In their native tongue, the Anishinaabe people have many words for water.
There’s nibi, the water you drink. There’s gimewan, the water that falls from the sky. There’s nibiiwsh, the water that wells up in your eyes. There’s biinjinoowaanaabo, the water that breaks before a baby is born.
Even the Anishinaabe word for child literally translates to: Spirit that comes alive from within the water.
“Water is life,” said Doris Peltier, head of one tribe’s heritage organization. “For nine months, before that child came into this earth, where were they? Children are brought into this world through water. Our bodies (at birth) are 80% water. Nothing on Earth can survive without water."
On Lake Huron’s Manitoulin Island, the largest freshwater island in the world, the six First Nation tribes that call this land home have an ineffable connection with the waters that surround them.
This profound bond makes it painful for them to witness the drastic ways Lake Huron and its tributaries have been altered and threatened by human activity.
Lake Huron is home to 30,000 of the Great Lakes’ 35,000 islands and its longest shoreline. As the original motherland for Native American and First Nation tribes, these islands and neighboring coastal areas play an important role in their culture, faith and traditions.
Globally, lands controlled by indigenous people are 22 percent of the world’s surface, yet they contain 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, according to a United Nations climate panel. In the United States and Canada, indigenous communities have been among the first to feel the effects of climate change. While carbon emissions are warming the planet at an alarming pace, indigenous populations pride themselves on striking a balance with nature, but many don’t have the resources to adapt to the effects of a warming planet.
Once abundant fisheries have been plundered by waves of invasive species, including invasive zebra and quagga mussels, which can tolerate warmer waters. According to the climate panel, global warming threatens to alter the habitat of many other species, forcing them to migrate to other areas. For First Nation tribes, this could mean the end of some fish species and severe reductions in the wildlife they hunt for food.
Water quality is also an issue for First Nation communities across Canada, where there are more than 50 long-term drinking water advisories affecting more than 3,000 households. And a recent study raises concerns about the potential for a “worst-case scenario” rupture in an aging pipeline that carries oil and natural gas through the Straits of Mackinac, which connects lakes Michigan and Huron.
But perhaps the greatest blow to First Nation communities is they feel they have little influence over what happens in a region that was once under their control.
In the oral histories of some Native peoples, the Creator lowered the Three Fires — the Odawa (Ottawa), Potawatomi and Ojibwa (Chippewa) peoples to North America, or what they call “Turtle Island.” They migrated to the Great Lakes, met at the Straits of Mackinac and dispersed.
“Every race of man had their own territory, and this was our territory. The significance of that is that we can’t go anywhere else to find our people. People can leave Chicago or leave Toronto to go somewhere to find their roots, to find their homeland. But these are our homelands. We can’t go anywhere else to look for our language or our culture. This is it," said Duke Peltier, chief of the Wiikwemkoong tribe and a cousin of Doris Peltier.
After European settlers arrived in the Great Lakes, Native American populations were slowly dispossessed of their lands through force and treaties until many ended up together on Manitoulin Island.
Many tribes signed treaties diminishing the size of their lands, but the Wiikwemkoong kept the title to their land, known as the Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, on the eastern peninsula of Manitoulin Island.
Manitoulin Island is a sprawling countryside about the size of Rhode Island but with a population of around 12,000; there are some areas where deer outnumber people. The landscape features steep coastal cliff sides, rugged hills, waterfalls and more than 100 inland lakes — some of which have islands of their own. Historically, this was all native land, but today indigenous populations make up only 40% of residents.
Many First Nation tribes, including the Wiikwemkoong, have filed legal challenges seeking to reestablish claim over many of the islands in Georgian Bay, which are currently under Canadian control.
Decimated fishing grounds
In 1863, the Canadian government began issuing commercial fishing leases in waters near Manitoulin Island. Wiikwemkoong leaders, worried about overfishing, evicted the fishermen, giving rise to a heated standoff between the tribe and Canadian authorities.
While the tribe was able to retain its historic fishing grounds, today, those waters that they have tried to protect are a vestige of their former selves.
The opening of the Welland Canal between lakes Erie and Ontario in 1932 allowed ocean-faring ships into the Great Lakes from the St. Lawrence River. In the ballast tanks, nonnative species stowed away and slipped into freshwater.
In the past century, sea lampreys, eel-like creatures that latch on to fish and drain their blood, have devastated lake trout populations. Alewives, a small herring, boomed in population, crowding out other small native fish. Fishery managers introduced nonnative salmon to prey on the alewives and boost sport fishing.
But the salmon population collapsed in Lake Huron following the introduction of zebra and quagga mussels. Trillions upon trillions of the fingernail-sized shellfish rapidly colonized the lake. Each can filter a liter of water a day. In doing so, they have devoured much of the lake’s plankton, which serves as the base of the food chain, and sent shock waves through the ecosystem.
“The zebra mussels literally filtered out the lake where there’s no more microorganisms except in pockets," Peltier said. “The rest of the lake is essentially dead water. It’s not a healthy environment.
“My concerns have been some of the same concerns our elders talked about for a number of years. It relates to government policies where they want to play God and start tinkering with the ecosystem when we know we can’t control it.”
These days, there are few commercial fishermen left. Those still in operation fish as more of a hobby than a profession.
On a weekday, when the nets set by local commercial fishermen came up empty, hundreds of thousands of hearty rainbow trout swam in open-water pens in Manitowaning Bay.
