Ojibwe Gichigami (“Ojibwa’s Great Sea”): an intersecting history of treaty rights, tribal fish harvesting, and toxic risk in Keweenaw Bay, United States

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Great Lakes Research Center


Ojibwe Gichigami (“Ojibwa’s Great Sea”) is the spirit name for Lake Superior; it is also the homeland of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC) where Gichigami fishing has sustained the people for nearly a millennia. As signatories to the 1842 Treaty With The Chippewa, the KBIC retain rights for hunting, fishing, and gathering, and worship within ten-million acres of ceded land and water territory. However, due to elevated levels of toxics such as methyl-mercury and polychlorinated-biphenyls (PCBs), Lake Superior is currently under numerous fish consumption advisories that inform the public of harmful contamination levels. Thus, harvesting provides socio-cultural and spiritual wellbeing for the KBIC, and simultaneously, places their physical health at great risk. By using ethnographic methods and oral histories, this article illustrates how an intersecting history of KBIC treaty rights, tribal fish harvesting, and toxic risk is the center of their water story. Over the course of several decades, they have encountered dire consequences due to federal assimilation policies, state regulatory control over their harvesting, and environmental degradation and contamination. KBIC present-day perspectives of toxic risk are rooted in this history. In 1971, the Michigan Supreme Court presented a landmark decision: the People v. Jondreau reaffirmed 1842 treaty rights for the KBIC. This precedential decision was followed by Great Lakes states issuing the nation’s first fish advisories. The KBIC historical context is imperative to understanding present day environmental policy and its relevance (or irrelevance) for those most at-risk, emphasizing how social injustices are manifested through a people’s water history.

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Water History