Lake Superior, Spirituality, and Seventh-Generation Earth Ethics: A Conversation with Dr. Patty Loew
Updated: Jan 30
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. She previously worked as a broadcast journalist in public and commercial television, producing and hosting numerous programs and documentaries, including “Way of the Warrior,” which aired nationally on PBS in 2007 and 2011. The author of four books about native peoples in Wisconsin, her latest is “Seventh Generation Earth Ethics: Native Voices of Wisconsin.”
She recently talked with me for the Great Lakes Spirituality Project, and the following are portions of that conversation, lightly edited for flow. For the full conversation, including her telling of the Oneida creation story, please see the video below.
Could you talk about your tribe’s connection to and relationship with Lake Superior?
Dr. Loew: Lake Superior, Gichi Gaamee as we call it, is really the source of our sustenance both spiritually and in a physical sense. Our reservation is on the south shore of Lake Superior and we’ve always looked to the Lake for the food we eat, the ceremonies we do.
Our particular reservation has 75 acres of wild rice. If you know anything about wild rice, it’s an indicator species. It cleans the water. We’ve called them the lungs of Lake Superior. They really allow the water from the larger lake to breathe. It filters the water. It’s a nursery for fish, for small mammals, for birds. Our people have been eating the rice forever. It’s at the heart of our identity. It’s the reason why we’re where we are.
Back who knows how long ago, in the beginning of time, there was a flood that covered the earth. It caused us to move from the places that we are now to the east coast. We were there for a very, very long time. There were prophecies that we needed to return to our homelands because there was a crisis happening, and unless we left and returned to the place where the food grows on water, we would be destroyed. So, the people packed up.
The Ojibwe, Potawatomi, and Odawa moved together, following along what today we call the St. Lawrence River from the east coast, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, back to the western Great Lakes region, in search of this food that grows on water. And of course, when we got back to the Lake Superior region we found rice growing on the water. That was the fulfillment of our prophecy.
If you look at the events of our past, everything connects to wild rice. The wars that we fought, the treaties we signed, the documents we negotiated, the ceremonies we do, the powwow we hold, everything in our being revolves around rice. Lake Superior, and the wild rice beds that support it, is who we are as Ojibwe people.
How does the location of the Bad River Band along Lake Superior affect your spirituality?
It is really difficult to explain because I think most of the major religions – I’m talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam – really are more liturgical. There are events, and the calendar is really organized around the birth of Jesus, or the Ascension, or the Assumption. So, no matter where you are in the world, you can pick up your holy objects. You can put a prayer rug over your shoulder. You can put a rosary in your pocket. You can wear a Star of David around your neck. You can travel the planet and you can connect with your religion, say your prayers, or whatever you spiritual routine is. You can practice your spirituality anywhere on the planet. And most often times you can find people of like-mind who will practice with you.
Native religions are very different. 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.
What place does language have in communicating this worldview of being tied to a place?
For me, it comes from my clan obligations. I’m a member of the loon clan. The loons were the diplomats and the communicators. We were the runners that carried messages from community to community back in the old days. Of course I’m going into journalism and communications. Literally, I was born to do this!
I think traveling and experiential learning is really important. That’s what I feel like I’ve been so blessed to have experienced in my life, spending really quality time in native communities, primarily in the western Great Lakes region, but also in the Pacific northwest and the American southwest.
When you talk to people and really listen, that’s when you begin to understand their world view. I teach Native American environmental issues in the media, and I start with origin stories. I start with creation stories. I think creation stories give us insight into the values and beliefs of a community.
You look at a story like the Oneida story of Sky Woman falling to the Earth, where animals are co-creators of the universe. They’re not objects that someone is told to name or to have dominion over, if you look at other creation stories. So, you look at that Oneida story and you begin to think, “OK, this is a community that has a different view of the role of animals,” and that’s going to come out in the way people live their lives.
The Hopi creation story begins underground, and there’s this emergence. Even today, the Hopi have kivas next to their houses, these underground sacred spaces. Their ceremonies begin in these kivas, and then in some cases they’ll come up to the surface and do ceremonial dancing publicly. But a lot of their spirituality, their rituals happen underground. If you understand that, if you know that story, you can predict that the Hopi are going to have a difficult time with coal mining or uranium mining.
When we talk about place, this is how place connects to that spirituality. It’s not separated the way it is in mainstream American culture. Spirituality is just woven into all aspects. It’s not something you can extricate.
As a communicator, what do you think the wider society needs to hear right now from the Ojibwe and indigenous peoples?
I think if there’s one thing I can point to, it’s seventh-generation thinking. The Ojibwe are not the only indigenous people who have this philosophy of seventh-generation thinking. The Haudenosaunee (the Iroquoian-speaking people) – Oneida, Cayuga, Onondaga, etc. – they also have something they call seventh-generation thinking. It operates a little bit differently.
I’m always a little cautious about painting 574 federally-recognized sovereign nations with the same brush because there is so much diversity out there. But in my experience, if there is a universal theme, it’s the concept of land stewardship.
The native people who have been fortunate enough to remain on their ancestral lands have this really deep connection. It’s almost like a dance. If you are connected to land for such a long time, you sort of adapt yourself to the rhythms of the seasonal cycle. You plant at a certain time. You celebrate at a certain time. And if you’re able to adapt yourself to the rhythms of this landscape, that’s fine. It’s kind of a “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
When you’re doing the polka and everyone else is doing the waltz, I think of that in terms of colonialism, colonizing. They didn’t adapt; the Europeans settlers didn’t adapt to the rhythms of this landscape. They super-imposed their own rhythms onto it, and I think that’s led us to where we are today.
Seventh-generation tells us that in this generation we have an obligation to act in a certain way and to make decisions for the benefit of those that will be on this earth seven generations into the future. So, we’re thinking about 200 years. What’s best for my great grandchildren? For your great, great, great grandchildren? And it obligates you to this sort-of selflessness, and this generosity and wisdom and far-sightedness.
It also makes you think inevitably about the sacrifices that seven generations in the past made for you. I think about my great, great, great ancestor who was one of the signers of the cession treaties that transferred Ojibwe land over to the federal government. He didn’t have much of a choice because those treaties involved a coercive process. But, the fact that the Ojibwe reserved the right to hunt, fish and gather rice upon the waters for my generation is humbling. That kind of thinking carries forward.
With floods and fires and all these environmental threats that we’re seeing now associated with climate change and other really dramatic changes in the landscape, we need that kind of thinking more than ever. I think there’s probably no greater gift that native people can give mainstream society than this environmental ethic that in Ojibwe culture is manifested as seventh-generation thinking.