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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

The Sacredness of Water - a Conversation with Katy Bresette and Jerry Jondreau (Part 2)

“Why is water itself considered sacred?” Katy Bresette asked. “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.”

Morning on Keweenaw Bay, Lake Superior

Both Katy (Red Cliff Band) and Jerry Jondreau (Keweenaw Bay Band) are members of the Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe) Nation, and together they run Dynamite Hill Farms. (See the first part of this interview for more information on the farm.) Strengthening the Ojibwe culture is at the heart of their work, and at the center of that culture is water.

“We’re in the heart of Turtle Island,” Jerry said. “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. And if you look at our culture, the women are the ones that have cared for the water. So, if you talk about a spirituality of the Great Lakes, really what I think it comes down to is the responsibility of our Anishinaabe women.”

“If you look at where the movements are happening and where the change is happening,” Katy added, “who is it that pulls that change forward? It’s definitely initiated by the young people, but the changes are finalized when the women change it. When they raise the babies differently. When they’re bringing up the next generations of people. They’re the ones who stay. They’re the ones who care. They’re the ones who provide that next step.”

The water itself is what brought the Ojibwe people to their home in the Great Lakes. Starting near the eastern end of the St. Lawrence River, the Anishinaabe people migrated west for many generations, following a prophecy that brought them to the place where “the food grows on the water.” They found that food in the wild rice around Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

After European descendants settled in the Great Lakes region, however, the Ojibwe struggled to even get to Madeline Island, according to Katy, despite its significance to their culture and history. “We don’t have the birch bark trees that allowed us to make the canoes that could get us across the water to get there. We don’t have the money to just buy boats,” she said. “If you’re in a poor, struggling community, you can’t buy a boat. Then it costs $30 to get on a ferry and travel over there, and then where do you stay?”

Recently, however, access to Madeline Island has changed, Katy added. The Bad River Band of Ojibwe retained the northern part of the island, which they leased to non-tribal people for the last fifty years. “In this last year,” she said, “they did not renew the leases. So the tribe itself now has access... I went there this time last year for treaty days and put my feet in a place that I actually got kicked out of when I and my kids went berry picking before.”

In discussing Madeline Island, we talked more generally about what places are held as sacred by the Ojibwe people in the Great Lakes region. “Everything is really sacred, I guess, if you think about it,” Jerry said, “But there are some places that are really, really significant.”

After telling him about a recent trip my wife and I took to South Dakota, including Bear Butte, Jerry responded, “You’re understanding the sacred spaces over there in the Dakotas because there’s a plaque that says this is a sacred mountain. This is Bear Butte which is held in high regard by the Dakota people... We don’t have as many plaques like that here for the general public saying, ‘This is a sacred space.’”

“I think there’s fear in that and some protectionism behind that, because we were very open and sharing with people when they first got here and it was turned around and used against us,” Jerry added. “The copper is a prime example. That’s sacred to us, extremely sacred. We showed people where you can find the copper and what happened later on? They pushed us off and took it. We have to protect some things.”

That extraction and exploitation mentality continues today. “Land becomes important because that’s where you’re taking stuff from,” Katy said. “Before, the water was just this thing that people used. Now it’s going to be taken because the limits of it as a resource are starting to be understood. But the sacredness of what that water actually means, I don’t know. I’m not sure if that has yet been understood. And can you understand it from that extraction mentality?”

Then Jerry added, “It just needs to be remembered. Everyone knows it. It just needs to be remembered.”

Jerry (right) and two Michigan Tech students walking the Dynamite Hill Farms sugarbush

This is the second article from the conversation with Katy Bresette and Jerry Jondreau. You can find the first article here.

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