This is the final part of an eight-article series by We are Water Evanston, a community-based participatory research project that explores our relationship with and concerns about water. For more information on this series, click here.
In this We are Water series, we have taken you on a journey through topics ranging from beach access to flooding solutions, from the water challenges facing unhoused people to the ways in which residents receive information about water in our city. Through it all we have remained curious about you – Evanstonians – and your connection to this blue gem: Lake Michigan.
We return to this curiosity in our final article and tie your stories to the original inhabitants and stewards of this land: the Council of Three Fires or Anishinaabe Confederacy, consisting of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi. They have always recognized our shared connections, considering these lands, waters and all who live here to be relatives. Their orientation doesn’t position “nature” as something separate from humans, and is worth revisiting as we close our article series on water in Evanston.
We are Water interviewed 75 city residents throughout 2020. When we spoke with Evanstonians about water, the first question we would ask was, “What does it mean to you to live in a city that’s right by Lake Michigan?”
We found that this question brought forth meaningful and heartfelt stories of our shared connection to water, that most essential component of life on Earth. This connection was experienced across all demographics: by people in lakeside homes and those without homes; by the young, by parents and by elders; by the religious and not; by those born in Evanston and those born thousands of miles away. It crossed neighborhoods, races and cultures. The following words come from your City Council members, your neighbors, business and religious leaders, teachers and from you.
The story of Skywoman
The origin story of the people of the Great Lakes as retold by author and professor Robin Wall Kimmerer in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” tells of a woman who fell from the sky toward the waters of this planet.
Skywoman’s fall was witnessed by creatures on Earth who collaboratively broke her fall and gave her stability on the back of a turtle. Skywoman, the original immigrant, was clutching a bundle of seeds and, once she and the creatures had spread mud on the turtle’s back, planted the seed, resulting in Turtle Island (the land now known as North America).
The relationships of the first people described in this story were characterized by abundant love, abiding respect and mutual cooperation. Such values are worth revisiting amidst the immense social and environmental challenges we face today.
Water as a source of peace and healing
It should come as no surprise that most Evanstonians we interviewed described a sense of peace emanating from this immense blue space next to which we live. One unhoused respondent we interviewed told us, “I walk over there to the lake because it gives me a peace of mind … something to do. You know, just walk around, sit out there, look at the boats. Sometimes there will be ducks in the water and you know, [I] meet people riding or walking along. …Then I sit down [and I] kind of find me a good mood.”
A civic leader told us, “There’s something about being next to a lake that makes you feel [that] … the world is so big and vast. And we’re all trying to feel like where we are is where we’re supposed to be. And there’s something about being by a lake that feels like, ‘You know what? This is where humankind is supposed to be.’”
Stories we heard from you also repeated themes of respect and gratitude for water, especially among the youth we interviewed. One young respondent told us, “Being able to see a source of water that we can use, it’s a blessing. You don’t think about how blessed you are to be able to actually see water that you’re using in its natural form.” Another felt that “Water is one of the most healing, powerful things. Being next to water is the greatest way to … cope through grief.”
Learning from the story of Windigo
Nevertheless, we find ourselves in an era where our disrespect for the environment has led to the daily reminder of climate change affecting our very existence. In her book, Kimmerer describes a recognizable character from the Anishinaabe tradition, a counter-teacher called Windigo, “a human being who is born of our fears and our failings, Windigo is the name for that within us which cares more for its own survival than anything else.”
Stories of the greedy Windigo were used as cautionary tales in commons-based societies where taking more for oneself endangered the community. As Kimmerer writes, “We seem to believe in an era of Windigo economics, of fabricated demand and compulsive overconsumption. What Native peoples once sought to rein in, we are now asked to unleash in a systematic policy of sanctioned greed.”
Where can we see the footprints of the Windigo as it relates to water and environmental justice? Streams and wetlands have been filled with pavement, increasing flooding of our neighborhoods. A consumerist ideology has led to the destruction of our environment. Social and cultural spaces have been crowded with an ideology that allowed not only for the genocide of Indigenous peoples but also for the abuse of enslaved people from Africa and policies designed to control and subdue the poor and people with brown skin. The legacy of those policies manifest even today, barring many of our neighbors from living lives of dignity and equality, and others from trusting basic institutions and services.
Water as community
Nevertheless, in our interviews with everyday Evanstonians, we heard challenges to the “Windigo” in our society. We discovered motivation and commitment in many residents to change the status quo while keeping nature and community in mind.
One civic leader said, “It’s great and useful and fine to plan to reduce the carbon footprint. It’s really important. But that’s not the only story. If we live in Evanston, we should be doing more about our water and appreciate the significance of water in so many ways. It’s not just about the stormwater, it’s also about the spirituality of the lake and the water.”
