By Abigail Comar
A new study demonstrated how an advisory program designed for the Anishinaabe is a useful tool for tracking fish consumption among Great Lakes tribes.
The research collaboration between the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Michigan Intertribal Council, and the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan is a long-term project to increase environmental health literacy in Great Lakes tribal communities.
The fish consumption advisory comes in the form of an app called “Gigiigoo’inaan,” which means “our fish” in Ojibwe. The app provides personalized advice regarding levels of chemical contaminants in fish.
Common chemical contaminants in fish include mercury and pcbwhich are a group of manufactured chemicals that can cause health problems with long-term exposure.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mercury levels in Great Lakes fish have been increasing since the 1990s.
Scientists are increasingly concerned about rising levels of contaminants in the fish people eat.
These concerns led to notice warning of the dangers of excessive consumption of fish of certain species caught in certain places.
However, these opinions have historically overlooked the values of Native American tribes, according to Matthew Dellinger of the Institute for Health and Society at the Medical College of Wisconsin and the study’s lead researcher.
“In the past, they’ve established reviews from a culturally neutral perspective,” Dellinger said. “The math behind these contaminant levels actually suggests that you shouldn’t eat Great Lakes fish, at least not large fish in large quantities.”
“When you point out that these species of fish are dangerous when eaten and exposed to pollutants, you are violating a deep culture.”
According to Noel Pingatore, director of health education and chronic disease at the Michigan Intertribal Council in Sault Ste. Marie, fish is an integral part of the traditional diet of Native Americans in the Great Lakes region.
Pingatore is also the author of the fish eating app study.
The two researchers pointed out that previous advice on fish consumption had not helped the Anishinaabe understand their own fish consumption in any meaningful way.
The collaborative project to develop culturally relevant counseling software grew out of these past failures to communicate environmental health resources for the Anishinaabe.
Dellinger said researchers used data from tribal fishers and tribal harvests to generate a new advisory that referenced federal and local standards for fish consumption.
Using this data, the team of university and tribal scientists created the “Gigiigoo’inaan” software application after several rounds of feedback from tribal members.
The project’s most recent study tested whether the app contributed to environmental health awareness by encouraging healthy fish consumption without exceeding the new advisory’s safe levels.
The most important finding of the study, according to Dellinger, is that although participants reported fairly large amounts of fish consumption, most did not exceed contamination risk levels.
Dellinger said the result indicates the advisory worked as the researchers intended.
“We see a very strong cultural interest in eating these fish,” Dellinger said.
He said participants felt that fish was very dangerous to eat, but their desire and choice to eat fish was validated by the app’s guidance. Despite consuming large quantities of fish, the app did not inform them that they exceeded the standards.
“Fish is often worth eating and people seem to get a lot of benefits from it,” Dellinger said. “The app seems to encourage that.”
The application also offers recipes for preparing fish.
According to Pingatore, the way the fish is prepared can affect the contaminant level when eaten.
“One of the worst ways to prepare it is to leave the skin on and fry it,” Pingatore said, “because all the contaminants stay inside the fat.”
Pingatore said the researchers have received feedback indicating that people like the recipes provided by the app.
In general, Pingatore said, participants seemed to like the app. In addition to providing culturally appropriate data, its aesthetic was also designed for the Anishinaabe.
Dellinger said researchers determined through focus groups that Ojibwe Woodland Style art was the most appealing appearance for the app.
“We found that tribesmen would say they would see something that had Native American-style art in it and realize it was for them,” Dellinger said. “It was not only more reliable, but they were more attracted to it.”
The work highlights the importance of providing culturally relevant and accurate health information, Pingatore said.
The next stage of the project is to refine the use of the app and begin to explore how the interplay between mental health and the local environment influences health outcomes.
“We’re trying to figure out what some rigorous methods might be for looking at people’s health and well-being in a culturally contextualized way,” Dellinger said. “We want to know how to define the important factors that a community can control that will improve their health.”