Nottawasiipi and Retro Tech

Nottawasiipi and Retro Tech

One of my great pleasures in town is walk/running around the track at the "Y." As I move around the track I can look out the windows and see several different views of this beautiful valley we share. In winter the trees look like soft gray clouds with green spikes (the pines) poking through. In summer the soft cloud is lushly green and undulates before me with the contours of the valley. It’s only the nearest views that reveal evidence of our habitation. Buildings, wires and vehicles don’t show up when you look just a little into the distance.

I can’t see it from the "Y" but I know our river is there. It’s called the Huron River now, but a Bodawodomie (Pottawatami) friend told me it was called "Nottawasiipi" about 180 years ago. That means "Snake River" in Ahishinaabemowin, the language of the people who were in the majority here at that time. In those days it was a busy thoroughfare. The people here got around mostly by canoe and on foot, so Nottawasiipi was not only a source of water and food, but a means of getting from one place to another. I understand it was an important part of the journey between the straits now known as Detroit and the area now known as Chicago.

Nottawa can be translated into English as "snake." The part of this name that means "river" is "siipi." You might recognize this as part of the name for another famous river. "Michi," in Ahishinaabemowin, means "really big," so "Michisiipi" means "really big river." It isn’t far from that to "Mississippi." And it truly is a really big river.

In Ahishinaabemowin the river, "siipi," shows up in interesting places. It’s part of the verb "to wash something," giziibiginan, and part of the verb "to take a bath," giziibiigazhe. Even for us now the truth of that is evident. Our city water comes in part from Nottawasiipi/the Huron River, and although it flows through pipes underground to reach our sinks and showers, it is still our river.

The part of our water that does not come directly from Nottawasiipi is still connected to it. As the test wells monitoring the Gellman/Pall debacle are showing us, the water under the ground here flows to the river. The interconnectedness of the water here is much larger and more complicated than we knew.

Nottawasiipi is a big part of our connections with all that lives in this valley with us. As it flows through our bodies, supporting our living chemistry, it also flows through the squirrels, robins, dandelions and tomatoes, supporting the dance of life within all. We humans are waking up to the fact that what we do with and to the water of our river makes a big difference to ourselves and to all life around us. We’re starting to landscape and grow food without chemical fertilizers. We’re taking phosphorous out of our washing machines and dishwashers. We’re using rain barrels and building rain gardens to help Nottawasiipi and ourselves. We’re learning how to live lighter here, often using knowledge and technology from earlier times.

A little over a year ago I was looking at the plastic shampoo bottle in my hand. I thought of the rivers that received the chemical waste from its manufacture, of the acidification of the water that was the result of that bottle’s transport to me and wondered about what our river would receive from the bottle after it left my hands. Sure, I would recycle it, but did I really need to have it in the first place? And look at all the ingredients! What about the rivers that contributed to the manufacture of the chemicals in that bottle and received the waste from that manufacture? And what about the effects of all those chemicals on our river as they washed down my drain after their brief encounter with my hair? There wouldn’t be much impact from my single shampoo, but there were hundreds of thousands of heads being shampooed in our valley just that morning.

I remembered the first bottle (glass) of shampoo that came into our home when I was a girl. It was called White Rain. It only had two or three ingredients in those days. And what did we do before that? I was sure my mother had washed my hair before that shampoo showed up.

I remembered. It was a white bar soap, Ivory soap. My mom worked it into a nice lather in her hands, then rubbed it thoroughly through my hair, down my neck and all over me as I stood in the basement laundry tub. After a good rinse my hair sometimes got a special rinse with vinegar and water to make it easier for Mom to comb and set into pin curls. As I remember and my earliest photos show, it seemed to work pretty well.

Last spring I decided to try it again. A good friend had given me some home made glycerin soap, shaped like the moon and a star. That soap looked like a good subject for my experiment. I put about 1/2 cup of vinegar in a quart jar and filled it up with warm water, as I remember Mom doing. Then I stepped into the shower and the adventure began. The soap lather was smooth and lush, much nicer than the lather I remember from that white bar in Mom’s hands. After all the sudzing and washing and rinsing I dipped the ends of my hair in the vinegar water, then slowly and thoroughly poured it through my hair. Just to be sure I didn’t smell like vinegar all day, I rinsed my hair again.

I dried my hair as usual, and noticed how soft it felt and how easy it was to manage. It was shiny and smooth. My hair falls almost to my waist and it felt good all the way to the ends. After three shampoos with the moon and star my hair was smooth and lustrous like the hair of the shampoo models in the slick magazines. I’ve never gone back. When the moon and star soaps became too small to use I bought a bar of lemon glycerin soap. The label said it was hypo-allergenic, biodegradable and cruelty-free. That sounded good. It worked just as well as the moon and star. I have been shampoo bottle free for almost a year now and my hair has never looked or behaved better.

I do not yet have a totally plastic free shampoo experience. I still use a plastic bottle when I go to the "Y." I put the vinegar in the bottom and carry it with me to the shower, filling it up with warm water from the river that flows through the pipes at the "Y." At home I use a lovely glass carafe for vinegar and water in the shower. And I do carry the wet soap home in a plastic soap dish. But these plastic items don’t go into the landfill after one use. In fact, I’ll probably be able to use each one for years.

The people in this valley have always lived here in relationship with Nottawasiipi. Many of us now are realizing this river’s importance to our personal well being. We are also recognizing that our river’s well being is directly related to what we as individuals do in our own lives. We are tuning in to stonefly counts and phosphorus levels the way we might tune in to the thermometer reading of an ill loved one. I’m grateful to have found one more way that I can live responsibly and well in this valley.


  1. Lisa manville

    Thank you for sharing this experience, I look foward to using this alternative.


  2. Marsha Traxler


    I look forward to hearing about your experience with the old fashioned technique. I just had my hair trimmed for the first time since November and only needed to have an inch clipped because it’s in such good condition. I’d like to hear how it goes for you.

  3. mary miller

    Hi Marsha,

    I’m trying to get your info on tracing our Indian heritage and not getting any where. Could you please send that info to my email?


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