Voices from the Detroit River
“What is that? That’s a pure, white bird!”
My interviewee, Hadassah, is zooming in to our conversation from the passenger seat of a car and has just spotted a striking bird flying above the Zilwaukee Bridge outside the window. She is on her way to see family in Little Traverse City at the tribal headquarters, Little Traverse City Bay Bands of Odawa Indians. Even though we are chatting across screens and many miles, I feel oddly present with her throughout the ride as she occasionally remarks on the traffic patterns and wildlife outside her car.
Hadassah didn’t grow up in Detroit, but both of her parents and grandparents were Detroiters. She lived outside the city about forty-five minutes north and made frequent trips into Detroit with her family. “I’ve always been going back and forth for some time, you know. Just making trips back and forth to my family to either visit friends or even just do, like, you know, Detroit things, go to the river walk or the auto show or whatever.” Early on in her life, she caught whiffs of “back in the day” stories about the city from her family. “I definitely remember my mom talking about being a kid and going to the zoo and visiting Belle Isle and walking along the riverfront, and it definitely seemed to be more part of their lives back in the day. It feels like there’s a bit of resurgence of that happening in recent years along with repopulation and gentrification of the city.”
In her own lifetime, Hadassah has witnessed that shift in thinking. “When I was a kid, I feel like people were very deterred away from the river. It was kind of seen as a dirty thing, and I think nowadays people are able to connect with it. There’s more awareness of the health of the river. People are swimming and fishing in the river more than I’ve ever seen, and I would definitely say that has changed since I was a kid.” The change in perspective has affected Hadassah’s own relationship with the waterway as well. In her youth, she would walk by the river “because that was pretty much the only thing you could do,” but nowadays she kayaks with friends, forages for plants and clay deposits along the banks, and swims in the channels along the riverfront and at Belle Isle.
Hadassah moved to Detroit only about three years ago, but she tells me that, in a way, she has always felt close to the river—her parents’ periodic trips to the city to attend the river walks being a large part of that feeling of proximity. When she first lived on the east side of Detroit in West Village, she could reasonably walk and run to the river and Belle Isle (also known as “Waabizi” or “white swan”).
“One of the most interesting things about Detroit,” she adds, “is that very often you can’t get access to the river. There’s either a gate there or infrastructure or something that keeps you from being able to touch the water per se. So that was really nice being by Belle Isle because that’s the only spot you can actually go in the river and actually touch the water and actually be in it.”
I can’t help but notice the recurring issue of distance in her memories of the river—the yearning to touch water that is not always within reach. Her stories of being close to the water glimmer with a quiet kind of revelry in contrast. She goes on to describe in more detail what that physical contact and closeness looked like for her while living in that area of the city as well as water’s significance in Anishinaabe culture.
“I spent a lot of time, you know, just going by myself, riding my bike over there, running over there, you know, putting my tobacco prayers into the water. For us Anishinaabe people, the water really is like a living thing, and this is something I’ve known about all my life, but it’s something I’ve only tapped into within the last, like…last seven years maybe, you know?”
Over the course of our conversation, I do feel like I start to know what she means a bit better. Hadassah talks about the river with the fondness and tenderness of someone speaking about a longtime friend.
“I definitely felt like I created a relationship in a way with the river and even from the place I was living, from my front porch you could actually see the river, which was really cool. I would just wave to the river sometimes, and I don’t know, it would just sparkle back at you, you know?”
I find myself absolutely stunned by this beautiful image of the water returning Hadassah’s acknowledgment and wonder what it would look like to more widely embrace this sort of connection with water.
There are particular spots along the waterway that Hadassah has especially close connections to. She mentions Sunset Point, a lookout on the western edge of Belle Isle that offers views of the water and city skyline, as one such place. “I feel like it has significance for people just by knowing how sacred things like the sunrise and the sunset are, you know, and having that be able to be seen from the island… I just think that is a very powerful spot for us.”
That power even seems to live in Detroit’s name—Waawiyaatanong, which Hadassah tells me means “where the curved shores meet.” She sees Belle Isle as an integral part of that triangulation: “I think again, at Sunset Point, it’s such a special point. It makes that triangle between the island, Detroit, and Windsor, which is all Waawiyaatanong.”
As Hadassah maps out these spots for me, the boundaries between the US and Canadian sides of the river seem to dissolve into the river itself. It’s all Waawiyaatanong.
