It’s Time to Decolonize the Great Lakes

Golden maple leaves by the beach near blue waters of lake.

I grew up in the shadow of the largest freshwater system on the planet. Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin, “the Five Freshwater Seas,” known to Anglo-American settler society as the Great Lakes, is a massive basin of interconnected water bodies located in the upper-middle region of Turtle Island. My parents’ house sits near the shallowest of the five inland seas, Waabishkiigoo-gichigami, also known as Lake Erie. I spent childhood summers playing on the lake’s rocky beaches. Yet, I did not learn anything about the Indigenous history of the place that I loved until I encountered it in a paper I read for graduate school.

Anishinaabe-speaking people have a long, interwoven history with the Great Lakes Basin. The Chippewa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Mississauga, among others, have cultivated wild rice in the region since the 1600s. Rice harvesting serves as a staple of tribal well-being and cultural heritage. However, industrialized logging, mining, and shipping in the 1800s transformed the Great Lakes to such a degree that traditional rice stewardship became nearly impossible.

Wooden steps on rocky beach in front of gray lake waters.
Wooden steps descending to a rock beach in Euclid, Ohio. Image by author, November 2019.

Loving a lake is not always comfortable. In the time since industrialization, Lake Erie has suffered a series of environmental ills. In the mid-to-late twentieth century, one of Lake Erie’s prominent tributaries, the Cuyahoga River, famously caught fire several times, and toxic blooms of cyanobacteria from agricultural runoff frequently occur along the shores of my home. I think a gloomy awareness of ecological degradation haunts anyone who cares about a place under threat. But, for me, it wasn’t until I had learned the lakes’ Anishinaabeg names that I became familiar with the deeper context behind the harms I witnessed.

The environmental challenges Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes experience manifest from settler-colonial practices hostile toward Indigenous ways of life. I thought I knew Lake Erie, but not knowing its Indigenous name, I was deaf to the voices of the place I purported to love. In much the same way, the colonial history and continually contested power dynamics behind water governance in the Great Lakes Basin are often invisible or unknown to many who live here. 

Last November, the State of Michigan formally acknowledged the treaty rights of the Chippewa and Ottawa nations when it decided to revoke an easement held by Canadian corporation Enbridge Inc. for the operation of its Line 5 pipeline. Initially constructed in 1953, the pipeline carries natural gas liquids under the Straits of Mackinac and endangers the health of untold humans and nonhumans. Though the March 28, 1836 Treaty of Washington guaranteed local bands the right to “hunt, fish, trap and gather” on ceded lands, it wasn’t until last year’s revocation that state officials finally recognized that the risk of oil spills threatened the ability of the community to exercise their rights. The Michigan revocation is the first time in a two-hundred-year history that state authorities upheld the specific treaty rights under consideration. But it is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that an issue of Great Lakes water politics has invoked the shadow of settler colonialism. 

Oil pipelines present a real danger to the kinship Indigenous people hold with the Great Lakes. 

The expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure is a major inflection point in Indigenous water politics. In the Great Lakes Basin, as elsewhere, these struggles implicate the settler-colonial worldviews governing life on stolen territory. As of this writing, protests continue over the refurbishment of Line 3, another one of Enbridge’s pipelines. However, unlike Line 5, Line 3 received the green light from regulatory bodies to begin construction on the pipeline, despite resistance and appeals to Indigenous sovereignty.

These two cases reveal just how much settler colonial logic continues to shape water politics in the Great Lakes. Settler accounts of Great Lakes water governance laud the region as a place of generally harmonious political collaboration. Lost in many of these conversations is a substantial engagement with questions of water justice beyond the settler state. Such obfuscation restricts possible responses to the imminent threats posed by pipelines like Line 3 and Line 5. Listening to Indigenous activists and their allies can help us unsettle the power structures upholding mainstream conversations about the Great Lakes. 

Water is Life. Water is Political.

