By KELLY vanFRANKENHUYZEN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Water warriors from tribes across the Great Lakes region are preserving an important relative.
It’s water – a resource so important that tribes refer to it in such personal terms.
“Water is a living resource, and we share an interdependent relationship with it,” said Daugherty Johnson III, environmental services manager at the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, in Harbor Springs.
Native Americans in the U.S. and First Nations in Canada believe water plays an important role historically, economically, politically, geographically and culturally.
Tribal and non-tribal governments in Canada and the U.S. share responsibility for preserving the Great Lakes through various agreements. A major one, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, is a binational understanding of roles they contribute to Great Lakes protection.
In a 2014 survey, the quality of rivers and lakes was one of the top five issues that Odawa tribal citizens said needed laws and regulations, according to the Little Traverse Bay Bands.
Another water agreement between Native Americans in Michigan and the governor notes that the future of the state depends on preserving the quality and quantity of its water.
Lake Ontario is one of the most environmentally threatened of the five Great Lakes.
“Lake Ontario means ‘beautiful lake’ in the Iroquois language,” said Neil Patterson, a Tuscarora tribe member and assistant director at the Center for Native People and Environment, in Syracuse, New York.
Patterson teaches traditional ecological knowledge at the center to bring that perspective into the academic world.
Many tribes hire specialists to diversify the knowledge shared within the tribe, said Kathleen Brosemer, environmental program manager for the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Sault Ste. Marie.
Members of her tribe serve on public advisory committees to clean up the watersheds of lakes Michigan, Huron and Superior, she said.
“One of the things our tribe is funded to do is participate in the processes for Great Lakes clean- up,” Brosemer said. Tribes in her area are part of clean-ups in the St. Mary’s River.
Many of these water quality programs and lake monitoring are funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.
But support of such efforts is diverse.
“We have been doing robust monitoring [of the lakes] on or near the reservation over the last 12 years,” said Doug Craven, natural resource director of the Little Traverse Bay Bands.
An Anishinawbe group of women, known as the Mother Earth Water Walkers, monitor the health of the lakes first hand.
Josephine Mandamin, the founder of the Water Walkers, began walking around the Great Lakes in 2003 and started her journey around Lake Superior.
In Anishinawbe culture, women’s responsibility is to pass on the knowledge and understanding of water to all people, according to Mandamin. Women took turns carrying a pail with water as they walked around the lakes.
“Lake Ontario’s water [in the pail] felt heavy,” Mandamin said. She said she believes it was the pollution and heavy metals that made it seem heavier than water from the other lakes.
Mandamin and other Water Walkers raised awareness that the Great Lakes are polluted by chemicals, vehicle emissions, motorboats, sewage, agricultural pollution, landfills and residential use.
Members of the Little Traverse Bay Bands plan on walking several miles around Little Traverse Bay this September, said Renee Wasson, a member of the bands’ Natural Resource Commission. The idea is to promote awareness and responsibility to care for water quality on a local level.
In 2005, then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm allowed the water walkers to cross the Mackinac Bridge, which normally is limited to motorized vehicles, said Rochelle Ettawageshik of Harbor Springs, who has participated in several water walks.
One concern for many tribes is the Straits of Mackinac that are crossed by that bridge.
The Calgary-based energy company Enbridge owns an underwater oil pipeline that divides into two separate 20-inch lines to cross the straits.
Many people are concerned about oil leaks similar to what happened with another Enbridge pipeline near Marshall.
That spill caused 1.1 million gallons to flow into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill and one of the costliest spills in U.S. history. Clean up continues today.
Enbridge says the pipelines crossing the straits have never leaked, are completely safe and heavily monitored.
Built in 1953, these pipelines exceed their projected lifeline by 13 years. In 2013, the capacity of western Canadian crude oil they carry increased from 490,000 to 540,000 barrels a day. The upgrade involved $100 million in improvements to pumping stations, but no changes were made to the actual pipes.
“It’s a ticking time bomb,” Brosemer said. A spill would devastate the tribal way of life and have a major impact on tourism, in the state and in Sault Ste. Marie, she said.
Gov. Rick Snyder created the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board in 2015 to monitor all of the state’s pipelines. Homer Mandoka, from the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi tribal government, was appointed to the pipeline advisory board to represent tribes.
“Having a tribal member on the board is very important,” said Mandoka, who applauded Snyder as the most active governor with tribal nations, including the two previous governors, Granholm and John Engler.
Last September, Jannan Cornstalk, a member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands Natural Resource Commission, organized a flotilla on the Straits of Mackinac to protest the pipeline.
It consisted of a large group of tribe members paddling traditional canoes and kayaks through the Straits of Mackinac in protest of the pipeline.
“I’m done talking and need to take some sort of action,” Cornstalk said. With last year’s event a success, she is planning another flotilla for the fall.
Kelly vanFrankenhuyzen writes for Great Lakes Echo.
By KELLY vanFRANKENHUYZEN