Red Lake Nation News - Babaamaajimowinan (Telling of news in different places)

Headwaters Country needs our help


November 15, 2017


I am now sixty-nine years old and every spring since I was in my teens I have put my canoe in Bemijigamaag or below the Otter Tail Power Dam eight miles downstream and paddle down to Chi Ma'iingan Lake. It was an annual ritual then and still is only now I have a wife and grand-daughter to accompany me and appreciate the great river of life.

Today, the river above the power dam is inundated and scarcely resembles the former river. It is prime real-estate for developers. It is down river from the dam that fragments of what the river used to be; "Midaaswi" – the Ojibwe word for "ten" noting the ten rapids - as they were called by the Native people. It is here that one can imagine themselves back in time when the river was pristine. The Midaaswi is also in the cross hairs of developers.

It is during early springtime when masses of suckers are spawning in the river that we call this the "feast of Migiziwag" (bald eagles) as eagles congregate here in large numbers to feed on suckers. During this spectacle, we have counted well over a hundred eagles from the dam down to High Banks. Though we may be seeing some of these birds in repetition, it is no doubt one of the great migizi congregations anywhere!

The fast water of the Misi-ziibi here is gin clear with a rocky bottom, prime habitat for fish to drop eggs. We have counted as many as a dozen migiziwag roosting in the large remaining white pines along the wooded shoreline with the heavy smell of rotting sucker remains reminding us of the interconnection of all life.

In the deeper water at sharp bends in the river, we may drop a line and catch ogaa (walleye) or ginoozhe (northern pike) and at approximately river mile 1272 is a lovely island that has cultural significance to Ojibwe. When I was in my late teens I hunted zhiishiibag (ducks) on this island and to the ENE a short distance inland is a lovely small lake called Ose. I have learned since that Ose also has cultural significance to the Ojibwe.

As we continue downstream we leave the river of wooded shoreline as the river opens into a vast wetland with Manoomin (wild rice), cane grass and cattails. The water flow slows down here and pools up making the river deeper and navigable to motor boats. Shortly after entering this wetland, ones attention is captured by a huge sandy bluff at river mile 1270 named "High Banks." I often wondered about this portion of the river and have recently discovered it too is an important site to Native Americans.

It is soon that our canoe enters Chi Ma'iingan Lake (Big Wolf Lake) and a short paddle along the north shore brings us to the mouth of the river as it leaves the lake. It is here on the east shore that another Ojibwe village was located and behind this former village, that till recently was River-Lake Resort, is the Red Lake Road.

Every visit I make to the great river of life reminds me how we have scarred and altered the land in a harmful manner and how will we be judged when we have robbed our descendents of something so precious as this only for short-sighted financial gains.

The fate of Misi-ziibi now

In the 1970's the Federal Wild and Scenic River Act had proposed that the upper eight counties on the Mississippi Headwaters were eligible for designation which would have set aside this national treasure within the protective status of this 'act.' Local politicians (spearheaded by Sen. Bob Lessard), developers and extractive industry opposed this and promised that if kept under local control, similar protections would be enforced by local officials – I would argue that it hasn't! The result was the creation of the Mississippi Headwaters Board (MHB). Though staff people of the MHB may have their hearts in the right place, the reality is that the MHB is made up of one county commissioner from each of the upper eight counties who have allowed the great river to take second place to commerce and development. Several well-documented studies have shown that development of lake shoreline is directly correlated to water degradation.

The Minnesota PCA has given Lake Irving the worst rating an "impaired" waters can have and Lake Bemidji is on the "brink" of becoming impaired.

High Banks

I have spent much of my life canoeing the "headwaters" and have seen too much of the shoreline gobbled up by development. It is this excessive development that is impacting water quality along with other environmental values we cherish. There are now efforts within the Beltrami County Board to sell "county administered lands" (CAL) often referred to as tax-forfeited lands. I understand the need for tax dollars to operate county budgets but financing is in place to compensate for the loss of taxable lands in the form of "payment in lieu of taxes" (PILT) and proceeds from timber sales. The public land our state has is the goose that lays the golden egg. Our public forested lands protect watersheds, offer recreational opportunities for the public to hunt, fish, and enjoy what we all (should) continue to own in perpetuity. The economic foundation of northern Minnesota is in our public lands. People come here for our clean waters and pristine forests – not for excessive development and pollution of our water-ways and forests. These public lands are our "commons." They should not be used as a way for developers to exploit and pave the way for the gentrification of northern Minnesota and allow a small few to negatively impact what belongs to us all.

For me as a gichi mookomaan and growing number of my race, feel as Anishinaabeg do, the land defines us as a people, not development and alteration of the land. The lakes, rivers, forest and living communities of the land are what are best about this country. It is up to us all to fight to save this land for our children and Grand- children.

As the late, great spiritual leader of Red Lake, Chi Ma'iingan (Larry Stillday) said, "a man's heart hardens when he is removed from nature." Preserving a vibrant, intact and healthy environment will makes us better human beings. Let us set our minds and souls in preserving the Great River of Life.

Barry W. Babcock


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