Thursday, April 21, 2016

Life Giver: The St. Joseph River

    The St Joseph River is certainly not one of the most well known and exciting rivers in the country but I’ve come to learn that over the course of time it wields an awful lot of clout and influence as it meanders some two-hundred miles mostly through Southwest Michigan.

    The uncanny thing is who would have guessed within its path rest a phenomenal legacy way before history had any meaning. I wonder, why we as a populace appear so vacant or maybe even casual in referencing the extensive aspect of this waterway not to mention the potency of its regenerating nature. Turn to the person closest to you and ask where do we get our water?  Do you know the history represented along its banks?  Most importantly, why do so many archaeologists, historians and ethnographers exalt the river’s presence and function along with the Native people who were nourished by it in copious ways throughout millennia prior to ever seeing the face of one French settler. 

     As the semester rapidly comes to a close, I have the distinct pleasure in pulling up the rear- so to speak- in blog entries by my student colleagues in Dr. Michael Nassaney’s Community in Anthropology course. I personally have in the past met this topic with indifference at least, and tepid concern at most, not knowing how to pose relevant questions, all the while soon learning that the work is rather tedious and at times presents a frustrating path in researching the topic on the importance of the river in the history of Native Americans before and around the time Fort St. Joseph was fully functioning during the fur trade. 

"Jacklighting" for fish from birch bark canoes
    My project partner, Alicia Gregory and I have admittedly just begun in the grand scheme of researching the lives of indigenous peoples along with their past use and relationship to the river.  In working with our community partner, Marcus Winchester, Cultural Director of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi, along with WMU history professor José Brandão and geographer Alison Kohley we’ve located key aspects of how a waterway is akin to an artery of life coursing through the landscape.  Dozens upon dozens of villages ranging from large to small have dotted the St. Joseph River basin. Two hundred Native men lived across the river from the Fort.  From archeological data we investigated the abundant riverine resources -some current day Native staples- among the various fish and wild vegetation not only for food but medicine.  Also essential is the importance of agriculture, such as maize cultivation.  Their canoes have been crafted with technological expertise used as transportation in hunting, fishing and trade.

    Water holds a highly spiritual and layered meaning within the rituals, beliefs and ceremonial traditions of the Anishinabek, Native culture. It is the province of women who see it as the giver of life, and its restorative properties the life blood of Mother Earth that need protection from harm and exploitation.  

-Carole Davenport