Insights on climate from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa

Edith S. Leoso is the tribal historic preservation officer for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa.

How important is wild rice is to you?

Wild rice is highly important to us. It is part of our migration journey and is what prompted us to live where we are. We migrated from the East Coast along the Atlantic Ocean, Maine area, all the way down to where Cherokees are. That’s how far down the Ojibwe are. My teacher, Edward Benton-Banai, wrote a book, “Voice of the Ojibwe” that tells our migration journey and how we travelled. There are maps with the stopping places we took. It happened through prophecies; we’re not sure even today, if these prophets were actual people or spirits. What they told us came to fruition. They said we would need to move to the west because there would be a light skinned race that would come across the Great Salt Water. This is prior to any Europeans, prior to the Vikings coming.

Of course, there was huge skepticism but eventually people saw different things happening that the prophets mentioned would happen. So, the migration began. We knew we would come to seven stopping places. We would know if we were on the correct path when we would see an island in the beginning and end of our journey that looked like a turtle. At the end of our journey, at the final stopping place, that is where we would find the food that grows on top of the water. And that is wild rice.

We knew what it was because there’s still manoomin (wild rice) in Maine and they continue to harvest rice there. The Micmac people continue to rice and we keep a dialogue open and meet them. When we connected again with our Micmac relatives, about 20 years ago, an elder woman came to our town of “Odanah” and asked, “The name of your village, what does it mean? How do you say it?” I said “Odanah” simply in English means, “village” but it literally is translated to mean, “A place of the heart.” “Ode” is heart in our language. “Na” is a short version of the word that means place. It’s the place where everybody came together from their small clans into one centralized location and that was an “Odanah.”

Manoomin (wild rice) in the Bad River Slough. Photo credit: Megan Powless

There are more “Odanah’s” around. I told her that and she said, “I know that, we have one in Maine. There is a place where all the elders gather around this tree. We don’t know how old that tree is and how long they have been meeting there, but if there’s anything important to discuss they go there and they call that place ‘Odanah.'” That’s probably where we were at then, our people. She said the place is so old we didn’t even know what language it was in, until she came here to “Odanah.” We revitalized a connection with them ever since.

How has the wild rice harvest been recently?

This year we had an epic wild rice harvest, it’s still going on. We revitalized the ancient way of bundling rice in order to get the highest yield from the stock. I was looking at what attributed to that wild rice growth, and I believe it was the water levels that rose, which has been consistently dropping since I was a child of 8 to 9 years old. And with that dropping water level, was also the depletion of the wild rice in our Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs area, which is on the National Natural Landmark registry as the largest naturally grown wild rice bed on the Great Lakes.

In observing what had been going on, I also noticed that a lot of the Tag Alder trees were falling away from the sides of the banks. They were dying off. More light was hitting the rice alongside the river. That was another contributing factor. The other one was the sustaining warmer weather with low winds for couple of weeks. That type of weather promoted the wild rice growth exponentially. We had this epic rice season here. We don’t even know how many pounds came out of the 16,000 acres or so.

You are asking about climate change, and when I read the email, it said “underrepresented communities” and I thought, you know we’re not really underrepresented communities, we are just straight up ignored because we’ve been talking about the cumulative effects on the environment since the signing of the treaties in 1800s. We’ve tried meeting with the presidents and everything, even back when there was an overharvest of fish in the lake and when they threw out all the lake sturgeon, which died on the beaches. We knew they were important.

Changing water levels affect the wild rice harvest. Photo credit: Megan Powless

It wasn’t until 2020 or so that they realized lake sturgeon are important. Yes, they’re important and we need to revitalize them. I’m glad they’re making some kind of comeback. They recently posted a 17-foot lake sturgeon that emerged. The way we looked at it is that the old one is showing itself to us to let us know that they are still there.

These environmental changes have been happening since the treaties were signed?

Yes, and again, it isn’t like we haven’t said anything about it. There are several things you can see in legislative history where we’ve been talking about it. Saying, “Hey! You need to stop this, you can’t be harvesting so many trees, you can’t be taking so many fish.” There were so many impacts on the environment.

What else would you like people to know?

