In the 1950s, hazardous chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were released by paper companies into Wisconsin's Fox River/Green Bay ecosystem. This greatly impacted the water quality, native fish and wildlife, and the local community. PCBs are hazardous materials that can accumulate in the food chain, starting with fish and moving through the birds who consume those fish, often causing cancer, decreasing reproductive success and impacting nervous systems and immune systems.
After a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) was conducted on the Fox River/Green Bay, the trustee council determined there was work to be done to restore the land and water to a healthy state. The trustee council includes the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Wisconsin, the Menominee Indian Tribe, and the Oneida Nation.
Supporting the tribal efforts of the Oneida Nation as well as the Menominee Indian Tribe in order to enhance their specific cultural practices and restore the land so that community members can hunt, fish, hike, collect medicinal plants and partake in the traditions that their cultures are built upon, was at the forefront of the partnership and restoration efforts.
"It was a great opportunity for myself and other past trustee council members, especially for Oneida to be involved in the selecting of the projects and moving forward and being able to see those impacts and going on the tours of the projects and seeing how great they are impacting other communities not just our Oneida community here," says Tehassi Hill, Oneida Indian Tribe of Wisconsin Trustee Council Representative.
One of several projects was the restoration of Oneida Lake. This specific project focused on restoring the 40-acre aquatic habitat on the Oneida Reservation to support a self-sustaining fishery, benefiting fish and wildlife and restoring recreational and cultural opportunities which the Oneida lost due to PCB related injuries to fishery resources.
The next phase of the project is to expand and enhance the lake habitat to support a fishery that can successfully sustain the entire community. By creating a fishery stocking program, the aquatic ecosystem as whole can be restored. This system will optimize the fish biomass and the predator-prey trophic structure: this means that walleye and largemouth bass will serve as apex predators and fish such as fathead minnows and shiners will help support the fishery by provide an abundant forage fish base. This creates and replenishes fishery resources and provides the Oneida people with safe fish to eat within their own reservation boundaries. In addition, it will help to preserve the Oneida people's cultural practice of taking care of family and community through sharing fish. Enhancing the existing habitat, as well as creating a new habitat for culturally significant wildlife such as the bald eagle, osprey, Forster's and common terns and the threatened wood turtle, remain a significant goal for the project. The goal is to ensure that the Oneida people no longer need to travel outside the boundaries of the Reservation to gather safe-to-eat fish. Harvesting, preparing and preserving fish can once again be practiced on Oneida's lands, keeping the culture close to home.
"Oneida Lake has been on the wish list of tribal members for over 20 years since the traditional ways of collecting fish have been impacted by the PCB contamination," says Hill. "Many tribal members were looking for a place where they could collect clean fish and enjoy recreation to enjoy time with family and friends."
By placing a high importance on the environment and supporting the voices of the tribal trustees, the cultural beliefs taught by Native American elders to the generations to follow of having a responsibility to the land and that when the land thrives so does the culture and community was respected.