HOUGHTON - Valoree Gagnon, a graduate student at Michigan Technological University, has taken a special interest in the local environment and her work has garnered a nomination for the Midwestern Association of Graduate Schools Distinguished Thesis Award.
Gagnon, who completed the master's program at Michigan Tech in 2011 and is now studying toward a doctoral degree, began thinking about a project for her thesis and decided to focus on fish contaminants through the tribal perspective. Gagnon worked with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community specifically and the study examined its fish contaminant knowledge, the impacts on fishing and fish consumption, and the factors that contribute to harvesting decisions and behaviors in one tribal nation.
"I've always been interested in social justice issues, especially American history," she said. "They are a fishing community and I have an interest in chemical pollution."
Her work earned her the nomination for the MAGS Distinguished Thesis Award and she was nominated by her advisor, Dr. Carol MacLennan of the department of social sciences to represent Michigan Tech.
"The conference is in Chicago in April," she said.
An organization of different graduate schools participates and each school picks one representative. This year, Tech chose Gagnon's work to represent the school.
Additionally, Gagnon will be presenting her work at the American Society for Environmental History in Madison, Wis., in March.
Gagnon, who resides in L'Anse, states in her thesis it has been well documented that many tribal populations and minority groups across the nation are at high risk of adverse health effects from consuming chemically contaminated fish.
She worked with 17 local fishers, which she called "an education."
"It was a big eye-opener," Gagnon said. "It wasn't just a different way to look at fish and fishing, but a different way to look at the lake as a spirituality."
Gagnon said through working with the project, she was able to look at the environment in a different way, which had an influence on the way she reacts to the environment.
"It had a big influence on me in that, when I walk on a trail, or even drive down (U.S.) 41, I notice birds, I hear different things than I used to hear," she said.
Gagnon's thesis includes information and history about chemical contamination of fish and the importance of commercial fishing in like communities.
"There's a focus in this community on subsistence fishing, but even though we call it commercial fishing as an economic activity, it was always a way to barter and always a way to trade," she said. "They traded for other things they needed, so it's always been part of their economic system."
Through her project, Gagnon studied fish consumption. She set out to research the impacts of fish contaminants among tribal fishing families, identify the primary factors that contribute to KBIC fishing and fish consumption decision-making practices and discuss the KBIC fish contaminant perspectives.
Gagnon hopes her work will help policy-makers better understand the history and culture behind contamination and help them make policies. She hopes her work affected the community in a positive way.
"I have an ongoing relationship with different people that I've met," she said. "It was nice that they wanted the collection of interviews for their Tribal Historic Preservation Office. They have this collection that will always be there."