Poll: Indigenous people more aware of threats to Great Lakes

Print More

By ANNTANINNA BIONDO
Capital News Service

LANSING — A recent International Joint Commission poll revealed stark differences between indigenous and non-indigenous people in their reactions to threats to the Great Lakes.

The poll asked about 4,000 people about their attitudes toward regulations on the Great Lakes, the biggest threats to them and whether there even are threats.

For the first time the survey included 300 Native Americans and other indigenous groups of people proportional to the region’s population.

“Traditional indigenous knowledge has a lot to offer as far as how to approach environmental issues and so we really wanted to try and reach out to that,” said Sally Cole-Misch, a public affairs officer for the binational commission that works with the United States and Canada to manage shared lakes and river systems along the border.

“By adding this additional demographic data, it really allowed us to see more of the breadth of diversity that makes up the basin,” said Kelsey Leonard, the engagement workgroup co-chair for the Great Lakes Water Quality Board, which worked with the commission on the poll.

Among the differences: 20 percent of non-indigenous participants didn’t know where their drinking water comes from, but only about 1 percent of Indigenous people were unsure.

It comes down to lack of education and people taking their water for granted, Cole-Misch said. Unlike on Native American reserves, residents of urban and suburban communities usually don’t deal with wells or septic systems.

“Water comes out of the pipe and people don’t really think of where it comes from or where it goes,” she said.

The poll asked participants to choose the most significant problem facing the Great Lakes. The 17 choices included invasive species, pollution, climate change and algal blooms.

The most common answer from non-indigenous participants was “Don’t know,” with 25 percent. But only 9 percent of indigenous people said they didn’t know. Their most frequent response – 21 percent of the time – was endangered fish species.

Leonard said she was unsurprised by the difference in answers.

There might be a larger issue at play concerning knowledge disparities between poll

participants, she said.

“I think it really stems from different world views where one sees the environment,” said Leonard, a Native American woman. “There was a level of reciprocity and responsibility that as individuals, they felt and articulated in their poll responses.”

She said environmental issues are important in indigenous communities.“It’s very beneficial to reaffirming that lifestyle and those concerns for indigenous nations and people in the basin,” she said.

According to the poll, 93 percent of indigenous participants were concerned with the overall health of the Great Lakes. In contrast, only 57 percent of other participants said that they were concerned.

Cole-Misch said that’s because indigenous communities have a perspective that is connected to nature and the environment. “That’s a core part of their First Nations’ or tribes’ philosophies.”

Leonard knew that indigenous communities are concerned about the Great Lakes, but said the poll has greater implications for them because “we now have data to support some of the more common knowledge from the indigenous perspective around differences in world views.”

And it makes sense that indigenous respondents are more worried because “their cultural survival and political existence is directly tied to the health of the lakes,” she said.

An unexpected finding was that half of indigenous participants reported that they were willing to protest, vote or lobby to protect the Great Lakes. Only about 10 percent of other participants were willing to do the same.

Leonard said many indigenous peoples grow up being politically active. “Our existence as indigenous peoples is a resistance, so I think that it is conditioned within us as a community that our voices are heard and that we are contributing in whatever way we can to ensure the protection of this planet for future generations.”

Cole-Misch said indigenous communities are not only raised to be stewards of the planet, but that indigenous peoples can’t afford to ignore water quality.

And Leonard said recognizing the stewardship role is important. “It doesn’t matter what background you’re from, it’s about being a good citizen to this planet.”

Anntaninna Biondo reports for Great Lakes Echo.