The Michigan turtle is a profound example of the influence contaminated and deteriorating water systems have on social and culture traditions. The Great Lakes Woodland Indians have recognized and respected the turtle throughout their history. Mackinac Island shows this reverence, for it means, “Great turtle” in Ottawa language. Turtles, according to oral stories and traditions, represent peace, patience, and most often, long life.
But Michigan turtles, in recent years, have become endangered. And the reasons are evident: increased development has allowed for runoff of contaminants into watersheds, increased traffic volumes, and predators.
But turtles only represent one of the smaller issues for Native American communities and culture. Water deterioration continues to affect and destroy many sacred practices of Native American life. Now the issues that remains is how to balance between respect for the Native American tribe’s cultural connection with water, with the mass use of water in the United States by industries, residences, and commercial enterprises alike.
What needs to be implemented in the future is an increased awareness and understanding of the cultural significance of water in native communities as well as more developed collaborations amongst tribal leaders and interested parties. In recent years there has been such improvements in these matters.
One such example is National Geographic’s article on how climate change is linked to waterborne diseases in Inuit Communities. The report found that as global warming triggers heavier rainfall and faster snowmelt in the Arctic, Inuit communities in Canada are reporting more cases of illness attributed to pathogens that have washed into surface water and groundwater. The startling implications, however, is that native communities worldwide are disproportionately affected by climate change because of their intimate cultural and spiritual connections with water. But the silver lining in the article is that a cultural-specific lens is now being applied to such areas of scientific research. This blending of culture and science is making great strides in the ways marginalized communities are able to adapt and survive when such ecological problems are thrown at them.