Climate change culture threaten Great Lakes Anishinaabek

·7 min read

Jan. 23—TRAVERSE CITY — On the outskirts of Manistee in Bear Lake township, citizen of the Little River Band of Odawa Indians, Dave Corey washes and sanitizes his equipment to prepare for another maple sugar season.

Clear tubing that runs hundreds of feet through 250 maple trees will need to be flushed. Trees need to be inspected for their overall health before they're tapped, but also, Corey said, his family needs to be ready for when the trees are ready, because the season "comes quickly and ends just as quickly."

Corey has tapped maple trees for syrup since he was little and currently operates a sugar shack through him and his partner's farm, Mino Mishkiki on their property, but he said that the seasons are "getting stranger."

The past decade saw warmer weather, and less snowpack on the ground, which makes for shorter seasons.

Corey explained that you need three- to five consecutive days of above-freezing daytime temperatures and below-freezing temperatures at night to begin tapping.

"If you get 30 days, that is a good season," he said. Sugaring season normally lasts weeks, but with less snowpack, the trees warm up quicker.

Corey is just one of the many Great Lakes Anishinaabek facing impacts of climate change, from warmer average annual air and surface water temperatures, more volatile weather characterized by extreme precipitation events, changes in climate and weather patterns and expected increase in mean annual temperature.

Climate change is causing significant and far-reaching impacts on the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes region, according to the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Corey noticed in the past 10 years the warming temperatures and shift in sugar seasons. He keeps a home log in the sugar shack to measure temperatures when he begins the season, so he doesn't pull sap from the trees when they warm up.

Analysis of recorded history and current temperature and precipitation shows that the Great Lakes region's climate is getting warmer, with greater variability (extremes), according to the 2016 Michigan Tribal Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Planning Report.

The pace of warming increased 0.475 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since the 1980s, and annual mean temperatures increased during the last half-century by 2 to 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit, the report stated.

When the trees warm up, the sugar content drops, and snowpack matters because it keeps the trees' roots from warming too quickly, Corey said.

Last year, Corey said that his family was only able to produce 29 gallons of syrup, and years previous were a struggle to get adequate amounts to operate their small family-farm, Mino Mishkiki, or "good medicine."

"If anything happened to the maples, the impact would be devastating to Odawa culture," Corey said.

Maple sugar and syrup are traditional foods that are being reclaimed after centuries of policies that aimed to wipe them from Anishinaabek communities, he said.

To address changing climate in jurisdictional boundaries of tribes in Michigan, ITCMI facilitated a tribal-led process with nine participating federally-recognized tribes: Bay Mills Indian Community; Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians; Little River Band of Ottawa Indians; Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians; Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Potawatomi (Gun Lake Tribe); Pokagon Band of Potawatomi; Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe; and Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

The consortium analyzed climate projections at mid-century, assessed resource vulnerabilities and identified planning resources and adaptation strategies, according to the published report.

Projected future changes include risks to native species, and that many traditional Anishinaabek plants, foods, and medicines will be impacted.

Vulnerable plants, assessed by the natural and anthropogenic barriers, occupied range and species dispersal abilities, included many traditional foods and medicines, include manoomin (wild rice) and sugar maple.

Two hundred and 30 miles from Corey on the traditional homelands of the Baawaating Ojibwe, maple tapping hasn't seen the shortened season of the Lower Peninsula.

But variabilities range quite drastically, according to Kathleen Brosemer, environmental program manager for the Sault Saint Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. Now the community sees the season starting "anywhere from early February to April."

Brosemer's concerned that the uptick in parasites and invasive species, extreme weather, and warming climate could threaten the cultural integrity of sovereign nations in the Great Lakes.

She's particularly worried about pests affecting the maple trees, especially after the devastation that the emerald ash borer wrought on the eastern Upper Peninsula.

After the invasive beetle was discovered in Detroit in 2002, it spread to the Upper Peninsula by 2005.

Since then, the beetle wiped out more than 50 million trees in Michigan, with the potential of wiping out more than 700 million trees statewide.

After the last 10 years, Brosemer said few living ash trees remain, if any at all.

"It gives a chill," said Brosemer, explaining that the black ash tree represents survival for many of the Baawaating Ojibwe families when it was some of the worst times to be Native American in the United States.

During the late 19th to early 20th century, many Anishinaabek black ash basket weavers were able to support their family and survive by selling their baskets to European settlers, who collected the traditional craft for novelty.

Now, Brosemer said there aren't enough black ash in the area to sustainably harvest for making baskets.

She worried that those teachings cannot be passed, but more so is worried about the connections within the tribe.

Brosemer, a PhD student at Michigan Tech, has spent a lot of time arguing for Indigenous climate justice.

Beyond the ample scientific evidence, Native Americans addressed concerns over impacts on the lands and waters long before western science stepped in.

Because Anishinaabek cultural practices are closer to the land and the water, Brosemer said those connections are affected by climate change much more quickly and more prominently than those who don't have a connection.

Along with sugaring, Corey and his family are traditional manoomin (wild rice) harvesters, which is a cultural staple in Anishinaabek culture.

His family normally sets up camp and will spend an entire week harvesting on Hamlin Lake, within their treaty rights, but Corey said that the last few harvesting seasons have seen algae blooms.

In 2020, Hamlin Lake was among the state of Michigan selected water bodies of "high importance to study for harmful algal blooms based on recreational or drinking water use."

According to Corey, parts of the lake where the wild rice beds are located experienced an "awful algae bloom" last year, which forced his family to travel north to harvest wild rice.

Because manoomin grows best in shallow, slow-moving waters, it is sensitive to fluctuations of water level and temperature, and algae blooms can be detrimental to an entire bed of wild rice.

Corey commented that like maple tapping, harvesting manoomin is dependent on having a connection to the plant, something he fears will be impacted in the future by climate change.

All participating tribes in the Inter-Tribal Council of Michigan, like the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians have implemented policies within their tribal jurisdiction in response to climate change.

LRBOI NRD staff monitor decisions before the MDEQ and EPA for potential impacts to tribal members and the environment in the tribe's service area, according to the tribe's website.

Ongoing research lead by tribe's natural resources departments also aim to address climate change issues, as previously reported by the Record Eagle.

Sovereign nations in Michigan, such as LRBOI NRD have spent decades working in partnership with universities and other governments at the local, state and federal levels to deliver programs that address impacts of climate change that include invasive species, water quality, fishing assessments, pests, and environmental changes.