Sturgeon Through the Generations.
by George Heartwell
MRWA Governance Committee Chair
“Look, there are three of them! Right below the riffle.”
“I don’t see them! Point your rod tip.”
“All I can see are three logs…Oh my gosh, that log just moved!”
Spotting my first Lake Sturgeon in the Muskegon River was jaw-dropping; no, breath-taking; no, actually, there isn’t a cliché that can adequately describe the effect that seeing those three “river monsters” had on me. I have seen others since. I’ve peered over the side of the boat for a good ten minutes as a four-foot sturgeon rose and fell in the water column. I’ve caught sight of another moving upstream to find a bedrock spawning ground. Every time it’s like the first time. Stunning! Awe inspiring!
What’s the story behind these magnificent creatures that inhabit our watershed for at least some part of their lifecycle?
If the Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser Fulvescens, looks like a prehistoric fish straight out of Jurassic Park that’s because it is! Prehistoric, I mean. Nancy Auer in her book, co-authored by Dave Dempsey, “The Great Lake Sturgeon” (Michigan State University Press, 2013) states, “The sturgeons are one of the oldest fish on earth, bridging evolutionary time between the closely related and similar-looking sharks…and the early true bony fishes…” It’s hardened-plate exoskeleton, pointed and upturned snout, and “whiskers” remind us that this is no common fish. The Sturgeon is listed on the Endangered Species register and is considered “more critically endangered than any other group of species” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
N’me, the Anishinaabek name for the Sturgeon, is considered a spiritual resource, directing people how to live in “a good and respectful way” with the rest of creation. During pre-colonial settlement times the sturgeon spawning runs on the rivers like the Muskegon would have been awe-inspiring to see. Thousands, tens of thousands, of these mighty creatures, some reaching seven feet in length, returning to their ancestral spawning grounds. The indigenous peoples – Chippewa in the case of our watershed – would greet the arrival of the N’me with ceremony, drumming and dance. They would never take the first fish to swim past the encampment, nor would they take the last fish. Respect for the Creator meant N’me must be permitted to spawn. Respect for fellow humans meant N’me must be preserved for future generations. When the Anishinaabek killed Sturgeon they killed only what the community would need to sustain human life. The Sturgeon flesh is high in fat content and preserved the native people through cold winters.
With the arrival of European settlement, N’me was shown far less respect than that shown by the Indians. Fish were slaughtered for sport. The first and the last were taken…and every one in between. Fat-laden carcasses were dried and used for fuel to fire the boilers of steamboats. Numbers of Sturgeon dwindled. We did not live in “a good and respectful way.” Nature was impoverished. The Sturgeon neared extinction.
Fortunately, among us still are those who know how to respect nature, those who revere N’me as a great teacher and spiritual guide. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in the Manistee River watershed established a Sturgeon restoration program. Listen as tribe Pipe Carrier and former Tribal DNR Director Jimmie Mitchell describes the program:
“At this time, tribal biologists enter the dark waters of the river around midnight and painstakingly collect the elusive larvae from the frigid waters of the Big Manistee. The larvae are then carefully transported to the Tribe’s patented streamside rearing facility, where they are fed, monitored, treated for disease, and raised until their protective plates are formed. The process takes about four months, when tribal biologists feel the Sturgeon survival rate is ensured. The Tribe’s annual Sturgeon release ceremony takes place each September along the shores of the same river the larvae were retrieved from, the source that we feel imprints them with the water of the Manistee.” (The Great Lake Sturgeon, Auer and Dempsey, p. 25)
With my grandsons Alec, Micah, Austin and Gabriel, I sit cross-legged on the banks of the Manistee one recent September day. The sun warms us, the leaves have just the earliest tint of fall color. Jimmie Mitchell takes out his pipe, the one that he, as a younger man, had carved for his Grandfather out of pipestone; the one he now uses as Pipe Carrier for the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. Smoke rose to the east, to the north and south, to the west. A fragrant offering of thanks for Giizhemanido, the Creator. Then, with chanting, we follow Ogama Larry Romanelli to the river’s edge where, one-by-one, families of the Tribe step forward, take in hand a nine-inch N’me – fully formed and spiritually beautiful – and release it to the waters. The Heartwells had been given the honor of releasing a fish and had chosen the youngest, Gabriel, to do the honor for our family. He now beds by the river, opens his hands; the Sturgeon pauses just a moment then vanishes like the Spirit it is. A sign of promise. A commitment to living in “a good and respectful” way.