Community Member

Waankam: People For The Estuary

Duluth, Minnesota

“It was near the Wild Rice and Red Rivers exploring the curves and textures of the banks, climbing tall oak trees, under the tutelage of area frogs and turtles that I began my protective relational connection with the natural world. I carried those same values with me as I found my way across Minnesota to the largest freshwater lake in the world, near one of the sacred stopping places for the Anishinaabe – Manidoo Minis..”

– Zhaawanangikwe – Leah Prussia, ​​
Waankam: People For The Estuary

The EPA describes an estuary as “a partially enclosed, coastal water body where freshwater from rivers and streams mixes with salt water from the ocean. Estuaries, and their surrounding lands, are places of transition from land to sea.” Technically, that describes an estuary, but the results mean so much more. Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on earth and hold a special relationship with the indigenous peoples who made them home, seasonally or permanently. 

The 12,000-acre St. Louis River Estuary is the largest freshwater estuary in North America,  is the headwaters of the Great Lakes and the largest U.S. tributary of Lake Superior, which holds 10% of Earth’s fresh surface water. Over two million acres in total, with half of that being wetlands, the ecosystem also hosts more than 10,000 acres of protected waters and serves as a nursery for hundreds of unique species in the waters and on the lands. 

For the members of Waankam: People of the Estuary, it is yet something more. The living presence of the St. Louis River and Estuary, they believe, deserves to be honored, protected and ultimately imbued with the same rights that are recognized for human beings.

Water flow and the natural movement of sediments in estuaries combine to provide unique, productive, shallow water habitats. The combination of ecosystems within the Estuary — estuarine wetland and aquatic habitats, backwater bays, islands, baymouth bar complex, and uplands supporting large areas of forest vegetation — is very unusual in the Great Lakes, and around the world.

– POE Website

Historically, the Estuary’s heritage is wrapped around two main threads. The first lies with the Anishinaabe people. For them the Estuary is known as Manidoo Minis, Spirit Island, and is part of their creation and migration story, as well as constant resource for life. Manidoo Minis is the sixth stopping place in the Anishinaabe migration from the East to the lands where Manoomin, the good seed, (wild rice) grows.

Lumberjacks on a log driver down the St. Louis River near Duluth in 1888, (From, Courtesy of Univ. of Minnesota Duluth, Kathryn A. Martin Library, northeast Minnesota Historical Center Collection.)

The second lies with the lumber industry. The Estuary became a center for lumber and paper production and with that industry also came environmental degradation and pollution. 

“Many years of toxic discharges have led to high concentrations of contaminants in the sediments, water column, plants, and wildlife. Today, the St. Louis River estuary is listed as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Area of Concern (AOC).”

NOAA Habitat Blueprint

In order to bring the St. Louis River estuary back from the brink, the People of the Estuary have joined the global Rights of Nature movement “to recognize that ecosystems and species have the right to exist, thrive, flourish, and regenerate.” Through building relationships with local partners, opening communication with the Indigenous Council and Tribes around Lake Superior and an extensive educational outreach program in their communities, Waankam: The People for the Estuary hope to introduce a City Charter for Duluth, MN, that declares: 

The St. Louis River Estuary possesses the rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve. “St. Louis River Estuary” shall include the Estuary itself, associated natural communities, and the larger watershed of which they are a part.”

For the Estuary to have those rights would mean any activities, be they industrial or otherwise, which would violate the Estuary’s ability to flourish would be prohibited and that prohibition would carry the weight of enforcement. This local effort woven together by the breadth of communities depending upon and impacted by the health of the St. Louis River estuary is built on a desire to embrace their roles as stewards and “protect Nibikong Manidoog–sacred life—in and around the estuary, as it is our connection between the present and future.”

People of the Estuary Workshop, Feb 2020

​​My participation in this effort to secure rights for the St. Louis River Estuary arises out of the hope that we humans can become more consciously aware of our role in supporting regenerative life and take the steps necessary to do so.

– Lora Wedge – Waankam: People For The Estuary

Written by Michele Gielis

Michele Gielis

Michele Gielis

Michele has spent the last decade helping nonprofits raise their voice for change. She looks to make action meaningful by connecting people to the technology and messages that bring resonance and resilience. Michele is proud to support the Anthropocene Alliance working to get communities to #HigherGround


Emily Levang

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Climate Impacts

Drought, Flooding, Mining, Water Contamination


Rights of Nature

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