~11,000 B.C.E.: an infant glacial river is formed. The river proves an invaluable source of life for the people who settle on its banks, as well as the game they hunt.
1650s: at the height of the fur trade, Iroquois hunters push west, bringing “fire and war” to their Algonquin neighbors. They call the river “Cuyahoga,” meaning crooked; they call the territory “Ohio,” meaning beautiful.
1795: the Treaty of Greenville is signed, ending the war between the Western Confederacy of native peoples and Anglo-American settlers. For a brief period, the Cuyahoga River stands as the western border of the United States.
1796: Moses Cleaveland and a team of 50-odd workers dock their boats on the eastern bank of the Cuyahoga River to begin exploring what they call “New Connecticut.” He reports that the water is clear, and the land is excellent. With the completion of a 10-acre Public Square, a city is established that will become a capital of transportation and industry. They call their city “Cleveland,” for their leader.
1860s: industry, like the people who call the city home, is booming. Population in Cleveland increases 150%. Businesses, like Standard Oil, Sherwin Williams, and Public Steel, blossom on the banks of the Cuyahoga.
1868: the first fire is reported on the Cuyahoga River. The volume of oil in the water is so dense that steamboat captains are moved to caution as they shovel coals.
1881: the Cuyahoga River is considered “an open sewer through the center of the city.” The river is no longer treated as a source of life; it is valued only for its economic potential.
1912: a spark from a tugboat catches an oil spill from a leaking cargo ship, igniting a devastating series of explosions and killing five. Noxious gasses and foul-tasting waters are seen as mere side-effects of progress. All environmental regulations are ignored.
1936: the Cuyahoga river burns for five days straight.
1952: oil leaking from Standard Oil creates a two-inch thick oil slick, spanning the width of the river. On November 1, a fire begins in the Great Lakes Towing Company shipyard that causes over $1 million in damages.
1969: “Some river!” declares TIME Magazine after the polluted Cuyahoga ignites for the last time. “Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows.” There is no visible life in the waters near the city, not even leeches and worms. “What a terrible reflection on our city,” mourns Mayor Carl Stokes, as Cleveland citizens tell a joke with a grim punchline: “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown. He decays.”
1971: as Cleveland celebrates its 175th anniversary with a reenactment at Settler’s Landing, 20 people from the Cleveland American Indian Center attend to the event. As the boat crew tries to disembark, the group blocks their passage with an organized picket line. Citing over a century of destruction enacted on the banks of this very river, they propose that all the money spent on the celebration be reallocated to rescue the Cuyahoga from the perils of progress. “We might be 175 years late,” calls their leader, Russell Means, as a gussied-up Moses Cleaveland stands at the railing of the boat, “but we’re imposing an immigration law. Go back.”
The story of the Cuyahoga River joins us in 2016 in the midst of rebirth and restoration, thanks to federally funded environmental protections and decades of hard work. It would be easy today to walk along its banks, whether surrounded by reclaimed forestland or riverside bars, and think our work is done…but history is never a closed book, and we are always in danger of repeating it. How many of us read The Lorax as children, but grow up to be the Onceler?
I am thinking, now, of the Dakota-Access Pipeline, and wondering when we will stop treating cancer and poisonings, oil spills and wildlife extirpation as the unlucky results of progress when they are, in fact, warning signs that we are killing ourselves with greed. I am thinking, now, of the brave native people at Standing Rock who have not allowed dogs or pepper spray or fire hoses to intimidate them into submission.
In Ohio, we grow up sheltered from the oppression and poverty of native people in our country, but it is a mistake to portray American Indians as relics of the past. They are our neighbors, our co-workers, and friends. Despite over 500 years of violence and cultural suppression, the first people of this land remain proud and stand their ground. The same goes for our environment–the first and best source of life. A clear stream may flow from our sinks today, but that doesn’t mean our health is secure tomorrow. Fish may have returned to the Cuyahoga River, but it is wrong to believe our fight ends here.
This Thanksgiving, I urge you to read up on the Dakota Access Pipeline and consider the story of the Cuyahoga River, a beautiful, life-giving waterway with soft, round curves throughout its 100-mile journey to Lake Erie. We choked it nearly to death with oil and waste and allowed the plague of human industry to spread into the Lake. That was almost 50 years ago, but we cannot grow complacent as the struggle continues elsewhere.
There are people on this very day who are standing in the freezing cold, standing up to a longtime bully that has tried to strip them of their dignity for centuries. Cleveland, perhaps more than anywhere else, should know the value of our rivers. Cleveland, perhaps more than anywhere else, should understand that, though our environment is the first victim of unchecked progress, we are the second. Water is life, plain and simple, and history is a dire warning to do better or perish. This Thanksgiving, I stand with Standing Rock, and I hope you will, too.