June 27, 2022

Tribes build muscle to fight for Great Lakes

Nov. 23, 2005
Could an historic alliance of Great Lakes native peoples prevent the destruction of the lakes as we know them today?
“Imagine a future where there are bus tours of shipwrecks on the former bottomlands of the Great Lakes,” says Frank Ettawageshik, Chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. “We can’t let that happen.”
Ettawageshik is one leader bringing tribes from the U.S. and first nations from Canada together to oppose diversions and large-scale withdrawals from the Great Lakes basin. The nascent group, now called the United Indian Nations of the Great Lakes (UINGL), has met twice during the past year and is forming stronger relationships among themselves and with other groups involved in Great Lakes water protection.
The movement focuses on the future of the Great Lakes, while rooted in history and native tradition that knows no artificial national boundaries.

The endeavor comes at a time when more arid Southwestern states are gaining population and political muscle at the expense of Great Lakes states. And Great Lakes states are faltering at protecting their greatest resource.
Reapportionment of congressional seats following the 2000 census saw every Great Lake state except Minnesota lose seats, for a total of nine lost. But Southwest states gained eight seats.
This followed similar patterns from reapportionment after the 1990 census: five Great Lake states lost11 seats, and three Southwest states gained 11.
The Colorado River has already been drained for the growing megalopolises of Central Arizona and Southern California. And many fear that these thirsty Southwest communities may someday turn a roving eye toward the Great Lakes.
“People out West look at water as a gold mine,” says Bob Kewaygoshkum, Chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “We as tribes must unite together and with others to help stop water diversions. Actions we take today will affect our grandchildren--for seven generations.”
But even states within the Great Lakes basin cannot be trusted to protect this vital resource. In 2001, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, under Governor Engler, approved a permit to allow Perrier to withdraw more than one-half million gallons per day from an aquifer in Mecosta County for a water bottling plant. Most of the water from the plant would be sold outside the Great Lakes basin.

Tribes bring political power to the table that is not governed by states, let alone state population shifts. As sovereign nations, tribal governments possess government-to-government relationships with the federal government.
These tribal and federal relationships
are rooted in treaties. And many treaties reserve tribal fishing rights, which are contingent upon the health of the Great Lakes ecosystem.
Ellen Kohler is a Traverse City attorney who works on natural resources issues for the GTB. According to Kohler, “States should recognize the obvious--that treaties between the federal governments and tribes throughout the Great Lakes created tribal interests in Great Lakes water that are not governed by state water law.”
The effort to unite native governments on both sides of the border is in large part aimed at influencing U.S. and Canadian policy relating to implementing the Annex 2001 Agreement. The Annex is a supplement to the 1985 Great Lakes Charter, which establishes water resource management principles among U.S. Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces. The Annex would set a common standard for water diversions and withdrawals.
The tribes of the U.S. and first nations of Canada are aligning themselves to throw their collective political weight at the Annex process. Unfortunately, native peoples were not brought into the Annex process at the beginning—which is all too common. Rather, they were treated as stakeholders and asked to comment.
Tribes and first nations do not wish to be treated as stakeholders. As sovereign nations, they deserve to be consulted as partners on a government-to-government level. As such, the UINGL is developing its own parallel process to develop positions on diversions and withdrawals. The UINGL will then negotiate directly with other parties involved in the Annex debate.
UINGL members are participating as observers in Annex discussions held by the Council of Great Lakes Governors. And representatives of the council have participated as observers in the UINGL discussions.
Great Lakes indigenous peoples first met in response to the Annex 2001 process in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in November 2004. At that meeting, representatives from more than 140 tribes and first nations signed the historic Tribal and First Nations Great Lakes Water Accord.
The Accord begins by saying:

“Our ancestors have inhabited the Great Lakes Basin since time immemorial, long before the current political boundaries were drawn. Our spiritual and cultural connections to our Mother Earth are manifest by our willingness to embrace the responsibility of protecting and preserving the land and waters.”
And ends by saying:
“By this accord signed on November 23, 2004, at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, the Tribes and First Nations of the Great Lakes Basin do hereby demand that our rights and sovereignty be respected, that any governmental effort to protect and preserve the Waters of the Great Lakes Basin include full participation by Tribes and First Nations, and we also hereby pledge that we share the interests and concerns about the future of the Great Lakes Waters, further pledging to work together with each other and with the other governments in the Great Lakes Basin to secure a healthy future for the Great Lakes.”

The UINGL was officially launched at an April 2005 meeting in Niagara Falls, Ontario. The location is historically significant: This was the largest gathering of Great Lakes native leaders since the signing of the Treaty of Niagara in 1764. That treaty grew out of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which provided all land west of the Ottawa River was Indian land.
The Treaty of 1764 was “a watershed moment in common law that recognized aboriginal title,” says John Beaucage, Grand Council Chief of the Union of Ontario Indians. “The idea of having a (UINGL) meeting in Niagara Falls about the Great Lakes seemed to make sense from an historical perspective. We were reasserting our aboriginal title to the Great Lakes.”
Beaucage was the Canadian force, along with Ettawageshik from the U.S. side, that led formation of the UINGL. He cites a group of native women called the Water Walkers as inspiration for starting the UINGL effort.
The Water Walkers recall the traditional Anishnabe role of women as protectors of water--the lifeblood of Mother Earth. The women began carrying a copper bucket full of water around each Great Lake in 2003 to bring attention to the plight of the lakes. So far, they have completed their journeys around Lakes Superior and Michigan.
George Bennett, GTB vice chairman and long-time leader on Tribal environmental issues, looks at the water diversion issue as just one of many threats to the Great Lakes--from invasive species to airborne power plant mercury pollution that ends up in fish. He likens short-sighted environmental policies to racking up a debt that will be passed on for generations. “We need to put our credit cards away. . . or somebody needs to put a max on our credit cards,” he says with a laugh.
It is inarguable that native peoples were the first environmentalists--and to this day are better stewards of our air, land and water than non-native cultures. Native philosophy places extreme importance on caring for our natural resources, as they are the basis for our very existence.
Native leaders see the current debate over Great Lakes water diversions as an important milestone in the continuum spanning from the beginning of time to seven generations and more into the future.
When asked why he and John Beaucage reached out to their native brothers and sisters across the Great Lakes to start the UINGL, Frank Ettawageshik simply responds “It’s the right time in history for this to come about.”

Andy Knott is the environmental stewardship director for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.


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