The Lights at Red Lake:
Indigenous Stewardship and the Beacon of #LandBack

Ashleigh BigWolf Thompson
vol. 3, August/September 2021

It was a late autumn night on the Red Lake Ojibwe Nation in northern Minnesota. My friends and I were returning from ceremony when one of them told us to look over the water. 

“Is that the aurora?” I gasped, watching a green veil shimmer over Lower Red Lake. I was skeptical because I’d been stargazing a few times before when experts told us the northern lights might be visible. Although I’d spotted shooting stars, I’d never seen the aurora. Until that night.

I am regularly stunned by what I experience on the Red Lake reservation. A few summers ago while driving a backroad, two wolf puppies trotted in front of our truck before dipping into the brush. Bears, eagles, beavers, coyotes, turtles, foxes, deer, herons, walleye, and porcupines are just a few of many animal relatives that live at Red Lake. A friend joked that the animals know they are safe when they are within the reservation boundaries. I believe it. 

The Red Lake Ojibwe are part of a larger Indigenous group also known as the Chippewa or Anishinaabe. Red Lake Nation is one of several Ojibwe communities across the Great Lakes region; the Red Lake Ojibwe have 12,000 enrolled members, about half of who live on the ​​ 1,259 square mile reservation. Historically, the villages of Red Lake were not unified into a single political unit, but United States officials grouped all Ojibwe villages in the area into one band, now known officially as the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians. 

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What only a generation before was a

verdant landscape tightly ordered by

customary rights was now a landscape

of disorder and violence increasingly

controlled by a syndicate of conmen

and wracked by gang violence.

Ghost Acres,” Tom Finger

The Red Lake reservation is closed, meaning all land within the boundaries is held in common by tribal members with no private ownership. In the 19th century, treaties diminished Red Lake Ojibwe land holdings but the Native relocations enacted by the Nelson Act of 1889, meant to break up Ojibwe land holdings into private allotments, was refused by Red Lake leaders. While the Red Lake Ojibwe still lost much of their land holdings, the loss wasn’t as severe as that suffered by other Tribal Nations whose lands were allotted into private parcels and the people were able to stay with the land.

Red Lakers are protective over their lands and waters. Non-tribal members who venture onto Lower Red Lake are asked to leave because only tribal members are allowed on the water. Unlike so many others — including the Yokuts and Tulare Lake — we are lucky to remain in our homelands and keep Red Lake within our control. 

She dreamt of running, of walking,

of softly dancing across roads not

yet built, but built to carry her;

through grasses not yet sown, but

waiting to be. Over rivers that

bore her family since time began,

and would take her too.

From the river…,” Anna Sulan Masing

Most lakefront property in Minnesota is privately-owned and crowded with houses, resorts, cabins, and docks. Yet on the shores of Red Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the United States, beaches stretch undeveloped for miles. I didn’t grow up on the reservation, but my mother spent her early childhood  in Red Lake and enrolled her children as tribal members. I am fortunate to enjoy the pristine lakes and woods, land that settlers have never been able to lay claim to as much as they tried.

After I moved to Arizona for graduate school, I missed Anishinaabe people, so I chose to conduct research in Anishinaabe aki (Anishinaabe land). Because of my interest in Indigenous foods, as well as programs in Red Lake Nation and Indian Country that encourage engagement in traditional foodways, I focused my research on the impact colonization has on traditional Ojibwe foodways and food sovereignty. Indigenous food sovereignty is largely a decolonization effort to shed the unhealthy effects settler-colonial policies have had on Indigenous food systems, lifeways, and wellness through the revitalization of traditional foodways. Many of these traditional foodways are practiced to a lesser extent than they were prior to colonization. It is the hope of many Indigenous communities that by revitalizing these foodways, their peoples’ health, economic independence, and cultural traditions will be restored. 

Since colonization, Indigenous foodways have been decimated through land dispossession, environmental change, and the introduction of non-Indigenous foods to Indigenous people’s diets. Not only does the loss of traditional foodways affect Indigenous cultures and languages, it impacts Native people’s health. American Indians face some of the highest rates of nutrition-related diseases in the U.S., like diabetes and heart disease.

What I am hearing: my body is on

fire like the land without big

runs of ło:q’ and the plant foods

my people stood in relationship

with since time immemorial.

Wung Whikyung Na’way,” Kayla Begay

One way Indigenous organizers are improving the health of their communities is by promoting foods their peoples consumed prior to colonization, known as traditional foods. I’ve interviewed Red Lake community members who work with traditional foods in order to understand the significance of these foodways; one major theme is how important it is that Ojibwe practice foodways “in a good way,” meaning centering traditional Anishinaabe values while harvesting, processing, and consuming traditional foods. For the Red Lake Ojibwe, this means respecting animal and plant relatives: Ojibwe should have reciprocal relationships with animal kin, enact proper Ojibwe protocol by giving offerings when taking food, and share these food gifts with the community. 

Fishermen swarmed, and the
Tulare fishery was dead by the early 1890s.

Ghost Acres,” Tom Finger

When we don’t practice our values, our more-than-human kin suffer — like the collapse of the walleye, which, in turn, impacts the Ojibwe. The collapse of the walleye population in Red Lake occurred because tribal members did not treat the fish with respect. Because of overharvesting, walleye numbers were so low that the tribal fishery closed for seven years until the population was able to rebound. When discussing the collapse, my interviewees commented on the disrespectful relations fisherpeople had with the walleye. Because of greed and exploitation, the fish disappeared. It wasn’t until we reinstated respectful relationships with the walleye that their population revived. 

And while we are just 5% of the

world’s population, we currently

protect 80% of all global bio-

diversity in the forests, deserts,

grasslands, and marine

environments we live in.

This Is the Old Way That’s Also the New Way,”
Ruth Hopkins

It is impossible for me to not see the connection between the walleye and Tulare Lake stories. At Tulare Lake, unfettered settler-colonialism and capitalism resulted in the genocide and removal of the Yokuts from their traditional homeland, and destroyed Tulare Lake. At Red Lake, participation in the global capitalist economy led tribal members to overfish the lake, resulting in the walleye collapse. Yet we are fortunate that our ancestors had the foresight to keep Red Lake within the Tribe’s control and weren’t killed in the fight to do so. Indigenous stewardship at Red Lake is the reason that animal kin find refuge on the reservation, that shorelines remain undeveloped, and that natural resources are the Tribe’s most valuable asset. 

As Tom Finger writes, “Modern studies are beginning to appreciate that indigenous land management was significantly more productive than originally believed by western science.” Anecdotal observations at Red Lake support this; anyone can see the diversity of animal and plant relatives, preservation of undeveloped lands and waters, and the beauty of Indigenous stewardship on the reservation. Movements like #LandBack that call for Indigenous stewardship over Turtle Island are vital to protecting the earth for present and future generations. In a time when the climate crisis threatens life everywhere, Indigenous stewardship can be the guiding light to restore humans’ relationships with the land.

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Ashleigh BigWolf Thompson (Red Lake Ojibwe) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at the University of Arizona. She is passionate about all things Indigenous, especially Indigenous archaeology and food sovereignty, and recreating respectfully on Native lands. Her favorite place is outside, where she runs, climbs, and hikes for healing and happiness.

Aerial image of Red Lake, Minnesota by Copernicus Sentinel-2, CC BY-SA 3.0.