cast such a wide net when the target is contaminated fish?
“It’s all connected,” Isham says. “That’s how we try to educate our youth, so that the next generation is smarter than we are when it comes to contaminants and other things.” He explains how the tribe understands that activities far outside their community affect the health of fisheries and forests, just as the actions on their reservation spill over to the lands outside. Likewise, the philosophy with chemicals, he says, is to understand that by using them in the wider world “basically you’re putting them into your own body.”
This is the ultimate message of Langston’s work, and it leaves us with an ultimate choice. Are we satisfied with making personal decisions about which fish to eat and how often? Or do we want to work toward a future where such decisions aren’t required anymore? Because the way the world is now wasn’t inevitable, says Langston. It, too, was built of choices.
“For me, that’s one of the most valuable lessons about history,” she says. “We’re not constrained by the way the present looks today. There were other paths we could have taken (in the past) and that means there are other choices we can make here and now.”
As we consider this, we may want to remember the Ojibwe, who not only believe the health of people and the water are inextricably linked, but that each is also the caretaker of the other. Thus, they say that when human life is sick, the water will flush it away.
And when the water is sick, it is up to us to flush it away.