Ben Kanasawe started Buzwah Fisheries as an experiment about 20 years ago. Today, he harvests and sells around 2.5 million pounds of rainbow trout a year.
Peltier believes fish farming operations like Kanasawe’s may be the future. In ocean and freshwater lakes, fish stocks have plummeted due to a combination of overfishing, pollution and invasive species.
Peltier and others worry the next menace is a mere 400 miles away in Chicago, where the voracious Asian carp are swimming up the Illinois River toward Lake Michigan. So far, removal efforts and a series of electric barriers have kept carp at bay, but some fear it may only be a matter of time.
“When you talk fear, the Asian carp potentially has a pathway into the lakes,” Peltier said. “Those species are prolific in reproducing. I’m not sure if they can be stopped.”
The regulation of commercial shipping and the introduction of invasive species has been beyond the control of the First Nations. So, too, are some of the most critical threats to drinking water.
Underwater in the Straits of Mackinac, Enbridge’s Line 5, a pair of pipelines carrying light crude and natural gas, snake between the Upper and Lower peninsulas. While Enbridge has contended that oil and natural gas pipelines have an “indefinite lifespan if they are properly operated, monitored and maintained," environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers are worried about the durability of Line 5, which was built in 1953.
Positioned in one of the most precarious locations in the Great Lakes, the straits also produce an unusual oscillation that was a mystery to locals and scientists alike until a decade ago, according to Eric Anderson, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Lab.
“They are in one of the craziest spots, current-wise, that you could put a pipeline," Anderson said. "One aspect is the speed — it’s really fast there. The other aspect is the currents oscillate back and forth in the straits, meaning they will move eastward for about a day and a half into Huron and reverse back into Michigan for about a day and a half cycle.”
For these reasons, it’s a tricky area for boats to navigate. Sometimes, ship captains drop anchor to slow their vessels and straighten their course, making anchor strikes among the greatest threats to the pipelines. In 2018, the pipeline was struck by an anchor from a tugboat performing this type of maneuver. There was no rupture, but the incident raised concerns.
A 2018 study commissioned by the state of Michigan revealed that a “worst-case scenario” rupture has the potential to spew contaminants from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, in Lake Michigan to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and environmentalists have called for the pipeline to be shut down. Former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder argued that would raise oil and gas prices in Michigan and has supported legislation to allow Enbridge to build a tunnel to house the pipeline, which the company has said is the most practical solution.
The costs to clean up such a spill could reach over $4.4 billion, according to the 2018 state of Michigan report. But Native Americans fear the damage to their way of life would be immeasurable: wiping out or sullying archaeological sites, coastal wetlands and sand dunes, wildlife and the lake’s remaining fish.
Meanwhile, Peltier said he and other First Nations remain sidelined on the issue.
“In Canada, they continue to say it’s a matter of jurisdiction,” Peltier said. "And (Line 5) is in the jurisdictional authority of the state of Michigan. Yet if something happened to that line, if it were to be breached somehow, the natural current is going to bring that (contamination) in the direction of Manitoulin.
“It’s going to affect the wildlife, ecosystems as well as the tourism industry that live on the island. You would have shorelines covered in oil. It’s going to take a monumental effort to clean that up."
The pipeline isn’t the only worry.
A year ago, on the mainland shores about a 70-mile drive from Manitoulin Island, Serpent River First Nation was dealing with “do-not-drink” advisories. These advisories have been an ongoing issue in many Native American communities for years for a variety of reasons, including equipment and filtration problems.
Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization has whittled its search to store radioactive waste from spent nuclear fuel to two sites, one of which is in Bruce County, Ontario, a location less than a mile from Lake Huron. If chosen, the radioactive waste would be stored in a deep underground repository.
In the absence of a viable recourse, the Wiikwemkoong have leaned on faith. In their culture, women are the caretakers of water and the guardians of the Earth’s most precious resource.
It’s a responsibility they take seriously.
The late Josephine Mandamin, a 61-year-old grandmother, started a movement in 2003. In her pursuit to raise awareness about the importance and fragility of water, she began walking long stretches of shores along the Great Lakes in a solemn quest for help.
During these epic treks, Mandamin — known as the Water Walker — and a procession of Annishanaabe women carried sacred clothes. They clutched ceremonial tobacco in one hand, their connection to Gichi-manidoo, the Great Spirit. The women took turns carrying a copper pail filled with lake water.
Through rain, hail, mud and fatigue, the Anishinaabe women have walked thousands of miles, in some instances up to 12 hours a day. A few men join walks in a support role, one leading in case of encounters with wildlife and one in the back in case anyone is struggling. In one of their most rigorous journeys, a trek from Lake Superior’s shoreline in Wisconsin to the St. Lawrence River took more than three months.
Along the way, they gained inspiration from what they saw, including verdant slicks of harmful algae blooms, low water levels and all manner of pollution.
Norma Peltier, an aunt of the Wiikwemkoong chief, has participated in these walks for more than a decade, recalled a particularly trying journey a few years ago.
Within the first hour, one of her boots burst open at the seam. One of her fellow walkers wrapped it with duct tape and string. She kept walking.
“These are long walks and they take a toll emotionally, physically and spiritually," Norma Peltier said. "But one thing we can’t do is look back. We have to keep going.”