Posted 8 March 2014
By: Christine Luckasavitch, Whitney and Area Algonquins
The American eel (Anguilla rostrata) is a remarkable fish that was once extremely abundant throughout tributaries to Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, including the Ottawa River Watershed. Within the Ottawa River watershed, this species has faced a dramatic 99% decline in population since the 1980’s. The American eel has been apparently extirpated from many parts of its Ontario range and is in serious decline where it still exists. It is now listed as endangered under Ontario’s Endangered Species Act, 2007.
The American eel is known to Algonquins as Kichisippi Pimisi, which means “big river eel”. Algonquin Traditional Knowledge demonstrates that Kichisippi Pimisi is considered sacred to the Algonquin people as it has been an essential part of our traditional culture since time immemorial.
For Algonquins, Kichisippi Pimisi was a provider of nourishment, medicine and spirituality. As Pimisi were once extremely plentiful through Algonquin Traditional Territory, it was one of the most important and dependable sources of sustenance, particularly during long journeys and harsh winters. Pimisi were once so plentiful in our waters that over a thousand eels could be caught in an evening – enough to provide a great feast for an entire village. Pimisi was also highly valued as a trade item with voyageurs or new settlers to the Ottawa River basin.
The skin of Kichisippi Pimisi has incredible healing properties. It was used as a cast or brace for broken bones or sprains and to rid the body of infections once it dried. ATK also suggests that Pimisi skin has the ability to heal sore throats when applied to one’s neck.
Kichisippi Pimisi is a spiritual animal to Algonquins as it is a prayer carrier, travelling great distances through the waters. Kichisippi Pimisi is revered as a mystical creature as it would “disappear” into the earth each winter, “mud-balling” into the lake or river bed and hibernate over the winter months.
As many rivers throughout Algonquin Traditional Territory are no longer free-flowing, the presence of Kichisippi Pimisi has faced such a dramatic decline due to man-made barriers on our waterways. Our younger generations no longer hold a connection with this sacred animal. It is vital that Kichisippi Pimisi be restored to its historical range throughout the Ottawa River Basin, including the South Nation, Mississippi, Bonnechere, Petawawa, Mattawa and Madawaska Rivers and other tributaries in order to re-establish the ancient connection between Algonquins and Kichisippi Pimisi.
The cumulative effects of eel mortality during outward migration are truly devastating. Hydroelectric facilities, reduced access to habitat imposed by man-made barriers throughout waterways, commercial harvesting in jurisdictions other than Ontario, contaminants and habitat destruction, alteration and disruption are amongst the most significant threats to the survival and recovery of Kichisippi Pimisi in Ontario.