We talk a bit about the international border that divides Anishinaabe territory. During a previous introductory conversation, Hadassah was the first person to tell me that Anishinaabe territory spans across the US and Canada. In her description, the river seems to act as a porous boundary that facilitates views of and relations with the other side. “The Anishinaabe nation has to be the largest tribe separated by an international border,” she says. She puts special emphasis on Detroit’s stake in that relation, laughing as she describes to me how “you can literally see people driving in their cars in Windsor. It’s so close.”
Understandably, though, the arbitrary divide can also be a source of confusion and frustration: “I would just say that, it’s a hard thing. It’s so close yet it’s so separated, and it’s still hard for me to understand sometimes like how… I don’t know, I just see the land and it makes no difference to me, you know? It’s all Anishinaabe land to me, and I don’t know, it’s just hard to even see it.”
From a young age, Hadassah spent significant amounts of time going to pow wows on the other side of Anishinaabe land. She remarks on the generative ways in which this transnational connection to Anishinaabe land also shifts her perspective on what “counts” as the river: “We would go to pow wows and had friends and family over there. I have pictures from when I was four years old on the ferry, heading across the river, getting over to Walpole. I don’t know if that still counts as the river. It still counts as the river to me because it flows from the St. Clair, you know on the other side, but it all flows to the same place. To me, yeah, that’s a very difficult thing. I kind of forgot about it, but that still counts.”
According to an Anishinaabe oral story, Walpole Island (also known as Bkejwanong) along with Detroit (Waawiyaatanong) and the Aamjiwnaag First Nation make up the three sacred stopping points along the river. “Waawiyatanog never got established as any tribal anything. It’s pretty much been lost or absorbed by the other two, so there’s no real US connection to the Anishinaabe people in Detroit,” Hadassah tells me.
I can see the effects of that integration in her stories about Walpole and encountering the river on the other side of Anishinaabe land. Her time in that area has been as significant and powerful in cultivating a personal connection with and sense of responsibility to the river as her time in Detroit. She pauses to reflect fondly on the long lineage that these community gatherings at the riverside are a part of: “There’s always pow wows and stuff there. That’s a very joyous time of my life for sure. But that’s the thing. That’s a thing that’s been going on for a minute, you know? I think we’ve been gathering together at the river for a long time—not only because it’s a source of life and a thing to celebrate but also because there’s just a lot of sacred energy there, so we use that to our advantage.”
One spot on the waterway that feels particularly powerful to Hadassah lies on the eastern side of Belle Isle. Willow trees that draw in lightning grow here. “Willow is a really, really powerful medicine for us,” she explains. Lightning also figures in Anishinaabe stories of the Thunderbird, so for those trees to be drawing in the energy of the storms that brew over the water is doubly sacred. Like her evocations of the river, Hadassah’s descriptions of the lightning crackle with the dynamicity of something alive: “For it to be hitting the water and spreading itself out so much, I really think that was a sacred place for people. They said it was a spot for Chief Pontiac’s mediation. I think a lot of it has to do with being close to the water and where lightning strikes and has struck before. It’s a really, really powerful, sacred spot right on the river. That’s my favorite for sure.”
Willow trees crop up again later when we talk about how the Indigenous community is imagining the future of the river. I ask Hadassah if there are currently conversations happening among the Native people in the Detroit area about decarbonization and restoration even if they aren’t explicitly in those terms.
“Yeah, for sure,” she begins. “There’s definitely discussion about this. It’s so funny being Native because every once in a while scientists will come out with these articles that say something along the lines of “scientists discovered this thing that works for this miraculous thing that Native people have been using for thousands of years,” and it’s like, yeah, of course.”
She chuckles at this and adds, “Soil deposits along the river definitely get polluted. Willow trees are actually really good at depositing nitrogen into the soil, which is really good for the soil as long as it’s not overly nitrated. And then willow trees actually remediate soil. They totally clarify it.” She suggests that planting more willow trees along the riverfront might be a tangible step in the right direction.
“That’s just one of the many ways that we in Native country are also discussing this because it is definitely a big concern,” she tells me. “You know when things aren’t exactly how they’re supposed to be—when there’s pollution. As Native people, we’re always inevitably environmentalists because everything we are is so connected to the natural world—as it should be.”
Another restoration strategy that the Indigenous community in the city has discussed is planting more wild rice (also known as “manoomin”) along the riverfront. Manoomin has historical and spiritual weight in Anishinaabe lore. In fact, Hadassah tells me that the story of manoomin’s importance in the Anishinaabe people’s settlement in the Midwest was the “first story that was really impactful and made Detroit seem so much more significant.”
