Great Lakes native tribes knowledge key to climate change work | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MOLE LAKE — In late August, Robert Van Zile Jr., looked out over Rice Lake with dismay. Brown spot disease had decimated this year’s wild rice crop.
The lake is home to the last remaining wild rice bed on the Mole Lake Sokaogon Ojibwe Reservation, and one of the few ancient beds left in Wisconsin. Researchers collect seeds there annually for reseeding projects in other parts of the state. In addition to nutritional and cultural value, wild rice beds create habitat for fish, filter pollutants and nutrients out of the water, and provide food for migrating birds.
This year, Van Zile, chairman of the Mole Lake Ojibwe Tribe, had to deny researchers and other outside harvesters so there would be enough for tribal members.
“(Ricing) is very important because there are people who don’t have jobs, who have children, and they need the rice to provide for their families,” said Van Zile’s son, Leelyn Van Zile, who is a rice chief for the tribe. The rice – manoomin, in Ojibwe – is a staple in their diet.
Researchers believe the fungus causing brown spot disease is spreading quickly because it thrives on the intense rainfall and hotter, more humid weather ushered in with climate change. As extreme conditions become more common, natural resources will be stressed further.
Mole Lake Ojibwe tribal officials said the plant once grew on seven bodies of water within the reservation. Now, it occupies just the 2-mile shoreline of Rice Lake, mostly the result of development that was out of the tribe’s control.
The Indigenous communities that call this region home have been practicing good land stewardship and sharing that message with others. But for too long, that message hasn’t been heard.
The tribes hold thousands of years of expertise. They believe their traditional ecological knowledge is critical to safeguarding resources and cleaning up the land, air and water for everyone. And they’re keenly aware that our relationship with nature is at one of the most critical junctures in history.
The question is: Will anyone pay attention?
Is the U.S. government at fault?
Some say that’s not just an environmental issue. It’s a legal one.
The federal government has failed to consistently uphold tribal treaty rights against the state and developers, tribes contend, shirking its duty to protect resources on reservations and ceded territories. (Ceded territories are off-reservation lands where tribes have the rights to hunt, fish and gather.)
“If we don’t have access to the walleye or wild rice anymore because they’re extinct because of climate change, that is a fault of the U.S. government because they have violated that treaty,” said Bazile Minogiizhigaabo Panek, a member of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, and a consultant for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, based at Northern Arizona University.
Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, acknowledged to the Journal Sentinel that the agency has “room for improvement” when it comes to safeguarding tribal resources. Engaging with tribal leaders is a top priority, he said, and the EPA is hosting listening sessions and hoping to strengthen relationships.
Symbolic progress was made just last month when Milwaukee County became the first county in the state to pass a “rights of nature” resolution. The effort is part of a global movement grounded in Indigenous knowledge, and aimed at making sure human activities do not interfere with the health of land and waterways.
Panek has seen these positive shifts in recent years with more agencies, researchers and organizations asking to consult with tribes and integrate traditional ecological knowledge.
Still, there’s a long way to go.
Western thinking tends to separate people from nature, removing the responsibility to protect it, and making solutions seem out of reach.
Traditional ecological knowledge prioritizes gratitude and forward-thinking solutions, helping bring back the human connection with nature and the land.
Tribal governments are “an integral part of the success of what we’re doing in this country,” Regan said. “As we clean up our waters and fight climate change, we know that our tribal leaders will help us solve this.”
Treaty rights include protections for the environment
Wisconsin is home to 11 federally recognized tribes. Of those, six are Ojibwe, whose peoples started migrating to the upper Great Lakes region from the East Coast about 1,500 years ago. They were in search of a place to settle where prophesy told them they would find food that grows on water – making manoomin central to their identity.
The Ojibwe were forced to cede tens of millions of acres to the U.S. government in a series of four treaties, signed in 1836, 1837, 1842 and 1854, that created what is now Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The Ojibwe tribes were put on reservations and granted “the usual privileges of occupancy,” according to the treaties, which means the rights to hunt, fish and gather in the off-reservation ceded territories.
Since the treaties were signed, there’s been disagreement over how to interpret them, particularly when it comes to natural resources. In Wisconsin, repeated penalization of tribal members for hunting, fishing and gathering off-reservation led the Lac Courte Oreilles tribe to sue the state in 1975. Five Ojibwe tribes joined in the lawsuit.
In 1983, a federal court of appeals sided with the tribes, affirming members’ right to hunt, fish and gather in the ceded territories. It also opened the door to a deeper understanding of what those rights meant about the protection of related resources.
The treaty right to fish is more than the physical act of casting a line or a net, said Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s about the environment the fish have to live in. And there not only needs to be clean water where the fish live, but in the tributaries that lead into them.
Robert Lundberg, associate attorney for the Tribal Partnerships Program at the environmental law group Earthjustice, pointed to Washington v. United States, in which tribes successfully argued that the state of Washington was infringing on treaty rights by building culverts that diminished the size of salmon runs in their traditional fishing areas.
“I think other people, too, are hopeful to see if that logic shows up elsewhere in other treaty rights cases – understanding that the right is more than just the right to take the fish, or shoot the deer, or harvest the plant,” Lundberg said.
Wolf hunt controversy highlights breakdown between state, tribes
Even when treaty rights are affirmed, government officials may not collaborate with tribes.
Wolves recently started making a comeback in northern Wisconsin after more than four decades on the federal endangered species list.
The gray wolf is considered sacred by the Ojibwe, like a spiritual brother. Tribal officials also argue that wolves are necessary to a healthy ecosystem.
Adrian Wydeven, a biologist with the Rhinelander-based conservation group Green Fire, said wolves target diseased animals, such as deer, elk, reindeer and moose, before the disease can affect the rest of the herd. Wolves also encourage animal populations not to linger in a particular part of a forest, which may help the forest regenerate naturally.
Soon after the gray wolf was no longer classified as endangered, the Wisconsin DNR scheduled a hunting season on it. Some ranchers in northern Wisconsin had complained that wolves were killing their unprotected livestock.
Tribal officials favor non-lethal methods in resolving conflicts that wolves might have with pets and livestock. Non-lethal methods include using guard dogs or fladry — colored flags that flap in the wind and deter wolves from crossing an area or property.
In early 2021, the DNR set a quota of 200 wolves to be killed in the first hunt for population control. Following treaty rights, the Ojibwe claimed 81 wolves of that quota to be saved — and not available to hunters — as their portion.
Nevertheless, hunters trapped and killed 218 wolves.
Perhaps not surprisingly, gray wolves went back on the endangered list in February 2022.
Six tribes had filed suit in the Western District of Wisconsin in September 2021 to halt another planned wolf hunt that fall. The case was dismissed when wolves were relisted in 2022.