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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Water, Place, Relationships, and Environmental Justice: Core Themes of an Emerging Spirituality

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

This is the first in a series of pieces drawn from a recent on-line presentation for St. Philip Lutheran Church in Trenton, MI titled “Healing Waters: Growing Into a Spirituality of the Great Lakes.”

The title of this presentation talks about growing into a spirituality of the Great Lakes, and I like that phrase because it communicates that the spirituality of the Lakes is already here, in the water and the land, in the people, animal and plants that share the Great Lakes Basin, and in the wisdom that’s been passed down over centuries along with new insights that are being developed today. It's not something created or discovered, but rather something we all grow into together.

I’ve had the privilege of interviewing 20 different people since last May for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, and their stories and wisdom have inspired me and helped me grow into a spirituality of the Great Lakes. From those conversations, a few themes have started to emerge, and I’d like to start with what I call four “core” themes: Water, Place, Relationships, and Environmental Justice. Here are a few examples from those interviews for each of these themes.

Cave Point County Park; Door Co., WI (photo by Dan Robinson)


Over and over again, I heard people use the phrases, “Water is life” or “Water is sacred,” when talking about the importance of water in both practical and symbolic ways.

Jerry Jondreau and Katy Brisette are both part of the Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) tribe, with Jerry being a member of the Keweenaw Bay band and Katy a member of the Red Cliff band. Together they run Dynamite Hill Farms on ancestral Ojibwe land near Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

During our conversation over a fire at the Farm, Katy said, “Why is water itself considered sacred? Because the water is where you’re going to find food. It’s where you going to find your shelter. Where do you go when you’re lost in the wilderness? What’s the first thing you have to do? You have to find water. How you are even born and brought to this place, it’s because of water.”

Jerry added, “We’re in the heart of Turtle Island... We exist on the arteries of this place, as Anishinaabe people. That’s Ojibwe, that’s Odawa, that’s Potawatomi. The Great Lakes is us. And all the waterways that go out as main arteries of that turtle are places that we have traversed and cared for. And it’s been a part of our life.”

Huda Alkaff is Founder and Director of Wisconsin Green Muslims, and she wrote a guest column for the Project last summer. In the piece, she shared what she called “an important water story in Islam,” the story of Mother Hajjar, wife of Prophet Ibrahim and mother of Prophet Ismail, which emphasizes the important role that Muslim women play in Islam.

“Millions of people every year are making the Hajj to Makkah and following in the footsteps of mother Hajjar, as they perform their Hajj, moving from one hill to the other, as she did searching for water for her thirsty baby son. She had complete trust in God. She is a true example of a brave and pious woman who knew that she had not been abandoned in the desert and that she had a role to play in God’s great design. She discovered Zam Zam water, the holy water that keeps on giving life til today.”

Both symbolically and practically, water has represented life to people of all cultures and spiritualities across the globe, and even more so in a region like the Great Lakes Basin where water surrounds us.


The farmer and writer Wendell Berry said “There are no sacred and unsacred places; there are only sacred and desecrated places.” Every place in this world is sacred, but each is sacred in its own way. The Great Lakes Basin’s ecosystem affects all of us, including our spirituality, in a unique way, and that importance of place came through in so many interviews.

Dr. Patty Loew is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, a professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, and Director of Northwestern’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. During our conversation, she talked about the difference between native spirituality and the three main ”western” religions – Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. All three of these, she said, are liturgical and portable. They’re focused around events of the year, and the worship practices of these religions can take place anywhere. You can take sacred objects with you, like a prayer rug or a set of rosary beads.

“Native religions are very different,” she said. “They’re nature-based. When we talk about the Lake as being a spiritual being or rocks as being spiritual beings, native communities have at their center this sacred place. And every community that I’ve visited, the traditional people have this, whether it’s Oneida with Standing Stone back in present-day New York, or the Ho-Chunk with their place of origin at Móogašuc or Red Banks near Green Bay, or the Menominee with their origin stories of the Menominee River. There are these places that are sacred, and everything worth remembering emanates from that place.

“So, when people practice their spirituality, it’s connected to that place. They’re not praying for good fortune or good health or redemption. The adherents of these nature-based religions are praying for that place, for the health of that place. Which means you can’t be anywhere else and practice your religion. Your religion is place-based.

“So, when we have these struggles between corporate rights and sacred sites, there isn’t that understanding that a place itself is sacred, because legislators and developers don’t see stained glass. They don’t see spires. They don’t see all the things that we associate with the big three religions.

“In the case of my reservation, when the Wisconsin legislature was debating the mining bill, one of the legislators came up and looked over and said, ‘What’s the big deal? It’s nothing but a bunch of weeds.’ He didn’t see the sacredness of our wild rice. He just saw weeds, and that’s a really difficult thing to get across.”

