A friend of mine sent an article about lead contamination in Paris after Notre Dame burned last April. Notre Dame is Paris and its beauty is renown. The roof of that centuries old structure, held up with beams made from 13,000 ancient trees had been coated with between 250 and 440 TONS of lead thought to make it fireproof. A fire started inside the structure and the beams burned, lead melted and dripped down into the structure and the flames carried the yellow fumes containing lead particles onto the neighborhood. All these months later Paris is dealing with the massive cleanup that is required to protect human health from lead poisoning. They were finding lead dust levels 500 and 800 times the official safe levels. The levels in Ottawa County is currently 500 ppm of lead in soil would trigger cleanup. Imagine how high they were finding in Paris!

Pregnant women and children are being encouraged to have their blood lead checked even as cleanup continues. Some schools were cleaned up quickly but more schools have had to be closed after lead was also discovered there. Paris is finding out a lot about lead, that it will not dissolve and dissipate, it is poison and it must be removed. We know this and Ottawa County residents are gearing up to make those phone calls to DEQ and get their property tested in 2020, and encouraging their neighbors to get with the program! If we got in gear, we will be cleaned up way before Beautiful Paris gets the lead out.

Back in the day, I thought of myself as an artist. My first love, painting took me to Taos, then I turned to beadwork being taught technique and skills on assembly from Betty Pinnecoose who ensured if work was constructed well enough it could be lost in the river and upon being found, it would still hold together. While living in Sapulpa, I took a basketmaking class taught by Hepsey Gilroy and began a lifelong love of making baskets. My skills in basket making and beadwork allowed me to have the confidence to hang with a fledgling group of Cherokee artists, back in the day. The talent was immediately recognizable with Bill Glass, Jr., Mike Daniels, Anna Bell Mitchell and Knokovtee Scott and they allowed me to join the group in both beading and basket categories.

I have become a slacker. Just today, I sat in my bead-making nook waiting for the beads to yell at me for leaving them to wait so long to become the something else they long to become. And took a walk outside to appraise the buckbrush and honeysuckle vines that claim they long to become baskets.

And while walking, I thought of two of those original Cherokee artists who have gone on, first Anna Bell Mitchell, who used the clay from our land to create pots, some she actually gave back to us as gifts. The other newly gone. Knokovtee Scott used the purple mussels he found around area lakes to create shell jewelry with Mississippi Mound culture designs that had once been made in the southwestern U.S. a thousand years ago.

The latest photos of Knokovtee showed him always wearing a surgical mask around his neck, I thought to help keep the shell dust from entering his lungs when drilling or cutting shells. A comment he made in a 2017 Cherokee Phoenix article became more cryptic since his December death, “I’m in a race against time to make sure this is not lost again.” I have several items he created and I will always wonder if they helped cause his death.

But the other thing I never considered to be at issue with local shells is what else they contain. We know there are issues with lead in some of the fish in Grand Lake, Spring River and the Neosho. We have found lead in the teeth of some of our residents. Studies have shown lead in the tissue of mussels. But in the shells? Yes. Mussels filter heavy-metals in contaminated waters and can accumulate toxins in their shells.

Gillian Genser is a sculptor in Canada who learned shells used in her artwork had caused her heavy-metal poisoning only after suffering debilitating symptoms for years. Doctors found high levels of arsenic and lead in her blood. The mussels she had been working with for decades were toxic, likely contaminated from industrial waste. She had sanded, grinded shells for her sculptures but also had eaten the mussels.

Ms. Genser hoped her art and suffering might create a sense of connectivity and reverence for the natural world. "I feel grief—both for myself and our planet." But also satisfaction from her art. "That’s how I find my hope. I call [one of her pieces] my beautiful death."

As artists, as natives, as people who want to base back to our culture, or live off the land, we have all expected our environment to be safe but now we know it may not be.

Walk in beauty or go create it, "beauty is the promise of the future.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim

Rebecca Jim is executive director of the LEAD Agency