The people, rivers, lakes, and fish are related. This is a story told throughout the world. It’s a story about the Wintu of northern California, who were told that if the Nur (salmon) would disappear, the Wintu would disappear. And it’s a story about the destruction of the buffalo and the buffalo peoples — the Lakota and other indigenous peoples whose way of life was based on the movement and relationship to Tatanka Oyate, the Buffalo Nation. Indeed in this teaching of Indinawaymuganitoog, which means, in Anishinaabemowin, “all my relatives,” the meaning is that relatives will have hands, roots, paws, fins, or hooves. There is a sense and understanding of dependence and interdependence.
In the Anishinaabe community, we have many clans (dodaem). Among them is the sturgeon clan, honoring a relationship to the most epic and amazing of fish: name (pronounced nah-may). For many generations, our people and the sturgeon lived together, both in mythological and spiritual worlds, and in the lakes and rivers of this region. For, indeed, where there are Anishinaabeg, there are sturgeon. Ancient rock paintings honor this most amazing of creatures. Indeed, sturgeon were here with the dinosaurs an estimated 250 million years ago, and there are many stories of our people and how some of us went to live with the sturgeon. We have always honored them.
So it was that at Gaawaabaabaanikaag — the land named after the White Clay that is here at the White Earth reservation — that our people became like the sturgeon, like the wolves, placed in smaller and smaller boxes, territories or ecosystems, and then asked to give up who we were. So it was that we became essentially third-class citizens in America, assimilated to the bottom of the socioeconomic and political ladder. This, it turns out did not work well for us. And, it did not work well for the sturgeon (namewag) either.
The headwaters of both the Mississippi and Red River watersheds emerge from our territory, here at Anishinaabe Akiing, and from these same waters come our sturgeon. The most majestic of fish lived well with our people, and sustained us through many of the coldest winter months. It was, however, not to last. The obliteration of the sturgeon population in this area took around forty years. It was systemic, formulaic, and pilfering. The first strike was the overfishing by the non-Natives who came to our territory. Not unlike the buffalo, our sturgeon were taken largely for the isinglass, a substance used in distilling fine liquors that comes from the internal organs of the namewag. Their dismembered bodies then were burned, literally as cordwood in some of the steamers that moved up and down the stunning waterways of our region. Then came the dams, one after another, killing sturgeon movement, not unlike dams everywhere else. The records show a relatively sustainable and abundant sturgeon harvest by the Anishinaabeg. In l823-l889, around 265,000 pounds were harvested annually on the Rainy River, feeding the Anishinaabeg people pretty well. Overfishing by the commercial non-Natives drove the sturgeon harvest to the edge of extinction in this region. In l886, the sturgeon harvest exceeded one million pounds. By l925 the fish declined to about l percent of their original population. The last sturgeon seen on our reservation was seen in 1943, killed by a local man and eventually stuffed and placed on a wall in a hardware store in the off-reservation town of Detroit Lakes.
The decline of the sturgeon mirrored a decline in the Anishinaabeg. Many of our people died from tuberculosis, influenza, or perhaps just sorrow. It is said that Native people suffer from an unresolved historic grief. It is the grief of a holocaust that occurred on this continent but is largely unrecognized. It is the grief of losing land, losing people, losing way of life, and losing relatives — whether they have wings, fins, hooves, roots, paws, or hands. By the end of the last century, the sturgeon had been gone for almost seventy-five years, and the sturgeon clan mourned their loss.
It was in l998, that the sturgeon came home to Gaawaabaabaanikag (the White Earth people). It seems that some of the sturgeon, the namewag, had survived on the Rainy River, despite the dams and despite the pollution of the pulp mills. Those sturgeon were cared for by the Rainy River First nation — the Anishinaabeg people north of that invisible but cumbersome U.S.-Canada border.
Our family, consisting at that time of four young children and me, traveled to the north to visit our relatives and friends at Rainy River. It was there we met Joe Hunter, caretaker of the sturgeon hatchery of the Rainy River’s Manitou Rapids First Nation. Joe is also known as the Sturgeon General of Canada. His inspiration reverberated with our family, who two weeks later returned to our reservation with five sturgeon, traveling relatively well in two Coleman coolers, along with the four children one adult and a Ford Aerostar van. That is our story, and that is how changes are made.
Today, it is a decade later, and this past Columbus Day, sort of a strange day for Native people, our tribe celebrated the return of another l3,000 sturgeon to the lakes of Gaawaabaabaanikaag, the White Earth reservation. The homecoming has been a joy to the community, as we now have the largest sturgeon restoration program in the region, and an annual celebration. Biazhigiiwewag (they are coming home). And now the sturgeon clan of our community rejoices as our relatives return.
Some losses can be reconciled, and time will heal the lakes of the north and the members of the sturgeon clan who now await the maturity of their relatives.
In the jackhammer of an industrialized society, neither ecosystems nor relatives are valued. What author Jerry Mander would call the commodification of the sacred rankles the worldview of land-based peoples, and indeed rattles the question of durability and sustainability. The loss of relationship, of sacredness, is epidemic in the inefficiencies of an economy based on overconsumption and endless resource extraction. Indeed, industrial society becomes a relentless predator on Mother Earth. Without reciprocity, restorative relationship, and respect, the crashing of biodiversity continues, leaving a grief unimaginable to many inundated with an electronic world. Yet, somewhere in our deepest of psyches, we find that we are full of a sorrow. And in the end, we do find, that we are all related, that what befalls the salmon eventually befalls the people — people surrounded by toxins, overconsuming electricity, and eventually inundated or drowned by our own greed and lack of understanding our relationship to the larger world given to us by the Creator.
(To read other perspectives on extinction, climate change, and the rights of nature, click here.)