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Mercury Warnings a New Part of Tribe's Tradition

In the 1980s and early 1990s, spearfishing Ojibwe were besieged by non-Indian protesters who would shout racist slurs and throw stones and beer bottles at them. The protesters were angry that a series of court decisions had affirmed the tribal members' treaty rights to fish and hunt out of season on off-reservation land that the tribes had ceded to the government in the mid-1800s.

Under agreements between tribal and governmental authorities, Ojibwe can spearfish during a two-week period each year when walleye are spawning. They go out at night in small motorboats, sighting the fishes' glowing eyes in the beams of flashlights and skewering their catch with a swift stab of a five-pronged spear.

"After the right was given to us by the courts, we have to exercise it or it could be lost again," said Rick Van Zile, who often hears complaints about Indian fishing rights from the non-Indians he works with on construction jobs. "It's a tradition."

Mercury is a problem for Indian tribes nationwide. In Northern California, the Gold Rush left a legacy of mercury in lakes because liquid mercury was used to separate gold from silt and ore.

Scientists at the University of California at Davis estimated there are 100 tons of mercury in the sediments of Clear Lake, a fishing ground for Pomo Indians. Most came from the nearby Sulphur Bank Mercury Mine, which operated through the mid-20th century. The International Indian Treaty Council, a group that works on issues of indigenous rights, says that between 3 million and 8 million pounds of mercury was absorbed into the environment in California during the Gold Rush years.

Besides its cultural significance, fishing is also an important source of cheap protein for many low-income Indians living on reservations.

"You're dealing with an underprivileged and impoverished population; we don't have the choice of going to the store and buying the leanest-cut meat," said Bob Shimek, a Minnesota coordinator of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who said he suffered months of strokelike symptoms caused by mercury after weeks of eating northern pike three times a day.

Mercury is more concentrated in older, larger fish and in fish higher on the food chain. So aggressive public-awareness campaigns by the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission in the Midwest and the International Indian Treaty Council in California urge people to eat smaller fish and to vary the type, mixing walleye, muskies and pike, which are higher on the food chain, with smaller varieties.

"The educational part is challenging," said Shimek, who is making it a personal mission to get the word out about mercury. "I run into people who say, 'These fish were good enough for my grandmother and grandfather, so they're good enough for me.' "

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