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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The River Keepers

Air Date: Week of

On a small river in northwest Vermont, the Abenaki Indian tribe has elicited help from area school children who are researching pollution in their local watershed. The hope is that children will grow up to be aware and concerned about the river that helps sustain them. Tatiana Schreiber reports.


NUNLEY: Across the country in northwestern Vermont, another river monitoring project is just getting started. The River Keepers Project started with a group of Abenaki Indians long frustrated by the degradation of a central element of their culture and economy, the Missisquoi River. The Abenaki are seeking help from local school kids, fishing groups, and business people. Tatiana Schreiber reports.

SCHREIBER: The Missisquoi begins in northeast Vermont, winds north through rolling hills into Canada, then dips south again, ending in the Missisquoi Bay of Lake Champlain, a lowland delta home to osprey, hawks, and herons. It's also home to the Abenaki ,Native Americans whose territory once stretched across 300 miles from here to the coast of Maine. Blooming meadows and acres of corn fields suggest the river valley is as lush and fertile as ever, but the Abenaki are worried.

BRIGHTSTAR: Some of our sacred sites are now under water, and burials are under water.

SCHREIBER: Abenaki activist Dee Brightstar.

BRIGHTSTAR: And I noticed where the great blue herons, every time the water level goes up and down their nests are flooded and their babies drown. And so the great blue herons are going to be extinct around here. All the wildlife that lives are the edge of the river are dying. Because you can't have a home and have it flooded every 2 or 3 hours. That's what the dam does.

SCHREIBER: Brightstar and other Abenakis cite additional problems: periodic fish kills, serious erosion, and what they say are high rates of certain cancers in the Missisquoi watershed. The Abenaki are not a Federally-recognized tribe, however, so they've had little political clout in their efforts to protect the river. They're continuing to push for recognition, but the tribe is also directing its energy toward education.

(Man's voice: "So right now we're going down to the nature trail that we're working on, the new construction on it. About a mile or so here south of Swanton")

SCHREIBER: The new nature trail is a short drive from the tribe's office along a small tributary to the river. It's part of the River Keepers project. Coordinator Dave Gilman says one of its goals is to teach children, both native and non-native, their responsibilities toward the land.

GILMAN: I felt for the Missisquoi River Keepers, which is, you know, kind of a function of the Abenaki Nation. We can use this down here as a demonstration area as well as an educational area for the Swanton Elementary School, the High Gates School, as well as the schools in St. Albans.

(Running water)

SCHREIBER: Like many Abenaki, Gilman wasn't raised among Indians and only recently came back to this area, in part to learn more about his Indian heritage. A retired soil conservationist, he is deeply troubled by what he sees as threats to the river.

GILMAN: Roads, farming, logging, just improper land use. And we've got to stop this We've got fish with sores on them; they're diseased. You know, it's just an indication of the condition of the watershed.

(Woman's voice: "Who's going in?" Several girls: "I will." "I am.")

SCHREIBER: The Missisquoi is wide and shallow near the Sheldon Elementary School. It's just started to rain rather hard, but these 5th and 6th grade girls are brimming with enthusiasm and anxious to get to work.

(Woman: "Which way is upstream? Which way is downstream?" Children: "That way is downstream." "That way's upstream." Woman: "All right, so which way do you want the net to go?")

SCHREIBER: Dave Gilman is convinced the best route to change is through kids, who are a direct link to parents. He's raised funds to expand science education at area schools, and involved children in monitoring and evaluating the condition of the river.

GILMAN: What they're doing, they're basically getting samples of the macro- invertebrates in a small net, and then they'll take and analyze them and see what they look like under a microscope. Then they can identify the different species.

KENNESIN: Because like some, some macro-invertebrates that we find in this river only live in polluted water. So by finding out the macro-invertebrates we can find out what kind of water this is. Like, over the summer we did some testing in this stream, and I think we found 99 aquatic worms. And they're specifically, they only specifically live in polluted water. And while we were in another stream farther down from this stream in Enosburg called Tyler branch, we found, like, a lot, about 32 water pennies. And they only live in fresh water, so we know that's a lot better stream than this is. How about over there in that sink hole...

SCHREIBER: Like many of her schoolmates, Lydia Kennesin believes she's part Indian, and that's one reason she likes working with the River Keepers. But she's also just worried about the river. She and the other 10 and 11-year old students have done species counts, analyzed water samples, and made presentations at school and for parents and community groups. Steve Dickens, Vermont Coordinator of the Riverwatch Network, says what the kids have learned has helped them make persuasive arguments to adults. At one public forum, he says, they explain that manure entering the river was a problem, and the solution was to convince farmers to plant between their fields in the riverbanks. Dickens says they emphasized the need to involve farmers in the educational process.

DICKENS: So, these kids really, I think, won everyone's hearts over. Because they can speak better than any of the rest of us about problems on the river. It's their river, it's their future, it's their community in the future. And I think everyone recognized that, because when these kids were talking the room was really silent.

SCHREIBER: The Missisquoi River Keepers project seems to be bearing fruit. New alliances are being built between the schools, the Abenaki, farmers, conservationists, and businesspeople who form the Missisquoi Basin Association to protect the entire river. Steve Busher, a prime mover behind the new group, is a realtor and president of a Lake Champlain sports fishing association.

BUSHER: From the watershed to the delta here, probably somewhere on the order of 140 miles or so, it just isn't a project that any one group can really encompass. The Abenaki group seems more than willing to work with anyone that can share in the load and they've been real receptive to suggestions. They really need to get the credit for starting the idea up.

SCHREIBER: On their side, Vermont state officials say they welcome community projects like the River Keepers because funds just aren't there for any one group or agency to do the job alone.

(Running water. Girl's voice: "Ooh ooh, that's going to have a lot. Maybe.")

SCHREIBER: Lydia Kennesin and her classmates are ready to help, but they want more of their parents and friends to get involved, too.

KENNESIN: Somehow, we've got to get the word out that we need help, because we can't do it all.

GIRL: Yeah, so they'll stop polluting the rivers and stuff.

KENNESIN: I mean we're just 5th and 6th graders, and I know we've done a lot for 5th and 6th graders, but we can't do everything.

SCHREIBER: That's something the Abenaki recognize as well. While keeping the focus on education for now, they're also evaluating what legal recourse they have in case education, monitoring, and awareness aren't enough to clean up the Missisquoi.

For Living on Earth, I'm Tatiana Schreiber in Swanton, Vermont.



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