Many of you shared with us the importance of both individual spiritual connections and community connections to the lake. A civic leader called the lake a “community anchor that’s also a life force, or life blood. And the fact that it gets to be those two things at once, just gives it such an emotional power.” He said, “You get to the lake, and there you are, and it’s this magical place. There’s people there who are enjoying each other and this natural resource.”
A spiritual leader we spoke to had previously never thought of water as something “sacred,” but “learned a lot about the sacredness of water for the Indigenous communities and nations of this land.” He felt that thinking of water pollution from a purely scientific standpoint was “very one-dimensional. … It feels very much like there’s a separation of the self when we talk about it as a science concept. … We are so deeply enmeshed with water, and yet we consider water as an object. And the water is not an object. It’s a living entity that gives life.”
Water as our relative
Centering Indigenous communities in conversations about protecting our water may be the important guide we need. Patty Loew is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, a professor at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern. She recently spoke with us about the launch of the first Indigenous birch bark canoe in Lake Michigan since 1833, when the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi were coerced into signing the Treaty of Chicago. She described this event as significant because it highlights both the absence and presence of Indigenous folks in this region.
“There hasn’t been an Anishinaabe canoe launched from that point in almost 190 years,” she said. “A lot of us feel invisible. This is the land of our ancestors, their bones and footprints are all over the land. We never left, though.”
Loew reflected on Native American presence today in the Great Lakes region and what her people have to offer by way of understanding this land and relating with it. She describes a future that imagines wellness and wholeness for those yet to come rather than hoarding riches for this lifetime.
“With Seventh Generation philosophy, we make decisions that are in the best interest of the people that come seven generations ahead,” she said. “If you truly believe that it’s your grandma that you’re living on, that the rivers are her veins and that the pandemic is her coughing … [you] have an obligation to raise [your] voice and make a relationship with nature instead of exploit it.”
This kinship view of water as a relative doesn’t have to be far removed from our lives today. For example, one respondent could “relate every stage of my life with the Evanston beach,” anchored to the water. Another told us the waves are so powerful that, “Don’t you see? It’s like it’s talking to you sometimes!”
Some described water as a maternal source. One young respondent said: “I feel like water not only is life but water is also rebirth … you can go in the water and it just feels like you’re being cleansed in a way. That ritual of being able to go and be by there and then submerging yourself and letting it just kind of calm you, or like going underwater and just feeling the weightlessness is just really powerful. … It’s like Mother Nature’s right there. You just have to say ‘Hey, Mom, like, help.’”
The stories we heard from you about what it means to live in Evanston, a city on the shores of Lake Michigan, point to a powerful and positive shared experience that we all have of the lake as a place of relief and renewal, of awe and community. The connections Evanstonians feel show that the modeling of Skywoman hasn’t been completely lost on us.
What if we consciously lean into a kinship worldview to guide us in advocating for just policies? While it may be too late to restore all of the paved-over streams and wetlands, hopefully it is not too late to restore our relationship with the land and with each other. How would we approach water treatment, stormwater mitigation and beach access if we lived as though the land, water and other people were family?
If we who love Evanston and love our lake want to do right by our water, what is asked of us? Is it enough to seek policies that align with climate predictions, budget constraints and current EPA standards? Or is there more for us to explore? Perhaps, as so many of you have said, allowing ourselves to experience the lake as our mother, as our original home and as a healer, will help bring us together. The seeds of Skywoman are still a gift offered to us.
Thank you to all those who partnered with us and supported us!
Citizens Greener Evanston’s Watershed Collective, Northwestern University’s Center for Water Research & Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, Evanston Community Foundation, Shorefront Legacy Center, Connections for the Homeless, Yo Fresh, Evanston Made, Family Promise North Shore, Artmakers Outpost, Family Focus, Evanston Public Library, The RoundTable, City of Evanston and everyone who participated in our research.
For more quotes about the beauty of the lake, as well as to see some of the art created during the summer workshops, visit Citizens Greener Evanston’s “We Are Water” page.
Here are some ways to get involved in local water issues:
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Participate in Evanston beach cleanups and community through Fresh Water Life and Lakefront Stewardship — Southeast Evanston Association.
- Get involved with water education and advocacy in Chicago through The Current and the Alliance for the Great Lakes.
- Further the causes of Indigenous people in Chicago through Chicago American Indian Community Collaborative – CAICC.
Join Environmental Justice Organizations in Chicago.
We are Water Evanston is a collaboration between researchers at the Northwestern Center for Water Research and community water activists in the Watershed Collective, a subcommittee of Citizens’ Greener Evanston. This article is the last of an eight-part series in which we shared key findings and action items related to water in Evanston. Follow We are Water Evanston on Instagram (@wearewaterevanston) and Twitter (@waterevanston).