Dr. Christopher Fici, a professor of religion and practitioner of Bhakti Yoga in the Hindu traditions, shared a personal example of the importance of place and the Great Lakes “From my own practice as a Hindu, and then also bringing this back to my Catholic side as well, there’s a sense that the Lakes, water, are a place where you can meet the Sacred very directly,” he said. “In Hindu traditions, people worship these sacred rivers, like the Ganges and the Yamuna River, with an understanding that these rivers are actually manifestations of divinity.”

“My experience of the Lakes now has become deeper because, in the very same sense that I would approach the Ganges River in India as being a sacred manifestation of divinity, that’s how I feel towards the Great Lakes,” he added. “That whole deep understanding of the sacredness of water, and that we actually directly encounter and have intimate relationship with the Divine through water, that is something I take with me every time I go to the Lakes.”

The dominant culture in the U.S., and I suspect in Canada as well, is mobile. We move around a lot. But, I believe that if we don’t love any one place, then we can’t love the planet as a whole. It is this principle of commitment to place, even in the midst of a mobile society, that helps us heal the spot where we live and love, and in turn help heal the Earth.


Part of why I like the title, “Healing Waters” is that the word “healing” could be a verb or an adjective. If it’s a verb, then it’s us doing the healing, reparing the damage we’ve done to the waters of the Great Lakes Basin. If “healing” is an adjective, then it’s the waters that are healing us. The pandemic, I think, has brought that point home for many people, as we go to the Lakeshores to find some calm or peace in the midst of all the stress, or as we rely on water to help keep us clean and safe from the coronavirus.

We’re in a reciprocal, mutual relationship with the waters of the Great Lakes, as well as all the animals, rivers, plants, and land of the Basin. We have a responsibility to heal the damage, and in turn the ecosystem of the Basin heals us.

Jerry Jondreau talked about that mutual relationship as he gave a tour of Dynamite Hill Farms. “These forests, these trees, these plants,” he said, “they are my relatives as well. So, as we get recycled with the nutrient cycles, my ancestors, my great grandmother who used to live back in those woods, her hair is part of that. Her skin that she shed is part of that. So, even on a much deeper level, these are my relatives. This is my family.”

That mutual relationship affects the individual health of each of us, as well. Win Kurlfink is a therapist working with people trying to recover from addiction. He is also the co-founder of the Perennial Waters Project at St. Philip Church. During our conversation, Win drew a parallel between the Great Lakes (particularly the southeast Michigan region) and personal well-being, speaking with “precisely the same reverence that I have for my own physical well-being as I do for this particular region... So, my personal recovery in my addictive behaviors is no different" than the recovery of the Great Lakes ecosystems.

Kelsey Leonard, a member of the Shinnecock Nation who represents the Nation on the Great Lakes Water Quality Board of the International Joint Commission, gave a wonderful TED Talk in which she asked, if the American legal system grants personhood to corporations, then why not the Great Lakes? ”This is not something new for us as Indigenous peoples. Our indigenous legal systems have a foundational principle of understanding our non-human relations as being living and protected under our laws.


Environmental justice means many things, including the principle that people of color and folks on low incomes shouldn't bear the brunt of environmental hazards and health risks, that they have as much right to a clean environment as anyone else.

For those of us who are white and have the privilege of not having to think about these issues all the time, this past year has served as a wake-up call that so much of justice in general, and environmental justice in particular, falls along lines of race and income. Blacks, Indigenous communities, and People of Color experience discrimination, racism, and violence because of white supremacy, and the problem is growing.

Looking at the Great Lakes Basin – a region rich with water resources – we see the horrific example of the people of Flint, a predominantly Black community, having to drink water poisoned with lead.

But the problem doesn’t exist only in Flint. Access to clean water is essential during this pandemic, yet we as a society are failing communities of color and low-income communities by not guaranteeing that access.

In the fall of 2019, three environmental organizations - the Natural Resources Defense Council, Coming Clean, and the Environmental Justice Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform collaborated on an analysis of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act from 2016-2019. The groups’ report, "Watered Down Justice," shows:

  • “a disturbing relationship” between clean drinking water violations and communities of color; and

  • enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act that is slow and inadequate in counties where a high number of residents are people of color or live on low incomes.

The report also showed that these two problems are present in four counties in the Great Lakes Basin, and it’s true also in an additional eight counties in the Basin where a moderate number of people on low incomes or people of color live.

That may not seem like a high number, four counties and eight counties, but I would say even one county is too many. Also, it is stunning to realize that poor families and people of color lack equitable access to clean water in a region where water is its defining characteristic.

Environmental Justice is a lens through which we need to see all Great Lakes issues, and a goal towards which our work must lead.

Next week, I'll look at supporting themes that have come from the interviews and work of the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, including grief and hope, the partnership of science and spirituality, interfaith work, and a sense of responsibility.


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