California Indians Balance Toxics and Traditions

As the summer fishing season hits full swing, many Native Californians are making careful choices about which fish to eat, if they eat any at all. Alarming information about mercury poisoning, an ongoing legacy of the gold rush, continues to surface. While only a miniscule amount is enough to poison an entire lake, thousands of abandoned gold and mercury mines leach hundreds of pounds of mercury every time there is a flood. Subsistence fishing communities are most affected.

Metallic mercury was used to separate gold from ore. When released into the air and water, bacteria convert it into methyl mercury, which moves up the food chain and concentrates in fish, and the people who eat fish. Pregnant women, the unborn, and young children are most affected.

"Some people know and some people don’t," says Sherri Norris, a member of the Osage Nation who works with the International Indian Treaty Council in San Francisco. The IITC, in collaboration with the Pit River Nation, has created the Mercury Tribal Health and Environmental Justice Program and spear-headed a grassroots "Right to Know" and clean-up campaign involving students, youth, grass-roots groups and Native American organizations. They’ve developed culturally relevant educational materials including a recent report entitled, Mercury Contamination and Community Health in Northern California.

"We traveled around to Indian health centers and presented it to them. They oftentimes didn’t know anything about this," says Norris. "But they could see the mines right outside their windows. Daycare workers said their kids had many of the neurological problems attributed to mercury poisoning." The IITC passes out booklets to tribal leaders, doctors, mothers, and at conferences and events. "We need people wanting to spearhead it in their communities."

Frustrated, Norris continues, "Why is it the responsibility of non-profits to get the information out? Why are native peoples not a priority? It’s another example of the federal government not living up to their responsibilities and promises. Native people need support in having their traditional homelands cleaned up, not just patched up."

Vicki Rosen, a Community Involvement Coordinator at the Environmental Protection Agency, says "We pay a lot of attention to tribal concerns and incorporate their needs. We really try to work up front as best we can. But we are a government bureaucracy."

The Clear Lake Sulfur Bank Mine near the E’lem Pomo Nation has been a Superfund Cleanup site since 1991. But with tax cuts, there is no funding. An old open pit mercury mine filled up with water and now contains 600 million gallons of bubbling toxic waste which has been seeping into Clear Lake for over 50 years. The lake is an important source of fish for the E’lem Pomo. Clean-up could be done, but it would be a huge and expensive undertaking.

Despite the lasting toxic effects of mercury, lax regulations permit coal plants and incinerators to continue to release it into the air. U.S. gold mines now use cyanide instead of mercury. But when Norris recently spoke out about the mercury problem at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, people from Brazil and Mexico told her mercury is still used for gold mining in their countries.

The IITC invited Ted Schettler of Physicians for Social Responsibility to speak to tribal leaders about the health impacts of mercury. "It’s a double-edged sword," he says. "On the one hand, you’re concerned about people’s health, and on the other hand, you’re concerned about the cultures and traditions that define people."

The tribes’ approach has been to figure out ways to make cautious choices while not giving up fishing traditions. Eating smaller fish that are lower on the food chain, for example, is safer. "Some people may have to abstain," says Norris. "I don’t like saying this. It’s a form of cultural genocide, when children are born with learning disabilities. But those of us that are alive today are the strongest of our people. I’m of the Buffalo tribe, and we’re eating more buffalo now than when I was a kid. We have to make choices. When I think about it as a continuum, it’s not as sad."