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Jennifer Rupp
Chief Impact Officer
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Help Support Michigan Humanities

Six Humanities Themes – Detail

Indigenous communities and water

Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes, collectively known as the Anishinabe people, have had the longest history with Michigan’s water.  Yet the treaties and beliefs that shape their legal and cultural relationships to the Great Lakes are often misunderstood.  For example, 19th century treaties (and 20th century legal decisions about those treaties) determine the fishing rights of Michigan’s native communities.  With this theme and targeted outreach (in particular through advisory group member Eric Hemenway), MH will bring voices from Michigan’s native communities into conversations about how water affects their lives today, from invasive species threatening traditional Native fishing waters to the environmental history that shaped the way the Anishinabe people made their lives along the Great Lakes.

Access and rights to water

Who has access to water and for what purposes?  And what happens when invasive species threaten the ways Michigan’s water systems and ecosystems function for humans, flora, and fauna?  How might dam removal impact recreational uses of rivers?  Laws and policies created in the distant and not-so-distant past shape how, who and to what ends people and organizations have access to water.  The high cost of supplying drinking water to residents in Highland Park and Detroit has brought attention to the ways access to water is shaped by economic means.  Nestle’s plan to draw more water from natural springs in north central lower Michigan have also sparked debates among rural and urban residents alike over the tension between abundance, scarcity, and economics.  Conversations addressing this theme will address the tension between water as a necessity for human life and an economic commodity, providing audiences with the means to understand all sides of the issues and debates surrounding water rights in Michigan.

Infrastructure, industry, and the challenges of urban water systems

People sometimes think of water, like the wilderness, in terms of natural areas and shorelines used for recreation and relaxation.  At the same time, Michiganders also have connections to water in their everyday lives when they wash their hands, take a shower, or prepare their meals.  During the 20th century, modern technology made it increasingly easy to take access to safe and clean drinking water for granted in cities in Michigan and across the United States.  In 2014, however, a series of events resulted in lead contamination in drinking water of residents in Flint, Michigan.  With devastating health consequences, the crisis in Flint brought attention to aging infrastructure and the negative effects it can have on urban water supplies, not only in Flint, but in cities such as Detroit as well.  With this theme, MH will work with advisory group members and organizations in Flint and other urban communities to engage in conversations about the future of supplying water to Michigan’s urban areas.  Working with organizations such as the Buckham Fine Arts Project, MH will help residents in Flint have a space to reflect on the on-going crisis and come together by discussing visions for the future.

The role of water in shaping Michigan’s human history

From shipments of lumber to rebuild Chicago after the fire in 1871 to iron ore and copper across Lake Superior, Michigan’s waterways played a critical role in Michigan’s past and enabled the state’s industrial growth.  Community conversations in this category will focus explicitly on how past uses of water have influenced present-day circumstances in Michigan.  For example, how has proximity to water guided the development, decline, and revitalization of Michigan’s communities?  What can we learn from how water has been used in the past that might help communities imagine new relationships with water as climate change, economic transformations, and past uses of water are no longer profitable or meaningful to local communities.

Recovery and resilience of waterways

In recent decades, concerned citizens have worked through organizations to transform some waterways from sites of pollution and invasive species to recreational resources and natural habitats.  What has the history of revitalizing these waterways been?  How might communities learn from one another to imagine new futures for their waterways when their current uses become jeopardized or obsolete?  Conversations around this theme will be engaged in learning from the past to shape the future, learning from tangible projects that have already been implemented.  For example, MH will work with an organization called Friends of the Rouge, who have helped transform the once predominately industrial Rouge River in Detroit into an educational and natural resource for Metro Detroit’s population, to reach audiences interested in imagining how water resources can be a part of the common good, playing a role as an educational and pubic resource in civil society.

Tourism and a sense of place

Since the 19th century, Michigan’s lakes and rivers have drawn tourists regionally, nationally, and internationally because of their beauty and identity as restful places.  But where does this sense of place come from and who creates it?  Contemporary authors such as Bonnie Jo Campbell, as well as icons of American literature such as Ernest Hemmingway have endowed Michigan’s water with a distinct sense of place through their words.  Tourism has also been a means through which lakeshore communities have reinvented their economies from fishing and logging towns to sites of travel and leisure.  By engaging authors, artists, writers from all backgrounds, as well as developers, and chambers of commerce who help shape the distinct identities of Michigan’s water ways, conversations in this theme will look at the tensions between how Michigan’s water is imagined culturally and the reality of how it is experienced by people on the ground.


Through humanities scholarship and environmental history, urban history, literature, public history, and Native American studies drawn from the expertise of our advisory group, Third Coast Conversations will start dialogs, build excitement, facilitate connections, and open doors for local communities in urban, rural, and suburban areas of the state to examine history, culture, people, and cultivate a renewed sense of local pride by examining the topic of water in ways that resonate with issues that matter locally.