Grand Traverse Bands' Seven Generations Philosophy Sees the Planet in Long Term

On Earth Day 2008, Hank Bailey, a natural resources staffer with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians gathered dozens of children—Native and non-Native alike—and other volunteers, armed them with more than a thousand red osier dogwood sprouts and black willow saplings, and sent them off on a mission that, if successful, will still be giving back seven generations from today. Bailey told the volunteers to plant the young shrubs and trees on several degraded waterfront sites from Northport to Traverse City. The trees will take root, stabilize stream banks, filter toxins from runoff, clean the air and look just plain beautiful.

Notions of nature, time passing and connections to generations future and past come naturally to Bailey. His great-great-great-grandfather Cabmoosa was a signatory on the 1836 treaty that ceded land from the area’s tribes to the United States government. “He was the only chief to sign the treaty who cried when he did so,” says Bailey. How many Americans even know the names of their great-great-great-grandfathers, let alone about a moment when they cried?

The trees that Bailey’s crew planted on Earth Day 2008 were not just any trees, either. They, too, make a statement about taking a long view when it comes to our interaction with the natural world. Bailey sourced the trees from David Milarch of the Copemish-based Champion Tree Project. David Milarch is not a Native, but is one of the legions of environmentalists inspired and guided by the Natives’ ancient principles of sustainability.

Ingrained in the traditions of the tribes of Northern Michigan is the philosophy of the Seventh Generation: that decisions today should be made based on their effect on children seven generations in the future, rather than on what would best satisfy our immediate needs, create short-term profit or impress investors at the close of next quarter.

Milarch has dedicated his life to restoring what he calls the planet’s lost “Mother trees”—the eastern white pine, redwood, black willow and many others. By taking cuttings from the largest known species of such trees and growing sprouts from them, Milarch serves as an archivist of tree genetics. He says the trees have the ability to draw, filter and, in some cases, break down industrial poisons.

Six weeks after the donated seedlings were planted, I visit Bailey at the lodge-like building where he works in the tribe’snatural resources department. Pleasant and calm, Bailey has a round, tanned face behind a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. He wears a camouflage hunting cap and ties his hair in a ponytail. He has agreed to take me to see how the EarthDay plantings are doing, but before we leave, we meet in a conference room over coffee. As a professional monitor of nature, Bailey is intimate with all of the region’s most troubling environmental problems. I ask him to run through his A-list of concerns.

“Water withdrawal [like that done by Nestlé, which legally drains an aquifer in Mecosta County to create Ice Mountain bottled water] is very scary for us,” Bailey says. “And airborne pollution. There are coal plants in Chicago, Milwaukee and China. The lake effect here draws in that pollution. It smells fresh up here, but we’re getting bombarded.”

He also worries about invasive aquatic species in the Great Lakes. “Asian carp is the scary one for me,” says Bailey. He tells of how catfish farmers in Missouri imported the plankton-eating species, which can grow to 80 pounds and eat up to 40 percent of their body weight each day. Floods allowed them to escape to the Mississippi River, whose native fish population has since been decimated by them. “They’re knocking on the door [of Lake Michigan],” Bailey says. “An electric fencein Chicago is the only barrier. If they get through, they’ll take over the Great Lakes, and it will be done then.”

And loss of habitat … “As a young man I could get off the [school] bus, change clothes, go hunting until I got tired,” Bailey says. “Now I walk 100 yards and there’s a ‘no trespassing’ sign. I walk another way, and a house is sitting on a deer runway.”

If Seventh Generation practices had been implemented by generations past, Bailey points out, it’s fair to say that saltwater freighters would have been banned from the Great Lakes long before the zebra mussels appeared. And during the 1980’s, as global warming became evident, we would have switched to renewable energy, and mercury-spewing coal plants would have been shut down.

On our way out to the parking lot, we pass a poster framed on a hallway wall. It reads: “For we are the keepers of the seven generations. Our ancestors are watching to see if we will make a life for those yet unborn and teach the care of our Mother Earth to all races of man.”

It’s late morning, and Bailey, riding passenger, crunches potato chips for breakfast as we drive south to look at the Earth Day handiwork. First site is the planting of more than 100 red osier dogwoods at the Lake Leelanau narrows by about 60 third-graders from Suttons Bay Elementary School and adult supervisors from many local organizations.

We stop at a dirt road to wait for Jenee Rowe of the Leelanau Conservancy, who is joining us for the post-planting inspection: a strip of shoreline along the valve between the north and south lobes of Lake Leelanau.

We park our cars where the dirt road ends and plunge into the woods. It’s only a quartermile walk, but hauling soil and saplings through the trail-less woods and over a creek to the site must have been a lot of work. Along the way, we duck vines and step over roots, wade through horsetail, then as we get closer to the water, cattails and hard-packed ground give way to sand.

Just shy of a beaver dam that Bailey says is right around the bend, we are there, in a barren, sandy stretch of Leelanau Narrows that used to be a dumping area for dredged soil. The earth here is now dotted with red knee-high pokes jutting from the ground—the red osier dogwoods planted by a small army of kids.

The shrub, native to Michigan, will grow seven feet high and thrives along waterways. The ones planted here will offer berries to birds, shelter to ground-nesting birds and attract beneficial insects. The red osiers also grow fast, and in five years will mature and spread, turning this bare belt into a natural barrier against runoff contaminated with road salt and oils. Reducing erosion will up the clarity of the lakes and improve conditions for the invertebrates that fish feed on. Bailey and Rowe are pleased with the survival rate.

The Grand Traverse Band also completed plantings along the Boardman River with black willows. The trees they planted were clones of the former national champion (the largest known U.S. species) black willow that grows on the campus of Traverse City’s former state hospital, now called the Grand Traverse Commons.

After hiking back to our cars and parting ways with Rowe, Bailey guides us to another site a few miles east. Called McKeese Creek, the little stream runs through a sweeping orchard of apple and cherry trees. Like the red osier dogwood, the black willow saplings here are doing well. They’ll help protect this gentle tributary against agricultural runoff—runoff that runs into Belanger Creek and ultimately Grand Traverse Bay.

“In 40 years, these will be the dominant trees here,” Bailey says, nodding toward the oaks and maples that canopy the shaded stream. Milarch says that the projects led by the Grand Traverse Band have been so successful that four other Indian bands are planting clones from the champion black willow in their communities: Manistee, Petoskey, Sault Ste. Marie and Brimley. And even more encouraging, the idea seems to have bridged to the broader culture: school districts as far south as Farmington Hills and Lansing have inquired about similar projects.

Back at the office, Bailey tells me one last anecdote from his tribe’s past. “There is a local story up here, from the 1800’s, after the treaty was signed,” he says. “A white man came to an old man from our tribe and told him that he had great lumber on his property. He told him he would be smart to sell it. That it was worth a lot of money. And the old man told him, ‘I can’t cut those down because I need them for my grandchildren to have sugar camps in the spring.’”

Todd Spencer lives and writes in Traverse City.

This article first ran in Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine in November, 2008.