Nayaano-nibiimaang Gichigamiin is so large and its shoreline so long—stretched out, its 11,000 miles are roughly equivalent to 42 percent of the Earth’s circumference—that it is easy to see why both Canada and the United States, whose borders straddle the basin, have carefully guarded their shared interest in the use of the region’s water resources. A series of binational agreements, including the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA) of 1972, and the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, provide a framework for co-governance between them.

The term binational implicitly assumes the absence of other sovereignties. Yet dozens of U.S. federally recognized tribes and over a hundred First Nations have legally recognized land and water rights to the Great Lakes Basin. Though tribal governments and First Nations are members of the GLWQA’s Great Lakes Executive Committee, the U.S. and Canada retain ultimate decision-making power. 

Red and white lighthouse on sandy beach facing blue lake waters.
Mentor Headlands lighthouse. Image by author, May 2021.

The vitality of water is difficult to understate. Water is necessary for life. Water is also inherently political. When thinking about the governance of the Great Lakes Basin, one might ask: who is authorized to make decisions about water, and why? If politics refers to the negotiation of power, then ignoring questions of power may be thought of as a process of depoliticization. De-politicization happens when settler society ignores differences between Indigenous and settler worldviews, including dissonant perspectives on environmental threats.

Indigenous governance practices hold nonhuman entities like water as active agents within an extensive kinship network. Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) is the rallying cry of the Standing Rock Sioux water protectors and other allied water protectors across Turtle Island. The declaration “Water is Life” carries with it a sense of deep respect. According to Anishinaabe-Métis lawyer Aimee Craft, “[Water] has its own agency and therefore we need to recognize that in taking up this responsibility, it’s not one of control or ownership, or jurisdiction over water, but rather a relationship to and with water.”

Fossil fuel projects threaten traditional relationships with water. On July 25, 2010, a rupture in Enbridge Line 6B spilled over a million gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. Potential ruptures in Enbridge’s other projects put Indigenous rice fields directly in harm’s way. Oil pipelines present a real and present danger to the kinship Indigenous people hold with the Great Lakes

Indigenous efforts to re-politicize water in the region point the way toward alternative frameworks of water governance.

In contrast, while some non-Indigenous actors also recognize environmental threats to the Great Lakes, they often perceive them as future dangers. In his book The Great Lakes Water Wars, initially published in 2006 and updated in 2018, Peter Annin warns that a combination of climate disruption and conflict over freshwater resources may strain the binational agreements mentioned above. Water Wars and related think pieces present water as an instrumentalized natural resource in danger of disappearing if not governed properly. 

While the “water wars” narrative looks with trepidation toward the future, Great Lakes Indigenous peoples face threats posed by oil infrastructure in the present. According to Executive Order 13175, signed by President Clinton in November 2000, all federal agencies have to consult tribal authorities before taking any action that could affect life on Indigenous territories. However, there is a big difference between consultation and consent. The former does not necessarily guarantee the latter. Water protectors in Minnesota currently maintain a protest camp along the planned route of Line 3. Yet dangerous projects like Line 3 continue in the face of this resistance. 

Reclaiming the Commons

The contrasting trajectories of Line 3 and Line 5 show that existing governance structures do not reliably protect Indigenous water rights. Settler society needs to critically interrogate its governance practices if it is to reckon with the harms it continues to enable. Some advocacy groups have sought inroads toward bridging Indigenous and settler perspectives on water governance by referencing the economic concept of common property. The Great Lakes Commons (GLC)—a bioregional network of Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, educators, and activists—put the common property concept to work in the resources they prepare for self-directed political education on issues of water governance. Together, members of the GLC authored a Commons Charter to function as an affirmation of first principles between its signatories. The charter declares that the Great Lakes should be considered common property and managed in deference to Indigenous teachings about water. 

Patches of ice on blue waters of Lake Erie.
Ice on Lake Erie, Euclid, Ohio. Image by author, November 2019.

