By Brittany Luby, PhD Candidate, York University
While I was growing up near the Winnipeg River, sturgeon was not part of our local diet. Given the high levels of mercury – the result of industrial dumping practices and the release of organic mercury from rotting flooded vegetation – Dad limited the size of our locally caught filets to less than two pounds. A 100 – 150 pound Grandfather Fish was far beyond our family-set “safety standards.” Of course, sturgeon filets also existed outside of the realm of possibility; according to some reports, the Winnipeg River had been barren for approximately one hundred years. It wasn’t always this way.
Written evidence of large scale fishing by the Anishinabek in the region west of the Lake Superior watershed to Lake Winnipeg – a region which includes Lake of the Woods – extends back to 1660 when trader Pierre Esprit Radisson claimed to see over 1000 sturgeon being dried on the south shore of Lake Superior. By the end of the eighteenth century, fur traders noted that Anishinabek in the Lake of the Woods District were difficult trading partners, “content to live upon sturgeon and other native foods rather than engage in trade” (Holzkamm and Waisberg, 29). An unidentified Canadian official, writing after 1857, attributed Anishinabek refusal to trade consistently with the Hudson’s Bay Company to an “abundance of sturgeon” (ibid, 30). Indeed, large scale fisheries and a steady supply of food led Euro-Canadians to criticize Anishinabek as “independent; sometimes even a little saucy” from contact until treaty (ibid, 30). The same sturgeon formed part of the local diet at Ochiichagwe’Babigo’Ining Ojibway Nation, as evinced in Major Stephen H. Long’s Narrative of an expedition to the source of St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods (1824). Reflecting on his traverse of the Dalles Rapids, Long wrote “While we were resting on one of the islands, an Indian came up in his canoe with his family and supplied us with fresh sturgeon and with dried huckleberries” (106). Sturgeon was eaten fresh, but also made into a product like bison pemmican “consisting of a special blend of sturgeon oil and dried and pounded sturgeon meat packed into sturgeon skin bags,” making it a valuable multi-seasonal resource (Holzkamm and Waisberg, 28).
Non-written sources like totemic symbols suggest that fishing was important to Anishinabek since time immemorial. Anthropologist Basil Johnston identified four fish clans north of Lake Superior. Anishinabek used totemic symbols like family names which functioned as the “genealogical chain by which bands are held together” (Schenck, 199). Anishinabek also tried to emulate the character of their totemic animal, the sturgeon, which symbolized depth and strength (Johnston, 53). Totems also informed human behavior; Anishinabek men and women incorporated their clan fish into how they understood their world. The existence and significance of the fish clans reflects the social, spiritual and economic importance of fishing to the Anishinabek peoples. Indeed, totemic symbols suggest that fishing was part of daily life – fish were social markers, behavioural guides, and dinner.
Pressure on the sturgeon population grew in direct correlation with the extension of the Canadian Pacific railway which made it possible to ship fish to eastern markets. Duane R. Lund, a retired educator and member of the Minnesota Historical Society, has noted that “Commerical fishing was identifiable as an industry on Lake of the Woods by 1885 when commercial pound nets were used for the first time” (68). By the 1890s, the Canadian government began licensing large-scale commercial fisheries, favoring corporate contact over continued trade with Anishinaabe fisheries. Tim Holzkamm and Leo Waisberg have argued that this change in heart “marked a switch from a harvest that had the capacity for long-term sustained yields under Anishinaabe management to a commercial harvesting process, directed by white entrepreneurs able to lobby the Fisheries Minister that emphasized short-term productivity for an open-ended export market” (Holzkamm and Waisberg, 34). According to the histories relayed at home, dried sturgeon – high in oil – made an excellent source of fuel for steam ships (see also ‘Lake Sturgeon, Dinosaur of the Great Lakes’). Some Kenora residents today claim that within five years of fishing for fuel, the sturgeon fishery on Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River collapsed.
Of course, American and Canadian-run commercial fisheries are not solely responsible for the collapse of the sturgeon population. While overfishing caused the collapse of the sturgeon fisheries, mill dumping (beginning in the 1920s) reduced oxygen levels in the river, jeopardizing the survival and eventual reproduction of remaining fish. Industrial dumping from the Kenora paper mill reduced oxygen levels on the Winnipeg River, putting sturgeon in direct competition with micro-bacteria for oxygen. As Scott Brennan and Jay Withgott explain, “if nutrients flow into water bodies faster than they flow out or are broken down, the water bodies may become increasingly laden with plant material and lower in dissolved oxygen” (224). As the mill dumped sludge into the Winnipeg River, increased bacterial activity lowered oxygen levels – more sludge meant more “nutrients” for more bacteria. It is hard to believe, but as early as 1970, Kenora residents learned that bark “deeper than a standing human” had accumulated along the river bed. Just last year, Ron Cobiness, a band member of Ochiichagwe’Babigo’Ining and the fisheries technician, pulled out a bucket of wood from the Winnipeg River. The mill closure in 2006 has not erased large bark deposits on the river bed, but it has meant fewer artificial nutrient injections, providing the river an opportunity to rebound.
As oxygen competition for the sturgeon has decreased, local hopes for the revival of the sturgeon industry have grown exponentially. Following the release of sturgeon fry into the river, former chief of Ochiichagwe’Babigo’Ining Ojibway Nation, Larry Henry, explained “We are hoping survival rates are going to be high so we have sturgeon for our next generation….This is one of those cases where we hope to bring it back to life in our area.” What results it not only the hope that our children will be able to enjoy “traditional fare,” but that we will be able to compete with the sustainable sturgeon fisheries of British Columbia.
And so, I continue to wonder, could the closure of the Kenora paper mill have breathed fresh life into Kenora’s specialty food market?
The author would like to extend special thanks to Yvan Prkachin and Allan Luby for reading and commenting on earlier renditions of this blog post. Meegwetch
Tim Holzkamm, Victor Lytwyn, Leo Waisberg, “Rainy River Sturgeon: An Ojibway Resource in the Fur Trade Economy,” Canadian Geographer 32, no. 3 (1988).
Tim Holzkamm and Leo Waisberg, “Native American Utilization of Sturgeon,” Sturgeons and Paddlefish of North America, eds. William Beamish, Greg LeBreton, and Scott McKinley (New York, NY: Springer US, 2004).
Stephen H. Long, Narrative of an expedition to the source of St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods, &c., &c (Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1824).
William Warren, History of the Ojibway People (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1984).
Theresa Schenck, “William W. Warren’s History of the Ojibway People: Tradition, History, and Context,” Reading Beyond Words: Contexts for Native History, eds. Jennifer S. H. Brown and Elizabeth Vibert (Toronto, ON: Broadview Press, 2003).
Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage (Toronto, ON: McClellan & Stewart, 2003).
Duane R. Lund, Lake of the Woods: Yesterday and Today (Cambridge, MN: Adventure Publications, Incl, 1998).
Scott Brennan and Jay Withgott, Essential Environment: The Science Behind the Stories (San Francisco, CA: Pearson Education Ltd., 2005).