According to the migration stories of the Anishinaabe people, a prophecy instructed them to keep moving until they came to a place where food grew on the water. Hadassah traces the migration path for me—describing how the Anishinaabe people came from the Northeast, traveled through what is now modern-day Ontario, and finally to Detroit where they first saw the aquatic grain growing on the Detroit River. “It’s kind of like a sacred grain because it kept our people alive and sustained us,” she explains.
Fittingly, manoomin may have an additional role to play in the future of sustainability on the Detroit River. Like many folks, Hadassah found that she had more opportunities during the pandemic to attend seminars over Zoom. During these sessions, she had the chance to learn a lot about manoomin. She notes that scientists still have yet to rigorously study this phenomenon but that people in the Indigenous community are already well-aware of the restorative qualities of wild rice.
“When wild rice is present in the water, it acts as a natural filtration system and restabilizes the water, but the only thing is that it needs relatively still waters in order for it to stay working.”
She also tells me that the seed itself can stay dormant for up to one hundred years should favorable conditions not present themselves, meaning that there may already be a substantial supply of viable manoomin seeds just waiting to germinate along the banks of the river. Something about the resilience of the seed strikes me as hopeful in and of itself. If these one hundred-year-old seeds could speak, what would they say? What stories of the river would they tell, and what futures do we want to plant and realize one hundred years down the line?
As Hadassah reminds me, another critical (and perhaps under-analyzed) aspect of restoration work is simply reconfiguring how we talk and think about the environments and non-human entities around us. She tells me about Lac du Flambeau in Wisconsin, which holds treaty rights that the Indigenous people in the region fought for.
“The lake itself has rights, so should anything happen to it, they have to have a council with the water in order to make decisions, so the lake is treated more like a living being, and I really think that’s something we should be doing with the river because we don’t treat these things like they have these individual paths that they’re supposed to take.” She trails off briefly and then humbly adds “Nature is supposed to take its course, and we oftentimes prevent it.”
Before we end our conversation, I ask Hadassah about how she understands her responsibility to the river as well as that of the larger Anishinaabe people. She touches on her ritual of making tobacco offerings to the river, which leads to a surprising discussion about women and two-spirit people’s special connection to water in Anishinaabe culture.
“A huge thing I do is I pray to the water, and I also sing songs to the water. That’s a big thing, especially for women because the water is really synonymous with the amniotic sack, the water that’s in there when we give birth. It’s literally seen as the same thing in our culture. It’s like the water of life that sustains us, and so for a woman, there’s a special interaction that she has with the water. It’s known as her medicine.”
In many Indigenous communities, Native women have even taken up the mantle of “water protector” in the wake of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
For Anishinaabe women, water acts as a personal medicine. Hadassah tells me that the relationship between two-spirit people and water is “less about their duties to themselves and it’s more about how their medicines can fulfill the needs of the entire community.”
Since two-spirit people have both feminine and masculine energy, they can put both water and fire to medicinal use. Hadassah extends the analogy further, telling me that “When those things are put together, they put each other out, and they don’t usually exist together. How powerful is it that somebody can have both of those things in one body, and they don’t put each other out?”
Throughout our exchange, Hadassah emphasizes that reconnecting with the stories of her Anishinaabe heritage was vital to her developing a deeper relationship with the Detroit River: “I would definitely say that I grew up on local stories, and I knew that the Detroit area and river was a significant place, but I didn’t know why until I was an adult and I got told those stories later, so I had to reconnect with some of those stories, and that significantly changed my viewpoint along with learning more about my ways and my culture and my language.”
Reconnecting with cultural history, traditions, and ways has been a process of tapping back into the life of the waterway for Hadassah. By weaving these intergenerational stories together, she’s been able to build a fulfilling and affirmative bond with the river. “I’ve gathered up a lot of different pieces from different Anishinaabe sources, and I feel like I’ve been able to piece together a story that makes sense knowing a lot of our ways, knowing a lot of our language and our culture. I’m not an expert by any means, and I’m still learning, but from what I know, a lot of the things just kind of make sense.” I am still learning too, but in Hadassah’s words, I hear the personal and communal fulfillment that comes with crafting a regional history out of storytelling.
As we say our farewells, Hadassah describes the difficulty of expressing the profound connections and powers we have talked about in English.
“I feel greatly that these things are so difficult to explain in English sometimes because of their depth, and it’s sometimes difficult to explain how meaningful these things are to us, but I did my best.”
She laughs good-naturedly at this.
In writing this piece, I have often come up against the insufficiencies of the English language myself and thought back to this moment. It has been an enormous and often daunting honor to hold and put Hadassah’s story to paper. I can only hope that I have also done the best I can with my first language—as well as the several Anishinaabemowin words I picked up in our conversation.