"We are of this land, and these rivers flow through my veins."
Updated: Sep 8
“These things that they call natural resources, we don’t view them like that. We see them as an extension of ourselves... We see this Earth as a mother. We come from her. We are the physical manifestations of her. What we do to her we do to ourselves.”
-Anahkwet, Executive Director, Menikanaehkem
The Wolf River above Keshena Falls on the Menominee Reservation
This is the third article in a series from the Great Lakes Spirituality Project’s interview with Anahkwet. (Find the first and second articles here.) This interview transcript has been slightly edited and condensed. See the video for the full interview.
Dan: You mentioned the five initiatives that Menikanaehkem is working on, and three of them – food sovereignty, energy sovereignty, and environmental justice – all have to do with humanity’s relationship with the created world, with the natural world around us. Could you say a little bit about why that’s important, both in terms of the work of Menikanaehkem, but also in terms of the cultural and spiritual perspective of the Menominee people?
Anahkwet: For Menikanaehkem, we recognized relatively early on that there were common themes, that there were things that we all shared. And one of the things that was so very instrumental was our understanding of who we are. The story that’s being portrayed about us, the general narrative that is dominant, is somebody else’s version of what they think we are. And when we looked around our community, we started to recognize that a lot of the signage and things that we were telling ourselves was somebody else’s definition of who we were.
We as a people have been through forced relocation. We’ve been through boarding schools, the treaty era. We could go on and on about the devastation that has happened to us as a people. We recognized that we’re still here and we still have the ability to learn our language and our culture. We have an understanding of ourselves. There aren’t many communities where this has happened in other parts of the world that can say they still know who they, that they still have that connection to the land. Those communities are no longer here. They’re decimated and there’s no memory of them.
We recognize that, and we should be congratulating ourselves every day. We should be celebrating the fact that we are survivors, that we are resilient as a people. This narrative that’s being told about us, that somehow paints us in a picture as weak, that we have all these problems – that’s total B.S. You go through what we went through and see what happens to you and your communities. See if you can make it.
We recognized our strengths pretty early on. Why wouldn’t we build on that strength? Why not focus on that strength? Let’s talk about it and let’s build whatever we’re going to build off of that. Where did that strength come from? How could we as a people go through that and still be here?
When you dive into that, you start to recognize that it’s our language, it’s our culture, it’s our connection with the Earth, and it’s our connection with Creator. We are of this land, and these rivers flow through my veins. There is no separation. I am of it. Our language is of it.
If you were to close your eyes and listen to our language being spoken, it describes its surroundings. It’s a very melodic language. It’s all about building each other up, about building connection.
This language that we’re speaking now, that you’re listening to me speak, is a foreign language in this land. It’s a fear-based and deficit-thinking language. It sees problems and builds whole things around those problems. Our language is the opposite of that. So, we wanted to make sure that people understood that we are connected as a people and that we are connected to this land.
Anything we do or any direction that we’re going to go, it has to be on the foundation of our strengths, in my opinion. And our answers aren’t going to come out of a “don’t.” They’re not going to come out of a negative.
So, we’ve been really trying to change that narrative about who we are and starting to get some of our people to celebrate the fact of who we really are. And that it’s OK. We deserve the right to be who we are, without anybody putting us down or any kind organization or any kind of government telling us that we can’t.
You mentioned the importance of language. My understanding is that there’s a pretty strong effort going on right now in the Menominee Nation to preserve the language. Is that right?
Quite a few nations obviously recognize the fact that our language is the key to a lot of things – to our understanding of ourselves and of our surroundings. There’s a lot of work being done in a lot of nations that’s trying to revive their language or save what they have.
There’s been quite a big effort here, really since the 70s, to preserve what we have. In the last probably five years, a really good friend of mine, a brother of mine, has taken the initiative to push that language learning even further, and he’s been pretty successful in what he’s been doing.
It’s inspiring to see, especially when you think about times like this in a pandemic. Your mind can kind of go crazy thinking about the elders in our community, thinking about what goes with them if we lose them. The language goes with them and the culture, and the actual local history of what they know goes with them. It’s pretty scary, or it can be. It can kind of be a rabbit hole, too.
But I remember one of our elders talking to me when I was early on in my language learning, and basically, what they told me was that our language came from the Creator. It came out of love for us as a people. We could never lose it. Even if we all forget it, in a sense, somebody somewhere will again be reminded of it. We can rebuild it again. I think in some ways that’s what my brother and a lot of us are doing, trying to rebuild that.
As we think about our connection to the Great Lakes, to the Great Lakes Basin, to the water, the land, do you think there are lessons that the rest of us need to learn from the Menominee tradition and culture and how you approach that connection?
The hard part is how far apart we all are, in terms of just language. I said before how different our languages are – two different perspectives. We see things quite differently, and to know a community, or to know a people, you need to know their language. Our language is so connected. It’s all about me and you and our relationship with one another. It’s about respect. It has it all in there.
Our culture is so vast, and there’s so much to it, but really the foundation of it is that – the connection is so much there. These things that they call natural resources, we don’t view them like that. We see them as an extension of ourselves.
There’s been a pretty good movement that started a couple years ago, maybe even longer than that, about recognizing the rights of nature. That’s something that we’ve been doing for thousands and thousands of years. We see this Earth as a mother. We come from her. We are the physical manifestations of her. What we do to her we do to ourselves. This crazy idea of trying to dominate her and treat her this way is something so foreign to us as a people.
It’s been a long time since the dominant language on our reservation has been Menominee, but deep down inside we still know that we’re connected to this Earth and that we love this Earth. We’ll do what we have to do to protect it and the water.