Paul DeMain | Lac Courte Oreilles Reservation, WI
I grew up in Wausau and have spent a lot of time around water. I was on the Wisconsin River. I was on Lake Wausau. My family did a lot of camping during that time. We visited Copper Falls State Park on a regular basis. We went to Madeline Island (Mooningwanaakaning Minis.) There is something really unique about being surrounded by water. I just came off the island this past weekend. There were gale winds of 70 to 80 miles an hour and all this fresh spray splashing off the shores. I was struck by this Gitchigaming, this large lake, and what she means for people living on Lake Superior.
Water is sacred in the Native community. It is vital to my people. We have people on a regular basis do ceremonies for water. There are women who get up every morning, put a little tobacco down, do a ceremony, and say, ‘Thank you. Thank you, great spirit. Thank you, creation. Thank you for clean water’.
Later, as an adult, I spent a lot of time around elders and other people who were concerned about the quality of water, pollution, and our natural resources. I learned how the quality of water directly impacts the wild rice we grow, the fish we catch, the deer, and other animals we hunt. For instance, we know that wild rice, which grows in shallow lake water, needs a hard winter freeze and low temperatures to germinate in the spring.
I moved to the Lac Courte Oreilles reservation in the 1970s to edit their tribal newspaper, and I became active in the Native community. One of the key elements of that community has always been the protection of its resources, because we eat the food we grow and gather from our environment. Here at my home, I have what I need. I have wood from these trees. I have sugar to preserve with after gathering sap from maple trees and cooking it down. I have a medicine with 26 different elements in it coming out of just one species of tree. I’ve got mushrooms growing in the backyard. I’ve got a variety of fish from the lake, walleye, and panfish. And clean water is important to all of that.
In the Native community, a lot of things have to do with balance. That’s how the world operates or at least we believe it’s supposed to. It’s got to remain in balance as creation made it, or it gets out of balance. And that’s what we’re seeing with our world now. Our water is at risk because of pollution, and because of warmer water temperatures caused by climate change. And that means our fishing is at risk, our growing wild rice is at risk, our hunting is at risk, so our lives are at risk. It means living off of the land in the traditional ways of our people is becoming harder and harder to do.
When I grew up, you could not see into the Wisconsin River at Wausau. It was because of all the mills. It was because of all the sewage being dumped into it. We’ve improved on that with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and other environmentally friendly legislation to clean up the rivers and waterways. During that era, there was a consciousness that something needed to be done.
But there are so many things that are left undone and need to be addressed. All of our pipelines in Wisconsin that are now battlegrounds over environmental issues were put in 50, 60, and 70 years ago when there was no EPA, there was no Army Corps of Engineering consulting. Our Great Lakes are at risk because of pollution.
For many years I worked for many years as a journalist. I edited ‘News from Indian Country’ and produced shows for ‘Indian Country TV,’ and shared stories many stories about protecting our earth’. I am an activist for protecting our water, for protecting our natural world. My name tells me that I am a messenger, and I feel I must use my voice for this purpose.
That person is going back home, and we’re going to give thanks to the earth for what it did for that individual to sustain them. I’m speaking for that individual as a way of thanksgiving, as a way to thank the waters and this earth for providing for that person, and for accepting that person back.
When you look at life from my perspective, from the perspective of my people, you realize the importance that water plays in our lives. Water is life. It plays all the roles from the time you come out of the water-filled womb. It is a prime giver and conveyor of life in all of its manners. That’s why it is so important that we protect our water.
If you look at what’s going on with the earth’s environment and climate, you can’t miss that something is changing, something is wrong. You can’t avoid it. Here in Wisconsin, we’re experiencing record flooding and warming temperatures. There are hundreds of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota lakes where there are water advisories against eating fish. This year there was an advisory that you can only eat one smelt a month. Do you know how small a smelt is? It’s the size of your little finger–but that is all you can eat safely.
So much of the economy here is dependent on water. There isn’t much snowshoeing here because of the weather change, it rains and thunders in December. Even the Bikebeiner has been warmed out a couple of times. There are hundreds of lakes that no longer have harvestable wild rice because it depends on needs pristine, clean, and flowing water to thrive. And wild rice was part of the reason the Ojibwe moved into the Great Lakes region.
What is happening to water is a prime indicator of what is happening to our earth. Of course, climate change is altering the role of water in our lives. As parts of the U.S. run out of water, its role becomes even more important, and the battle to keep what we have left clean, or even to keep it at all, grows stronger.
I find that there are more people who are aware of the warming of our climate and how it harms our water, causes a rise in the sea level, and impacts our lives in ways large and small. I think our young folks are aware of this more than anyone else. They want to take action to protect this earth, now and for the future. It’s the old people who are coming in there and saying, ‘Well, you know, my oil and gas stock is doing really well.’
Humankind has gone through a lot of evolution. But have we come forward really in terms of civilization, if we’re not looking out for the whole creation? Let’s talk about the right of nature. Let’s talk about the right of that female spiritual entity in that lake to live and thrive and be who and be all she’s supposed to be. Let’s get ourselves back into balance, please.
If mankind doesn’t come to its senses, we’re going to pay a hell of a price. But I think we have to have hope. I think we have to hope that however, we get through this – that our children get through it, that our grandchildren get through it – that there’s a future. That there’s a future with clean water and a cleaner environment and more understanding of each other. Somewhere out there, there’s hope that the earth is going to be revived and that mankind is going to be revived.
Paul’s story was produced by Julian Emerson as part of our series on Wisconsin’s water future. This series was funded by the ‘Beyond the Headlines’ initiative and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Beyond the Headlines (BTH) is a program of Wisconsin Humanities that brings members of the Wisconsin media and the public together to examine how we can obtain information that we need and trust in order to meet our communities’ challenges. BTH had a statewide Wisconsin Water Future project. You can learn more about it here.
Paul is a board member of Honor the Earth. They create awareness and support for Native environmental issues. You can learn more here about how Honor the Earth uses music, the arts, and Indigenous wisdom to ask people to recognize our joint dependency on the Earth and be a voice for those not heard.