Briefly defined, commons are all aspects of life that the public uses jointly (in common) and has a collective responsibility to care for and maintain. Although the language of common property is a Western articulation of collective forms of relationships, the practices this concept describes are present in Indigenous societies all over the world, including the Great Lakes Indigenous tribes. Treaties in the territory of Anishinabewaki for inter-tribal negotiations followed the “Dish with One Spoon” alliance process: an agreement to share common territory (the dish, alternatively translated as bowl or kettle) while limiting the amount any single party extracted (the spoon). For instance, a 1701 treaty between Anishinaabe people and the neighboring Haudenosaunee identified shared lands and water around the St. Lawrence River. 

One of the goals of GLC is to seek commons-based forms of jurisprudence that enable Indigenous-led co-management of water resources. Both Indigenous governance practices and common property theory maintain a non-transactional view of the nonhuman world. Governance frameworks centered on commons property principles and intentionally mobilized as part of a larger project of decolonization offer a potential path forward to a more equitable future for the Great Lakes. Precedents for this work include ideas of public trust and rights of nature. Each of these models attempt to redesign laws to be more reflective of Indigenous governance practices and more consistently beholden to treaty rights. 

Unsettling the Commons

Due to the existing philosophical synergy between common property theory and Indigenous governance practices, commoning may well help facilitate decolonization. Decolonization refers to the goal of achieving Indigenous sovereignty through repatriation of land and cultural and political freedom. Decolonization is often an ongoing and hybrid process that necessitates working within settler legal structures while challenging their core assumptions. 

Listening to Indigenous activists and their allies can help us unsettle the power structures upholding mainstream conversations about the Great Lakes.

Existing treaties between Indigenous societies and settler states attempt to codify the sovereignty of Indigenous nations within settler legal frameworks. Treaties lay out certain rights maintained by Indigenous nations in exchange for complying to cede or share territory with settlers. At their best, treaties protect traditional ways of relating to place, guaranteeing Indigenous people the right to hunt, fish, and cultivate wild rice on treaty lands. Nominally, they serve as a legal line of defense against environmental harms like oil pipelines. But as the case of Line 3 demonstrates, those rights are rarely upheld. Here is where a resurgence of common practice might fit in.

Yet, in the words of Indigenous studies scholars Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, decolonization is not a metaphor. Common property and decolonization may be allied concepts, but there are crucial differences. For one, westernized common property theory does not critically engage with questions of reparations. Legally mobilizing common property theory to uphold treaty rights is an important step, but it is not enough. That’s where an Indigenous perspective adds necessary depth to the idea. A full commitment to decolonization ultimately requires the repatriation of territory and the formal recognition of colonial violence. 

Black pebbles and white pieces of ice on gray beach.
Pebbles and ice on a Lake Erie beach. Image by author, January 2021.

Ultimately, organizations like GLC are part of a broader effort to render Great Lakes settler histories visible and hold settler power structures accountable for the treaties they have made. The relative success in the Line 5 case stems from a formal recognition that oil pipelines compromise the ability of Indigenous people to practice their traditional lifeways and thus violate treaty rights. However, the ongoing battle over Line 3 reveals how precariously and haphazardly these rights are maintained. These two cases call attention to the need to fundamentally re-politicize water governance in the region. 

Looking out onto the water now, I want the Anishinaabeg names of this place, and the meanings they carry, to remain present in my mind. Indigenous efforts to re-politicize water in the region point the way toward alternative frameworks of water governance. A decolonial perspective on the commons is essential to this vital work.

Featured image: Maple leaves in front of Lake Erie. Photo by Sue Thompson, November 2020.

The first draft of this piece was written as part of a graduate course in political ecology taught by Dr. Kimberley Thomas.  

Caitlin Joseph (she/her) is a graduate student in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. Her interests focus on the intersections of climate justice and common property. She enjoys swimming and paddling in the Great Lakes region, where she spent her childhood. Twitter. Contact.

Kimberley Thomas is a political ecologist and assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Urban Studies at Temple University. She applies her training as a human geographer and biological oceanographer toward research and teaching on climate justice and environmental politics. Website. Twitter. Contact.