Ottawa Indians have been in Northern Michigan for centuries. They witnessed the Ottoway River become the Boardman River when it was renamed by settlers.
When a series of dams was proposed for the river, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians was against it. So when word got out that the city might remove the dams, the tribe jumped at the opportunity to help.
But things didn’t go as smoothly as they expected.
In the eyes of tribal elder Hank Bailey, the river would be brought back to life. But when workers started to take the first dam apart, Hank was shocked.
“We had construction guys just scrambling with their heavy equipment,” says Bailey. “Trying to prevent it from going down anymore and they were risking their lives pouring rocks and sand in there trying to block it off.”
They were trying to block off 12 feet of dam construction form dropping off instantly. The process was supposed to happen gradually, over the course of 20 days. Instead, the dam dropped within six hours, and Bailey saw the river become pitch black, with mud flats and cedar stumps sticking out everywhere.
“Everybody was pretty heartbroken that it went out like it did,” says Bailey. “Because it caused some damage downstream and everything to homeowners. Not what everybody wanted to see.”
Bailey says rivers are more than just water.
“They are … the bloodwork of mother earth,” he says. “They’re the veins of our mother that transport all these good things around on her, the surface of her that help sustain all the different environments that need that kind of thing.”
He says that includes the variety of fish, plants and other ecological species. He says water has been used by Native Americans for many purposes, including migration food and traditional ceremonies.
When European settlers arrived in northern Michigan, they started logging and eventually built dams along the Boardman River. The Brown Bridge dam was one of the first, and was seen as a symbol of success.
Bailey says the tribe saw things differently.
“As humans, we know that when we feel bad, doctors will look at us and tell us that we have blockages in our arteries. So, what do we do at that point?” asks Bailey. “We don’t put more blockages in; we take those blockages out. And suddenly you feel good. Well, could you imagine how mother earth feels about all of this when she’s had … these arteries of hers blocked up by these dams?”
In the early 2000s, the license for the dams was set to expire. The City of Traverse City and Grand Traverse County started talking about removing or repairing the dams. That’s when the tribe stepped in.
“We love our land so much here that we’ll work with anybody if we could do something to help preserve it, protect it and enhance it,” says Bailey.
The ponds behind the dams were full of silt, and vegetation at the bottom didn’t feed much. The whole thing was in bad shape.
Another challenge was community support. It took a few years to get adequate funding, and bring the right people to aid the project.
On the day the dam went out faster than planned, causing damage to homes, people saw the dam removal as a failure. Baileys says that, since that time, the river has proven them wrong.
“Where the old Brown Bridge Dam was … would’ve been the old pond and you can see a lot of new vegetation. It’s already obscured all the old cedar stumps that were sticking up after the dam removal,” says Bailey.
At this point, two dams have been removed – the Brown Bridge and the Boardman Dam. The Sabin Dam will be next. The fourth, and final, dam left standing will be repaired by the city and the county.
“My feeling for this place … is great,” says Bailey. “Every time I come here, I feel wonderful, and my whole hope is that (young people) would develop the love that I have for this place also and for the outdoors and for mother earth. So that if they see some harm being done, maybe they’ll step forward and be brave and … stop somebody else from causing some harm.”