This interview with Great Grandmother Mary Lyons is part of the series, American Indian Women Speak Out on Mercury Standards.
Great Grandmother Mary Lyons is an Ojibwe elder, spiritual advisor, and UN Observer on Women from Apple Valley (a suburb of the Twin Cities), Minnesota. She is a recognized advocate for indigenous children who never misses an opportunity to defend her homelands, and all the waters, plants, and animals who live there. She is the author of Wisdom Lessons: Spirited Guidance from an Ojibwe Great-Grandmother.
This issue of mercury pollution affects everybody. You cannot disturb something in Mother Earth that was never intended to be disturbed without having a consequence. When you violate a part of Mother Earth there’s going to be repercussions, and the repercussions are going to be on the children that she depended upon, on those that cared for her as much as she cared for them.
The EPA says, “Eh, they’re on the reservations, we don’t really need to talk to them.” The EPA’s rules and regulations are not geared to tribal territories. We’re not considered a free people as everybody else.
I’m a cancer survivor. My daughter’s a cancer survivor. My father died of cancer, my brother had cancer. There is a massive amount of cancer that has happened to such a healthy, organic people! But who is going to listen to those old Indians? Indigenous people were always little rats in a cage being tested.
We all have our creation stories and history. My ancestors told of ours like this:
The Ojibwe Nations originated from the northern East Coast prior to colonization. Our Anishinaabe people (“people of the land”) have settled throughout Canada and the upper states of the USA. The Ojibwe Nations have many branches such as the Odawa and Potawatomi. We are known as the Three Fires. Within just our tribal affiliation, there are 7 primary clans of the Anishinaabe people: loon, crane, fish, bird, bear, marten, and deer. We settled in Northern Wisconsin, Northern Minnesota, and even part of Dakota. Even though this land was known as Dakota Territories where we reside today, we had no other choice to settle here as the colonization push was killing our peoples.
Our journey westward began with dreams, dreams that later were written in the Birch Bark Scrolls. They identified a place where the food grew above the waters. This would be the place where my clans would settle. Today, in Minnesota, we are made up of 6 reservations which fall under one government: The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. We are comprised of the Federally Recognized Tribes of Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Grand Portage, Mille Lacs, White Earth, and Leech Lake, with which I am registered as a full-blood Ojibwe. We also have another relative reservation that broke off and went independent, the Red Lake Nation. Also within our state, we share tribal residence with the Dakota people and they have 4 reservations: Upper and Lower Sioux, Prairie Island, Shakopee.
We believe in our creation story of the Anishinaabe people. We come from the stars, and our temporary residence is the planet. My family and memories are in Northern Minnesota.
My father was born in the late 1800s. And my grandmother, she was 52 when she had my father. It’s common for our women to still have children in our mid-50s. We were organic people. A hundred years past, everyone was organic. There was a time when you could put a spigot anywhere in the ground and drink the water. You drank the purest of waters. You ate the berries and got the best nourishment ever. Anything that you had that the forest had to offer, those were the rich gardens of who we were as a people.
I grew up in a small house with dirt floors and for our refrigeration, we’d dig a hole. Most people would think it was a tough life. To me, we were extremely rich. We had unity. We had a community kitchen. When they went fishing or netting for walleyes, they only took what they needed.
My father and my uncle were fishermen. They knew the waters and they knew the lakes. I’m very fortunate to have seen what happened in that organic lifestyle compared to the chaos of today: To run and to play and to smell the essence of all the beauty, everything in the forest, where that was your huge playground, you knew your trails and your trees, you never got hungry, you knew where your berries were, you knew what plants you could eat and even what flowers you could eat. We didn’t need to pay to go to a gym. Our gym was the forest. We ran, we climbed. So those are memories of who I am and what I have taught my children and my grandchildren and my great granddaughter.
I have this wonderful cousin. I never did like cleaning fish, but she could do it: net a fish, bring it up, clean it out, gut it, filet it. She started saying back in the 1970s, there’s something wrong with the fish. She said that what was coming from the fish was wrong, and she wouldn’t eat it.
We were told many years ago, there will come a time when the plate at the table will be taken, when your food will become tainted. This was written before the beginning of time. And this is why we so desperately encourage our children not to forget our ancestors, as many others have forgot theirs. In order for us to keep moving for the future, we cannot forget about that organic thinking, that natural order of life.
We are the seeds of our ancestors. You cannot turn off a seed.
In Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, we are very concerned about the water and the fish. A lot of the Ojibwe are fishermen. We believe our forests are being contaminated through the traveling of impure air, and our ground is being poisoned through fracking and oil pollution. Our animals are coming into our backyards seeking out food because their homelands, the forest, are becoming toxic to them. Our relatives that live in the waters, they too are falling to the greed of mankind to have what should not be here. Through the dumping of waste and violating Mother Earth by cutting into her, we as humans are going to pay a much higher price with our health and way of life if we continue down this road. We as Anishinaabe people, never lived a life of being unappreciated, we always took care of our residence, as we take care of it and it will take care of us.
Photo credit: Jane Feldman. Tee shirt designer Votan Henriquez, NSRGNTS