Renewing Relatives

One tribe's efforts to bring back an ancient fish

For centuries, the ancestors of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, an Anishinaabe people of the Great Lakes region, gathered on the banks of the Big Manistee River every spring to celebrate the annual return of a revered fish to its age-old spawning grounds. So ancient is this fish species, and so deeply intertwined is it with the tribe’s culture and survival, that the Anishinaabek sometimes call it the “grandfather fish.” But usually tribal members refer to the fish, which has been around since dinosaurs roamed the earth, as nmé. When the colonizers arrived, they renamed nmé “lake sturgeon.”

artwork depicting a human interacting with sturgeonillustration Yevgenia Nayberg

For many generations this massive, gray-white colored fish – which can reach up to six feet or more in length, weigh more than 150 pounds, and live up to 150 years – served the Anishinaabek as a substantial food source. “The grandfather fish would sacrifice itself so the people would have food [during the lean seasons] until the other crops were available,” says Jay Sam, the historic preservation officer of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, who live in what is now Michigan and within whose lands the Big Manistee River watershed lies. Nmé populations in different parts of the rivers and streams also were aligned with clan-spirit and identity.

“There were different places on the river that were set for sturgeon clans,” says Jimmie Mitchell, the tribe’s director of natural resources. Just as Anishinaabe families today are descendants of generations of Anishinaabek from this region, so too are surviving nmé today the descendants of those who interacted with the very same families generations ago. The fish was so important to the traditional culture that Anishinaabe leaders would sign documents with nmé images.

Before the colonizers arrived, nmé could be found in lakes and rivers all the way from Canada to Alabama, and were abundant in the basins of the Great Lakes, Hudson Bay, and Mississippi River. Regardless of this abundance, the Anishinaabek maintained a conservative approach to their harvesting practices, ever mindful that the balance of nature is in a constant state of change. But that wasn’t the way of settlers, who initially killed nmé as a nuisance by-catch because the bottom-feeding (or benthic) sturgeon damaged their fishing gear. Then, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as lake sturgeon meat and eggs became prized, they trapped and killed nmé in even larger numbers. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, between 1879 and 1900 the Great Lakes commercial sturgeon-fishing fleet caught an average of 4 million pounds of fish per year.

This kind of overharvesting, along with other factors – such as clearcut logging practices, stocking rivers with nonnative fish species for sport fishing, environmental pollution, and dams that blocked nmé from returning to their natal streams and rivers to spawn – led to a drastic decline in nmé populations. By the early 2000s, only about 40 to 50 fish a year returned to spawn in the Big Manistee River and many historic nmé rivers lost their populations completely. Nmé came back to the river, not as a healthy component of either the river or tribal culture, but weakened, embattled, and imperiled. Today, nmé are at less than 1 percent of their historic numbers and are listed as either threatened or endangered by 19 of the 20 states within their original range. In many ways, especially to settler Americans, nmé became a forgotten fish.

For the Anishinaabek, the nmé’s reduced runs meant the gradual erosion of a system of symbiotic living and the many traditions associated with it. “Decline of the sturgeon has corresponded with decline in sturgeon clan families,” says Kenny Pheasant, a culture carrier who teaches Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Anishinaabe, to people throughout the Great Lakes region. “Only a few sturgeon clan families are known around here.”

But there’s hope. During the past decade, a unique restoration effort by the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians has helped bolster nmé populations in the Big Manistee watershed, and revive their cultural and ecological connection to their nonhuman kin.

After the US reaffirmed its “recognition” of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians as a sovereign nation in 1994, the tribe used its new government status to formalize natural resource stewardship and environmental protection programs. Restoring relatives such as nmé is a central part of that.

Yet restoring nmé using the Indigenous conception of stewardship was not easy. Some people in the Manistee area believed that tribal people did not desire to live sustainably. They believed that treaty rights were unfair to settler Americans. The state of Michigan questioned tribal efforts for nmé restoration, claiming that the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians did not have the legal authority to engage in restoration work. Many local residents thought it was a waste of time and money to restore a fish that might take 100 years to recover fully.

In short, settler Americans did not understand Anishinaabe culture. They did not understand the Anishinaabe concept of sustainability, which is based on maintaining the relationships connecting humans, plants, animals, and the land. It’s a concept we call baamaadziwin, which in the Anishinaabemowin language means “living in a good and respectful way.” Baamaadziwin, Mitchell explains, motivates people to go beyond being good and just “to being servants, devoting ourselves to making a difference in all that has occurred and may still be occurring within our respective communities and environment.” This, he says, “includes restoring the balance of our shared natural environment and of all inhabitants who are dependent upon a robust ecosystem.”

The tribe was convinced that reclaiming the nmé’s rightful place in the watershed would restore the river’s other kin.

Despite the resistance from settler Americans, the tribe stubbornly persisted in its nmé restoration efforts, deeming it a sacred responsibility. The tribe was convinced that by reclaiming the nmé’s rightful place within the watershed, balance would be restored to the river’s other nonhuman kin. So tribal members and biologists crafted the “LRBOI Sturgeon Stewardship Plan.” The plan envisioned a holistic management approach that would address the numerous threats to not only the watershed, but to the Great Lakes Basin as a whole. Although aimed at rehabilitating and reclaiming nmé, it also provided for the health and improvement of the animals, plants, and people living within the watershed.

The Sturgeon Program launched in 2001 and a year later the tribe successfully documented natural reproduction of lake sturgeon by capturing newly hatched nmé larvae (fry) from the Big Manistee River. In 2004, the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians established the first portable streamside rearing facility where young nmé collected from the river in spring were nurtured and protected until the fall, when they were released back into the same river. This was the first time the technique had ever been used for lake sturgeon. Its success was especially important because this technique kept the fish “home” during rearing and because maintaining the genetic makeup of nmé populations in different rivers is crucial for the Anishinaabek, whose traditional beliefs include specific relationships between particular families and their local fish populations. This idea also supports the principles of conservation biology, which seeks to maintain the unique genetic attributes of each river’s nmé population.

Since 2004, another five streamside facilities based on the same design have been set up within the Lake Michigan Basin. The tribe’s Nmé Stewardship Plan is now a guiding document for nmé restoration in the Great Lakes, and it has changed how the region’s fisheries are managed today. Many agencies, including the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, now collaborate with the tribe’s sturgeon program.

The success of the restoration program can be measured not only by the number of reared sturgeon in the Great Lakes, but in the changed the relationship between the settler Americans in the Manistee area and the Anishinaabek. Fishing guides, who previously were suspicious of the restoration initiatives, have begun voluntarily helping locate sturgeon. Outfitters educate their clients about the importance of nmé and tribal stewardship. Settler Americans are now happy to see the tribal biologists on the river. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians is no longer simply seen as a “casino tribe,” but as a nation doing distinctive work in the region based on Anishinaabe culture and science. The watershed community now views nmé as a species whose presence makes the Manistee area special. The fish has been able to both heal old wounds and create new, sustainable, relationships among people, even in a watershed where these relationships have been strained by settler colonialism.

Now, every September hundreds of people – Native as well as settler – gather by the banks of the Big Manistee River to release young nmé into the waters with much fanfare, ceremony, and feasting. Each person cups a young sturgeon in his or her hand and gently guides it back to the river. A lasting connection is built between fish and human. Most non-Natives present at the ceremony are probably not ready to adopt the Anishinaabe way of thinking about the world and our place in it. But in that moment of release they embrace a sense of themselves linked to a watershed shared with their nonhuman kin.

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