In 2012, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians engaged research specialists working in several different fields, including anthropology, the physical sciences, and law. Our assignment was to assemble a report to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about air quality on the tribe’s reservation in northern Wisconsin. With this report, the tribe aims to redesignate its reservation’s air quality from Class II to Class I under the “Prevention of Significant Deterioration” provisions of the federal Clean Air Act. The air on the reservation today is too clean to be classified as Class II, and redesignation as Class I will help the tribe ensure that this status is formally recognized and protected. In fact, the tribe first initiated this process in the 1990s, but suspended its work due to the anticipated legal costs that it would incur if the redesignation were challenged by the State of Wisconsin. Now that five other tribes in the United States—including the Potawatomis in Wisconsin—have set a precedent by achieving this same redesignation, Bad River decided to reinitiate the process.
The requirements of the federal law that enable redesignation of air quality include assessment of the environmental, health, social, and economic effects that upgrading air quality is likely to entail. Larry Nesper, who has extensive experience working with tribes in Wisconsin, was asked to contribute the “social effects” section of the report to the EPA. He invited me to assist him by conducting interviews with members and neighbors of Bad River during a one-week visit to the reservation in the summer of 2012.
We began our research with the premise that the sociocultural vitality of the Bad River community is rooted in culturally meaningful interactions with non-human elements of the landscape. Nesper’s previous research with the Sokaogan Band over the development of the Crandon mine has illustrated the deep significance of such relationships for Ojibwe people in Wisconsin. Thus, rather than focusing our interviews on speculations about what could happen if the high quality of air on the reservation were to deteriorate, we mainly discussed what people do on the landscape right now, how these activities underpin the health of the Bad River community, and what happens within the community when environmental degradation interferes with these activities.
From among the many activities that involve culturally meaningful interactions with the environment, one subset emerged as a particularly productive topic of conversation: the wild rice harvest that occurs in the late summer. Wild rice plays a key role in Ojibwe mythohistory and lends its Anishinaabe name to Bad River’s annual Manomin Powwow, which takes place during the harvest. “It’s just a big community thing out there, and a lot of people look forward to it,” one man said of the harvest. “It’s something else. If you come into the sloughs [the wetlands near the mouth of the Bad River] and you come around the last corner there by the line, you look and you can stand up in your boat and you can see all the guys out there ricing, all the boats, all the guys out there ricing. […] Same thing in spring time when there’s fishing: you’ll see everybody out there pulling their nets. You know, it’s always good to [ask], ‘Hey how’d you do?’ And, you know, finding out the scoop and it’s… it’s a lot of fun. It’s a whole community thing.” Our interviewees remembered going to the ricing camps that were set up near the slough during the rice harvests of their youth—occasions at which they learned about Ojibwe culture from their elders.
Several years ago, the committee of elders that oversees the rice harvest was forced to cancel the annual harvest entirely because low water levels in the Bad River slough disrupted the growing season for the rice, resulting in very low yields. The committee decided that any harvest would impair the rice’s ability to reseed itself for the following year. The cancelation was not prompted by poor air quality, and most interviewees did not attribute the poor yield to human-caused environmental damage. Still, the decision to cancel that harvest triggered tensions in the community that are of direct relevance to our research. One elder, who compared the normal rice harvest to a holiday that draws out-of-town relatives back to the reservation, recalled the year the harvest was canceled: “The younger people really got angry. They were looking forward to going out, bringing rice for the family. They’re all macho guys wanting to do all this stuff, and they couldn’t go. […] Some of the guys, they rice for their family and then they go and sell some. And so they got a little cash in their pockets and they can go buy something [that] they’re not able to get or whatever. And that’s not there. They have to go tell their grandparents there’s no rice. So nobody has the rice for the winter. And there’s special ceremonies, special holiday’s during the year, and on your birthday there’s rice. Whatever kind of meal you have, there’s always been rice there. And it’s…well, you’re feeling sad. It’s like a grieving when something has died. You know when someone dies there’s grieving because it’s not there no more.”
