Renewing Relatives: One Tribe's Efforts to Bring Back an Ancient Fish

By Holtgren, Marty; Ogren, Stephanie et al. | Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2015 | Go to article overview

Renewing Relatives: One Tribe's Efforts to Bring Back an Ancient Fish


Holtgren, Marty, Ogren, Stephanie, Whyte, Kyle, Earth Island Journal


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 nme. When the colonizers arrived, they renamed nme "lake sturgeon."

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. Nme 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 nme 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 nme images.

Before the colonizers arrived, nme 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 nme 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 nme 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, H environmental pollution, and dams that blocked nme from returning to their natal streams and rivers to spawn--led to a drastic decline in nme populations. By the early 2000s, only about 40 to 50 fish a year returned to spawn in the Big Manistee River and many historic nme rivers lost their populations completely. Nme came back to the river, not as a healthy component of either the river or tribal culture, but weakened, embattled, and imperiled. Today, nme 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, nme became a forgotten fish.

For the Anishinaabek, the nme'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 nme populations in the Big Manistee watershed, and revive their cultural and ecological connection to their nonhuman kin. …

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