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Good waters, good life

Community-based research with the Bad River Ojibwe

January 5, 2015

The waterways and lakes of northern Wisconsin constitute more of a waterscape than a landscape. Zoom in on the Bad River watershed, for example, and you’ll find waterfalls, trout streams, artesian wells, spawning grounds for lake sturgeon, and Lake Superior, the expansive ancestral homeland of Ojibwe people.

Nelson Institute graduate student Jessie Conaway
Jessie Conaway

You’ll also find the Bad River-Kakagon Sloughs, “the place where food grows on water.” These sloughs – a complex of streams, inlets and wetlands – form the largest intact coastal estuary on Lake Superior and the largest wild rice bed anywhere on the Great Lakes. Guided by prophecy, Lake Superior Ojibwe ended their Great Migration from the Atlantic coast here, where manoomin, wild rice, is found in abundance.

Bad River is perhaps Wisconsin’s most celebrated watershed, internationally recognized for its water, wetland resources and biodiversity. The sloughs empty into Lake Superior across from Madeline Island — the southernmost end of what is now known as the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Having taught sea kayaking in the Apostle Islands for many years, I knew the area fairly well. Drawn in by this ecological and cultural resource, the threats that loom on its boundaries and the people who call it home, I started meeting with members of the Bad River Ojibwe Indian community to explore a shared goal of water stewardship. This marked the beginning of my doctoral work in the Nelson Institute’s Environment and Resources program.


As a natural boundary that encompasses both tribal and non-tribal people, the watershed constitutes what indigenous scholar Philip Deloria calls a “middle ground” for collaborative community-based research. The space can hold shared values such as water quality, environmental health or environmental justice.

Beginning from this middle ground, I started developmental work with the Bad River Ojibwe in 2011. I met with community leaders, elders and culture keepers, and we mapped out our plan to work for water in the Bad River watershed. We took a multi-pronged approach that included watershed education, a community-wide cultural mapping project and water stewardship, incorporating multiple generations and native and Western scientific methods.

In the Ojibwe language, bimaadiziwin means living in a good way, a way that is deliberate and thoughtful and considers short- and long-term consequences for socio-ecological systems. As a researcher from the Nelson Institute working in northern Wisconsin with the Bad River Ojibwe, my aim was to do community-based research “in a good way” that authentically connected university expertise with the local expertise of Lake Superior Ojibwe people. This teamwork culminated in two durable products that remain in the Bad River community for their water stewardship and outreach efforts.

Bad River watershed
The Bad River watershed is internationally recognized for its water, wetland resources and biodiversity. Credit: Don Stanley

The first, Bad River Youth Outdoors, employed a team-teaching approach to culturally relevant watershed education. This program has served Bad River tribal youth for the past two summers. Guided by both elders and biologists, participating youth do multiple stewardship projects: water quality monitoring on Tyler Forks in the upper reaches of the watershed, removing invasive cattails from the wild rice beds, and mapping invasive species in the sloughs.

The second product, the Bad River Water and Culture Maps Project, used participatory geographic information systems (GIS) and counter-mapping techniques, underscored by indigenous research methods. Counter-mapping is a process that prominently features spatial narratives of people and place that are counter to those typically depicted in maps produced by the dominant culture.

This approach to mapping is “decolonizing” in terms of its ethics, tools and processes. Counter-mapping shares power between multiple experts, tribal and nontribal, and gives voice to the people. This collaboration engaged the Bad River community, bringing together elders and youth, grandparents and grandchildren, placing the mapping process in their hands.


In GIS, maps contain layers of data. For the Bad River Water and Culture Maps Project, one layer included stories of Bad River Ojibwe elders, culture keepers, community and spiritual leaders, and parents and grandparents. These stories guided the curriculum development for Bad River Youth Outdoors; program participants paddled and hiked to the places their elders had mapped for them. In these storied places, the kids clicked waypoints on GPS units and gathered video, audio and photographs. This activity became another map layer.

Bad River watershed floor map
The stories of Lake Superior Ojibwe complement an
interactive floor map of the Bad River watershed.

A third layer was assembled last spring by a team of environmental studies undergraduate students in my capstone course, Water Stewardship and Sovereignty in the Bad River Ojibwe Community. The students interviewed Bad River youth and elders and incorporated these narratives, along with photos, into “storymaps” of the Bad River watershed, featured in a cultural atlas that shares stories about Ojibwe water and culture (view the students’ capstone projects).

The Bad River Water and Culture Maps Project features maps in multiple media: the cultural atlas, a wall map, a web map ( and a 20-by-30-foot interactive floor map. The first three media share Lake Superior Ojibwe voices about their homeland, identity and deep-seated water values and water-based cultural practices. The floor map started out as a blank slate; the public has added their own storymaps by writing on the map with permanent marker, creating the fourth layer of map data.

The maps have been featured at events all across Wisconsin and have served as a traveling set of conversation starters about both the history and future of the Bad River watershed. Bad River elders use the maps as visual guides to share stories about place, history, place names and traditional activities. The interactive floor map has gathered stories of people from all over the world, from Canada to Tasmania.

Working together for water in Bad River gave voice to a participatory water ethic that incorporates seasonal ceremonies, water stewardship and traditional activities: paddling, spearfishing, ricing, hunting and gathering wigwaasi (birch bark). Through my community-based research on the Bad River reservation, community members became my co-researchers. They now hold the products of our collaboration, and carry these forward for their own work in education and outreach about the watershed.

This collaboration asserts a simple truth that can be understood across cultures around the globe: the quality of life is based on the quality of the water. Mino nibiwan, mino bimaadiziwin. Good waters, good life.

Jessie Conaway is a doctoral student in Environment and Resources.