A Brief History of Lake Sturgeon in Menonminee and Ojibwe Culture

Lake sturgeon

Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens) is an ancient fish species that is native to North America. It is a large, cartilaginous fish that lives at the bottom of freshwater streams and lakes. Its historical range stems from Canada to the southern United States, and from the east coast of the United States to the Dakotas. The Lake Sturgeon’s contemporary range covers the same geographic area, but the populations are sparse and disconnected. The species is federally protected and classified as “threatened”; it has several recovery plans in place and restoration of the species has been slowly coming to the species. Of the various restoration plans in place, the most successful, and arguably most meaningful, have been the plans for restoring the fish to tribal waters. Lake sturgeon have been an important aspect of many Native American cultures and their disappearance from the land has difficult. Lake sturgeon were a large part of many economies and were a significant source of food and resources for tribes while also holding spiritual importance.

Within the Menominee tribe, the sturgeon has a powerful spiritual and personal presence. The Menominee tribe is made up of several clans, one of which is the Sturgeon Clan. The creation of all the clans began when the Good Spirit who had created the earth granted a bear the power to change forms. The bear became a human. As Bear was lonely, he invited other animals to join him, one of which was a sturgeon. They all became people and founded the clans of the Menominee tribe. The Menominee reservation currently resides along the Wolf River in Wisconsin. The Wolf River holds one of the few remaining extant populations of Lake Sturgeon in the Midwest. Historically, the tribe would hold a Sturgeon Festival during the spring spawning. The Sturgeon Festival would recognize the importance of the sturgeon in founding their clans and hunting of adult sturgeon would occur as well. One of the important aspects of the Sturgeon Festival is the Fish Dance, which is done to ensure a good harvest and a good spawning. The fish are considered to be the spiritual protectors of the wild rice; a food which is also important to the tribe. The Sturgeon Festival continued throughout the extirpation of the fish after the building of two dam’s near the reservation in the 1890s disallowed access to the former spawning ground on tribal lands.

Lake sturgeon were important in the day-to-day lives of the Menominee as well as well as the spiritual lives of the tribe. At the Sturgeon Festival, the harvested fish were completely utilized. They were mostly valued for their meat, but also provided an important source for isinglass and roe. Isinglass is a substance made from the air bladder of fish that can be used for adhesives and certain types of filtration. It was primarily used as a mild adhesive for paints in Indian communities, but became a valuable trade item as isinglass was used extensively in Europe for glues and alcohol filtration. Roe is fully ripe, egg filled ovaries of female fish and is a rarer, but valuable food source. Roe from a sturgeon would be quite large as the fish themselves are sizable. Oil from the fish was also used and small bags were made from the skin of the sturgeon. However, reservation life would change these traditional uses. The sequestering of the tribe onto reservation lands was hard felt by the Menominee as access to not just just sturgeon, but other traditional foods was cut-off.

Though the treatment on all reservations was reprehensible, the Menominee had originally situated their reservation within traditional hunting and fishing grounds so as to continue with their traditional practices and potentially avert some of the issues seen on other reservations. The laws against hunting and fishing and the coerced removal of the animals from tribal lands ended these intents.

The Ojibwe tribe has a similar, if less direct, descendency from Lake Sturgeon. The Ojibwe originated along the Atlantic coast before moving towards Midwest. The tribe settled across what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota in the United States, and Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba in Canada. The Ojibwe also have a clan system where one of the main clans is the Fish Clan. A further sub-clan is the Sturgeon clan. The members of the Sturgeon Clan today primarily live at the White Earth Indian Reservation in Minnesota. The members of the Fish Clan, and subsequent Sturgeon Clan, are the presumed descendants of the first beings to rise from the water. The sturgeon is considered to be the spiritual keeper of the fisheries. At the Lake of Woods, Minnesota spawning ground, missonaries were discouraged from developing missions at the spawning grounds as it was believed that this could destroy the sturgeon fishery.

The historical life of the tribe was described by European explorers as centered around sturgeon. Sturgeon was one of the most important food sources for the tribe, and was important to most native cultures in the upper Midwest for this as well. The uses of sturgeon by the Ojibwe was very similar to that of the Menominee. However, the fish was quite possibly a much more important trade item for the Ojibwe. In historical accounts, the earliest accounts described the harvest and use of sturgeon for standard purposes, but that sharing of the fish was mostly through gifting. Later accounts noted that, rather than gifting of the fish, it had become an important trade item when working with Europeans. This was especially shown when the primary food for Europeans was traded sturgeon meat and the tribes could use this to their advantage in trade agreements. However, the extensive use of sturgeon in trading was problematic when sturgeon harvests were smaller. The emphasis on sturgeon as a trade item eventually became a negotiation point for treaties and the fishing of sturgeon became one of the earlier cases of removing native fishing rights. In the late 1800s, after much pressure by commercial fishing groups, the Canadian and American governments passed numerous policies that limited or removed fishing rights from Indian communities in the upper midwest and central Canada. Many of these tribes who lost their fishing rights were Ojibwe as the largest sturgeon fishery, the Lake of the Woods fishery that spans the border between Minnesota and Manitoba, was primarily controlled by Ojibwe tribes at the time. However, these laws have largely been rescinded.

The eventual collapse of the sturgeon populations was inevitable after the development of these commercial fishing policies. These large fish were susceptible, and continue to be very susceptible, to overfishing. Lake sturgeon can live upwards of one hundred years and do not reach sexual maturity until their late twenties at the earliest, and usually their early thirties. The older, more mature members of the population produce the most viable offspring. A thirty year old sturgeon would be life-stage comparable to an eighteen or nineteen year old human. The sturgeon industry developed in the United States and the fish was mercilessly hunted for caviar and isinglass. The use of it as a meat source was lost. When large-scale fishing developed in rivers and lakes, such as the Mississippi River system, sturgeon were considered nuisance animals as they wrecked fishing nets with their bony scutes and large size. By the mid-1800s, it was not uncommon to see the banks of the Mississippi River lined with the drying corpses of Lake Sturgeon that were discarded by fisherman. These dried corpses were eventually used as fuel for steam ships and trains as they had significant mass and burned well. Further decline in sturgeon populations began during the industrial revolution when many by-products of manufacturing were dumped into waterways. For example, the dumping of sulfur, dioxins, and heavy metals into the Wisconsin River by paper mills was a significant contributor to near extirpation of the species from that river. Unregulated fishing on the species also contributed to its sharp population decline as the largest fish were the trophies, but also the only ones capable of breeding.


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