To Water, With Love

Everywhere I go, people take me to water. It’s a little unexpected. I thought I was researching resistance to fossil fuel extraction, especially in Montana and North Dakota, but the topic quickly turns to rivers, lakes, ground water, and creeks.

Alaina Buffalo Spirit, member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, took me to the Tongue River to see what the proposed Otter Creek coal mine and related rail line would put at risk. Her grandmother told her that the water is sacred, she said, and as we arrived, Buffalo Spirit blessed herself with water from the river.

In Fort Berthold, Prairie Rose Seminole, a member of the Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota, took me to a hilltop above New Town, North Dakota to show me the enormous lake that is what became of the Missouri River. It’s not a natural lake; it’s a reservoir dubbed Lake Sakakawea in honor of the Shoshone woman who famously helped the Lewis and Clark Expedition. When the Garrison Dam was completed in 1956, the Missouri’s waters collected, drowning native villages and displacing people to places like “New Town.” Across the horizon, flares burned off natural gas from gas and oil wells. The resulting smog mixed with smoke from the wildfires of Washington and Montana to turn the air a dull orange.

On the Turtle Mountain Reserve, where the community came together to ban fracking, tribal member Christa Monette and tribal chair Richard McCloud talked about the purity and abundance of water. I could see why. As I traveled east from Montana, this region of north-central North Dakota was the first I’d encountered where water was everywhere. The smallest indent in the ground became a pond or lake, many inhabited by birds and bugs. The hot summer wind made the open water all the more precious. The tribal council voted unanimously to ban fracking in 2011. They decided that what was important was protecting the purity of water – both above and below ground – and with it the ways of life of both the Native people and farmers in surrounding communities.

In Wisconsin, I swam in Lake Superior off a clean, sandy beach some miles away from an Ashland dock where groundwater and sediment are contaminated by black coal tar. The rivers and creeks above the lake in the Penokee Hills rush through canyons and over red and brown rocks. Like the aquifers crossed by tar sands pipelines and trains and penetrated by fracking, this water, too, is threatened. A giant strip mine was only canceled after Native people and other area residents joined forces in opposition. In a region famous for its wild rice, a sacred food harvested by canoe every fall, turning this wilderness, these lakes, gorges, and farmland over to a mining corporation was not to be. The forms of opposition varied. Among other things, Native people built a Harvest Camp in the forest adjacent to the proposed mine site where they practiced traditional ways of food gathering and cultural events. Their presence – 24 hours a day, seven days a week – attracted allies and the media.

My friend, Paulette Moore, and her students at Eastern Mennonite University produced a powerful film about the people who came together to celebrate the land and water, and to stop the mine.

The southern “Driftless” region of Wisconsin is geologically unique. It escaped being covered by glaciers, and so maintains a rugged, hilly terrain with gorges, rivers and forested ridges. It’s a terrain that discourages corporate agriculture, favoring instead small towns, family farms, including many run by the Amish, and small businesses. And it’s home to Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic farmers cooperative. On the beautiful Kickapoo River, community resistance blocked a planned dam in the 1970s. I paddled the river with Organic Valley founder George Seimons and Theresa Marquez, dodging downed trees and rocky cliffs, passing cedar waxwings flocking on the banks as dusk came on. For years to come, the children who swim in these waters can continue to bring their children here, where this winding river can continue to nourish body, mind, and soul indefinitely – or at least as long as nearby communities remain vigilant.

Everywhere I went, people showed me their water, endangered by climate change and human carelessness, and beyond precious.

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