More Indigenous youth are learning to spearfish, a connection to ancestors and the land

HAYWARD, Wis. (AP) — Ganebik Johnson started learning traditional Ojibwe songs when he was about 2 years old. He’d hang around listening to his uncle sing, or observe elders, or even pull up music on YouTube. Spearfishing came shortly after, at around age 7, when his grandfather took him out on a northern Wisconsin lake for the first time.

Now 13, he’s already teaching others. Johnson kept a steady beat on his drum as he joined other youth playing and singing the welcoming song at this year’s annual spearfishing event for kids put on by the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. He and 40 or so other young people spread tobacco into the water along the shoreline, an offering of respect before the harvest. After the sun dipped below the horizon, Johnson began showing the kids how to hold spears and directed them to shine flashlights into the water to catch the glimmering eye shine of the fish.

He says those activities are important to him “so our tradition don’t get lost and keep carrying it on for generations to come.” And seeing other kids want to try those cultural activities, “I felt proud,” he added.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part of a series of on how tribes and Indigenous communities are coping with and combating climate change.


That sense of pride, which connects Indigenous people to their ancestors and to a sense of shared responsibility for the land, is why parents, family members, local leaders and community organizations are so invested in teaching the next generation of spearfishers. Families and elders now see that their efforts are paying off, with more young people getting to stay up past their bedtimes to traverse glassy lakes under the moon and stars.

“My children never knew their great grandparents. But they know what it feels like because they’re able to do the same things that they did, and on the same body of water that they did, and they’re able to taste the same fish,” said Jason Bisonette, a longtime spearfisher and the dean of students at a federally-funded private school for Indigenous youth with a curriculum that integrates Ojibwe language and culture. “They’re able to build their connection through feeling the cold and smelling the water and smelling the air.”

Another family and youth spearfishing night this spring on Namekagon Lake also drew somewhere between 40 and 50 kids — “a bigger event than it used to be,” said Dusty LaFernier, a point person with the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who helped coordinate this year’s gathering along with school teachers, conservation wardens and community organizations. He mentioned that in past years there have been a shortage of volunteers with boats, but now it’s more of a community effort — the school district provides a bus, multiple tribes are involved and there are more boats and drivers.

LaFernier, who has been spearfishing since he was 6 years old, now gets to watch several nephews, cousins and aunties convene at the water’s edge. He added that it’s nice to see more people taking interest given how hard the tribes have worked to maintain their rights to hunt and fish. Their food sovereignty in ceded territories was originally outlined in an 1854 treaty but severely limited until a 1983 Supreme Court decision upheld the tribes’ rights. Even after that, some angry and misinformed people continued to harass spearfishers, making it difficult and sometimes even dangerous to be out on the water.

“When I was young, we didn’t have our treaty rights,” said John Johnson, Ganebik’s grandfather and tribal president of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, who has been helping with their growing youth spearing event for about the past 10 years. “It just warms my heart because … some of those teachings that I’ve taught will be carried on for those unborn children.”

The kids at Namekagon Lake were excited even before the event began. “He came home and he said, ‘Gram, they’re gonna go spearing, we’re going spearing again, can we go?’,” said Carolyn Gougé Powless, one of the water protectors, of her 9-year-old grandson Takodah, for whom this event would be his third or fourth time spearfishing.

“For me, it’s living all over again, seeing things through his eyes,” she added.

Educating children and helping future generations connect with their culture is paramount because of the history of cultural erasure enacted on many tribal members, Johnson explained. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the government and Christian missionaries sent Indigenous children from across the country to boarding schools, sometimes hundreds of miles away, and forcibly stripped many of their language, native foods and spiritual and cultural traditions.

Some adults in the community now say they see those educational efforts to reckon with that legacy paying off, not just in the increased number of kids able to attend spearing nights but also in the ways they’re engaging with their culture. More students are asking to participate in traditional naming ceremonies and are proud to use their Indigenous names in class than when Wendy Fuller first started teaching science at the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe School where Jason is dean, she said.

She described how teaching science in a cultural context helps kids better understand and connect with everything from concepts like diffraction (to spear a fish, you have to understand how light is distorted underwater) to the cyclical patterns of nature.

“When they get their first fish, it’s so incredibly exciting,” Fuller said. And as she watches students embrace their culture, “that identity gets them back in touch with nature.”


Follow Melina Walling on X at @MelinaWalling and John Locher on Instagram at @locherphoto


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