There needs to be more teeth in our environmental laws in order to slow the process. My first boss, who retired now, he would not even go to Environmental Protection Agency meetings. He would ask if is there anything that makes it substantial, that we can use to be able to say you can’t do it? And they would say ‘no’, so he would ask why should I meet them. There are no teeth to any law that will enable this to be prevented. I think what I want is for people to know, there’s nothing that really protects creation.

I am not talking about pro-life. I am talking about pro-life of the entire creation. I quit calling the environment the environment. I call it “the creation” because that’s what it is. It is what is placed here for us to be able to live a long good life. When I get college students coming in and saying, “yeah, my roommate didn’t even know that a blueberry grew on a bush,” I say because nobody knows our relation with the earth anymore. I think that unless we can have, either through legislation or policy, the ability to assist in the protection of the environment and be able to slow the process of climate change, it will continue the way it is.

We’re probably the people that have the most interest in that here, in this place. Because we’ve been here way before the light skinned race showed up, long before. We know so much about everything and how it has changed. How there are certain places that don’t have berries anymore. How there’s certain fish that don’t come anymore and a bit of how per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are affecting those fish. Different things in creation that are manmade are affecting everything.

When we experienced the flood in 2016, and that was one of the things that prompted Nicholas Pinter of National Public Radio to come over here, because he heard about how flooding had started in 1960s and that we had to eventually start moving our people to higher ground two miles up the road. Moving our people two miles up the road, away from the river also initiated a loss of culture. One of the losses was that our kids didn’t know how to swim and they didn’t know how to paddle a canoe. Paddling a canoe is integral in harvesting wild rice.

The other thing is that, a lot of our families don’t have boats. When we lived close to the river, every single family had a boat, whether they made it themselves or purchased it. I think we made most of them because we didn’t have boat trailers because all of our homes were closer to the river and everything was right there. I never remember boats being transferred on a trailer. They were either tied up on the top of their car and moved down to the river. They kept them tied up down on the river all season long until it was time to winterize the boat.

You had to move farther away from the river because of the flooding?

Yes, because of flooding. There were a couple of things that happened. One was climate change, back in the 1960s. Deforestation happened through the late 1800s into the early 1900s. With deforestation then there was nothing to stop the water, nothing to absorb the water that’s coming down, and there occurred a change in climate as well. Now we’ve rebounded from that quite a bit. Our entire reservation is forested, probably I would say 96 percent or more. Only maybe 2 percent of our reservation is developed, and a lot of it is sustainable development.

Right now, we’re moving out of the use of fossil fuels and hooking up solar energy, and talking about wind energy, to our facilities. It’s slow because we’ve talked about it since 1980s but the funding is just catching up right now. The federal government finally got on board that it should happen, 30 years later.

We’re even discussing mass transit with renewable energy because we see that the loss of fossil fuels is imminent. Why wait for it to stop, rather we should start moving towards renewables and inviting Tesla and whoever into the communities so that we could test drive their cars in a four-season environment.

Do you have hope for the future?

I always have hope for the future, you know, even if there’s a complete degradation to the earth, she still keeps living and she heals herself eventually. I know that much.

I think that people need to be reminded of that seventh generation down the road. We shouldn’t be doing anything that will negatively impact them. We should look down the road and think, is this going to be good for them, how is it going to be good, what is it going to do. There should be no harm to humanity. We should be looking at humanity as sacred and take care of the breath of life that we have. I am saying it that way because in our teachings there was a creator who gave us the breath of life and when it is time, we exhale it and it goes to a new life that will come up. We say that is the creator’s breath that we have within us, that we begin life with.

It’s a different perspective of how we look at climate change. Unless all of human kind begins to change their way of thinking and their way of using the things in the environment, including the fossil fuels and corn and things like that, we will continue to move in this direction of changing climate until we can’t breathe anymore. We have degraded our breath of life so much. But we know that if we start thinking ahead of everybody else and if we start implementing things, then perhaps we can have something in place for the generation down the road. And their seventh generation to be able to pick it up.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Edith S. Leoso
Bad River Band of Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa
Tribal Historic Preservation Officer
(715) 682-7123, ext. 1662
thpo@badriver-nsn.gov