Summer Solstice marks growth and new beginnings at Blue Water River Walk

The Blue Water Area has long been home to indigenous people. In fact, the name Michigan comes from the Native American word Michigama, meaning "great or large lake."

Focusing on habitat conservation, environmental education, and recreational access, Friends of the St Clair River seeks to spread this type of awareness through its education and restoration efforts. Recently the nonprofit partnered with members of the region’s indigenous community and other local organizations as part of its latest project to create a giitigan, Anishinaabe for garden, at the Blue Water River Walk in Port Huron. Twenty volunteers worked together to plant 800 native plants and restore the shoreline of the St. Clair River.

Sheri Faust, President/Co-Founder of Friends of the St. Clair River sees the initiative as a means to restore the environment as well as honor and celebrate indigenous culture.

“It’s about growing more than just plants,” Faust says. “We really want that whole area to serve as a place for learning and to be an inviting place where people can expand their appreciation for indigenous culture, as well as just being able to behold the beauty of the carvings and reflect on the teachings of our region’s ancestors.”

Shawnee Ojibwe artist Garrett Nahdee created the Seven Grandfather Teachings sculptures featured at the Blue Water River Walk.

A project of such magnitude was not tackled alone. The Wildflower Association of Michigan contributed funds for the native plants as well as Enbridge, who helped with funding to incorporate the Native American partners. Faust and her team also reached out to the local indigenous community as well as those who reside across the Blue Water Bridge in neighboring Canada to provide insight on which plants should be chosen for the giitigan.

“The plants chosen have an environmental function such as to stabilize the shoreline by holding soil in place. They are also aesthetically pleasing, showing what the landscape looked like 100 years ago before it was destroyed by industry, ” Faust says. “Many of the plants also have medicinal uses as well as other significant uses tied to the native culture, and we are hoping to make this an annual event of honoring the Anishinaabe people.”

The giitigan planting was held on Tuesday, June 21, the summer solstice. The date is not only this year’s first official day of summer but also National Indigenous Peoples Day in our neighboring country of Canada, home to many Anishinaabeg people who have lived in the Great Lakes region for at least 9,000 years.

Included in the new giitigan at the Blue Water River Walk are four sacred plants of the Anishinaabek: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, and cedar. Each of these plants has a specific use in ceremonies and some such as tobacco are given as gifts. Cedar is considered a guardian spirit and placing a small piece in your shoe is said to bring goodness to the wearer. Sage and sweet grass are combined in smudging ceremonies to cleanse and purify negative energy. Other plants used in the giitigan include varieties such as purple coneflower, black-eyed susan, aster, mint, wild strawberry, and bee balm.

John Kennedy performed the blessing ceremony for the event.

Alongside the giitigan planting, an official dedication ceremony for the Seven Grandfather Teachings sculptures was held after having been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The sculptures feature a totem animal representing each principle of the teachings and were carved in solid oak by Garrett Nahdee of the Ojibwe Tribe of Walpole Island First Nation. The two events were paired together due to their similar purpose and significance to the Anishinaabe people. The event opened with a smudging ceremony and blessing performed by John Kennedy, a member of the local Native American community, and the dedication also featured Jill Joseph, a Sarnia artist who painted the artwork seen on the flyers passed out at the event.

“It was an honor to be a part of this ceremony and to be able to give thanks for everything on this earth that sustains our living,” Kennedy says.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings sculpture project and dedication was supported by the Community Foundation of St. Clair County, and along with the giitigan planting, these two projects seek to bring more awareness of the ecology that once thrived in the region, as well as shine a light on the culture and practices of the area’s original inhabitants.

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Read more articles by Harold Powell.

Harold Powell is the Community Correspondent for The Keel and owner of Phantom Pen Media offering multimedia services to individuals and organizations across the Blue Water Area. He is a current board member for the Blue Water Area Chamber of Commerce and the most recent Chamber Choice recipient at the Eddy Awards. Harold is an avid volunteer for the YMCA of the Blue Water Area as well as Bridge Builders Counseling & Mentoring and in his spare time, enjoys spending time with his son, writing and listening to music, playing video games, and not folding laundry.