The wild rice harvest is, of course, only one of many activities that bring Bad River Ojibwe out onto the landscape. Our interviewees also talked at length about hunting, fishing, and gathering for subsistence and ceremonial purposes. Each of these activities strengthens the social fabric of the Bad River community as it draws people into closer relationships with each other and with non-human elements of the environment. Amongst humans, extensive networks of reciprocity are activated each time a resource is harvested: interviewees commented that they donate a part of their take from hunting and fishing to the elders, that they give to neighbors who have been less fortunate, that they give foods to relatives who live off the reservation, and so forth. These foods are also a necessary element of feasts celebrating life-cycle rituals. In fact, since many Ojibwe consider it taboo to replace feast foods with store-bought items, special licenses are issued by the tribal council for harvesting certain resources out of season when they are needed for feasts.
A prominent leader in the tribe explained how Ojibwe cosmology extends human sociality and reciprocity to non-humans: “essentially it’s an understanding that we’re sharing the land, that we’re sharing the water, that we’re sharing the air, and as much as we’re sitting here talking about impacts to the people of our reservation, if we really wanted to explore it through an Indian world view, we’re going to talk about the impacts—in as much depth as we do with people—as it pertains to frogs, blue herons, wild rice, forget-me-nots, things like that. Because they all have their spirit. Those rocks under that lake bed—when I talked about water clarity being as important as air clarity and the potential impacts—those rocks have a spirit, and the way we look at them and the way we pick them up and hold them and put them back and things like that, all of that stuff has a place and an importance in who we are and for what they are.”
Succumbing at one point to the temptation of “what ifs,” I asked two men of around 30 what might happen if the air and water quality were to worsen: “If there’s a haze over the watershed, or the mercury levels go up in fish, what happens?” The tone of the interview changed instantly. After losing himself for a moment in thought, one of the men replied, “I say we failed.” He explained: “You know, it’s not in our beings to just let that kind of stuff come into the land that we’re trying to protect and live off of. We are a part of the land, you know; it’s not just for us to use up the way we see fit, but to live within the means of the land. And, I don’t know, it’s just—it would be hard to imagine my rez with those kinds of things, with mercury pollution or any kind of pollution. I don’t know what to think if something like that were to happen.”
The second interviewee, an employee of the tribal natural resources department, agreed: “I think that failing, it’s huge.” He pointed out that the quality of the air, the water, and the land, which the tribe is attempting to protect, affects people well beyond the borders of the reservation. “So when we’re trying to preserve not only our rights and our waters and everything else, we’re trying to preserve [them] for the entire population—the entire world—because our area is something to be seen by, I believe, the entire world. We got one of the most pristine, beautiful wetland areas in the world, I believe. And I’ve been around a little bit in the United States and I’ve yet to see places [like those] that are seen around here. So I think if it becomes like that, [then] yeah, we failed. I think we’d lose a lot. I think our rice is so… so touchy. If an inch of water could affect how it grows I can just imagine what dirty air could do to it, and with the cycle that it’s in I think it’d just be too much for the rice to grow. But… it is something to think about, I guess. You never know until the day comes, but… it would be nice to preserve it for everybody in the future.”
Nesper completed a first draft of the “social effects” section of the report to the EPA in August 2012. He will return to Bad River in the summer of 2013 to conduct further interviews. When the physical scientists and the lawyers have weighed in, a final application will be made to the EPA with the full expectation that the agency will approve the higher air quality standards for the Bad River Community. Redesignation will reaffirm the pride with which community members speak about their stewardship of the land and will help them continue to look after the wellbeing of both human and non-human spirits that inhabit the landscape in and around the reservation. It may also become an important tool in the tribe’s efforts to oppose the construction of an iron mine that was recently approved by the State of Wisconsin.
Joe Quick is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He studies indigenous peoples and material culture in the global economy. His dissertation research explores tourist-oriented handicraft production in highland Ecuador.
Larry Nesper is Professor of Anthropology and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He studies American Indian law and politics in the Great Lakes area and is currently working on a book about tribal courts in Wisconsin. His edited volume with Brian Hosmer, Tribal Worlds: Critical Studies in American Indian Nation Building (SUNY Press), was published this year.