Water Walks and Wild Rice by Blaire Topash-Caldwell

Water Walks and Wild Rice:

Reclaiming Anishinaabe Space and Place through Traditional Knowledge and Ecology Ethics

My research is based in the ceremonial and political spaces of the Indigenous lived worlds in the Great Lakes region—a region which is on the cusp of an adverse ecological regime shift. This shift is due in part to the accidental introduction of an invasive species: the emerald ash borer. Additionally, Michigan recently broke a record for hydro-fracking proposals submitted to the state—a controversial resource extraction method which often significantly pollutes water tables. In response, Anishinaabe communities in this region are more progressive than ever in both political mobilization and ecological restoration projects.

Image source: Mother Earth Water Walk

Some examples are Anishinaabe women’s water walks stemming from the ceremonial Midewiwin (medicine) Lodge in Wisconsin, and in Michigan: the re-meandering of local watersheds, and revitalization of wild rice. These activities occur in spite of centuries of displacement by settlers and destruction of the environment by these settlers. These activities also occur in spite of U.S. legislation which pays lip service to tribal consultation in matters of the environment. I’m referring to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This law instituted consultation requirements for development or extraction projects like hydro-fracking. However, these laws are problematic, because they only apply to federally-funded projects and projects affecting public land. Furthermore, they do not give tribes any actual decision-making power. Some have criticized this manner of law as “manufacturing consent.” That is, instead of negotiating with tribes on a government-to-government basis, these laws actually subvert sovereignty by demoting the legal status of tribes to “stakeholders” or interests groups. Just imagine sitting in a town hall meeting space as patronizing agency officials from natural gas companies tell you they’d like your input as to how they can best destroy the earth and your drinking water. If that weren’t bad enough, you have no power to stop them. You can only speak for a limited amount of time. And will they listen to you anyway? How are they supposed to take tribal sovereignty seriously when we’re sitting next to the Home Owner’s Association of some settler community? This is not negotiation. NEPA was never meant to facilitate meaningful conversation between oil companies and tribes…


There are 12 federally recognized tribes in the state of Michigan. My tribe—the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians—consists of descendants who were not removed with other Potawatomi communities to Kansas and Oklahoma, or who fled to Wisconsin. We occupy our original homelands (before we came from the east, of course, as our oral histories explain). Our sense of place is imbued in our stories, our place names, our art, our ceremonies, our language, and finally, our knowledge systems. The use of both standard natural resource management methods as well as traditional ecological knowledge and particular Anishinaabe ecology ethics guides the individuals involved in water walks and ecological restoration projects.


But why are tribes involved in these restoration projects? Well, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, American settlers wreaked havoc on the environment when they straightened out the water ways. These straightened water ways facilitated the capitalist exploitation of the environment through logging and transportation. This adversely affected biodiversity and destroyed what wild rice paddies were left—a traditional food source for tribes in the Great Lakes. The picture above is a part of the Dowagiac River in southwestern Michigan. The ironic thing is that “dowagiac” means “bending river” in Anishinaabemowin.

Image source: Michigan State University
Image source: Michigan State University


In re-meandering these watersheds today, the tribe uses Indigenous knowledge and historical evidence of landscape ecology from standard natural resource management methods to restore ecological integrity.


Collaboration is an important part of addressing environmental issues in a meaningful way. There are coalitions between tribes and non-tribal environmental organizations in Michigan. These coalitions are actualized in outreach initiatives and workshops to educate both other Native and non-Native communities about environmental issues in the Great Lakes as well as educate non-Natives about some Indigenous ecological knowledge. One example of such a partnership exists between the Great Lakes Lifeways Institute, the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, and the Goodwillie Environmental School in Grand Rapids, Michigan. These coalitions are analytically important in light of the issues of consultation in natural resource management policy mentioned earlier. Many historically and culturally significant properties to Michigan tribes are located on private land, so NEPA is useless for the protection and continued use of these properties by tribal members. These settler-tribal partnerships go beyond the limited options that the colonial state has offered us. Tribes in the Great Lakes region are reclaiming space and place on our terms by remeandering watersheds, revitalizing wild rice, healing the waters through ceremony, resisting environmental exploitation through water walks, and embracing productive partnership with our non-Indigenous allies.

By: Blaire Topash-Caldwell

Blaire Topash-Caldwell is a Community-Based Researcher with expertise in Space/Place, GIS, Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Critical Indigenous Studies. She is currently working on her dissertation, “Anishinaabe Engagements with Environmentalism: Indigenous Political Empowerment Centered on Traditional Knowledge Systems,” to receive a Ph.D. in Ethnology at the University of New Mexico (UNM) by 2018. She earned a Master’s in Ethnology from UNM, and a B.A. with focuses on Art, Anthropology, and Spanish from Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences.

About the author: Farina King

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