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Why a Congress on the Lake? Why Now?

• Explainer  • Venues  • Events  • Schedule  • Organizers  • How to Participate



The Indiana Dunes, hugging the southern shore of Lake Michigan near Chicago and Gary in the Calumet Region, are a wonder of nature with an extraordinary history that dates from the glacial melts that formed Lake Michigan. Their complex and evolving ecosystems shaped over thousands of years in the ceaseless exchange of lake and land, served as hunting and fishing grounds to Native American tribes—many of whom were force marched from the region during the period of European colonial settlement—and then in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries became the center of fierce struggles between regional economic interests that prized their natural resources for the development of expanding commercial industry, and environmental stewards and activists who understood their public value as a unique natural sanctuary, a sacred land, and a shared commons of irreplaceable beauty. In 1957 Chicago reported that the region supplied more than 350 species of birds, almost 1100 species of flowering plants, and “almost as many plants as in all of Great BritainWhat makes the Calumet Region where the Indiana Dunes were formed so special—something Indiana should fully recognize and appreciate — is that it concentrates in a very small space (only a few thousand acres of wetland reserves in a region that stretches along forty miles of coastline) one of the most biodiverse habitats in all of the U.S. threading through one of its most heavily industrialized regions. It is a geographical palimpsest of historical, cultural, political, and ecological antitheses, and so offers itself as a veritable microcosm of the most pressing environmental challenges we face as a society, an ever-changing marker of our complicated history with each other, a unique and fragile habitat for one of the most diverse biological habitats in North America, a living laboratory of the natural world for public education, and an ongoing space of dialogue between plural communities with vastly different interests, values, and needs.


This Congress will be more than a conventional academic conference with panels and keynotes: For one, the agenda will involved active engagement with local communities, organizations, and activists as a regular feature throughout the long weekend. Non-academics will be included in the panels, run the surrounding events (tours, public fora), and participate in the plenary sessions. In addition, scholars will be encouraged in various ways to focus their thinking on the specific issues that ground environmental health and justice in the Great Lakes. In other words, applied research and case studies focused on the region will be encouraged in various ways. Finally, the venues and events of the meeting will bring attendees in direct contact with the Indiana Dunes in memorable ways. Instead of being just an attractive location for a conference, the region will be the subject matter of the Congress.


This means that the event will understand environment in an encompassing sense — the ways in which its geology, biology, and ecology are thoroughly intertwined and shot through with economics, culture, and politics. The environmental history of the region is one with the histories of First Nation tribes, urban industrialism, and tourism. A main purpose of this event in to bring together multi-disciplinary energies to encourage interdisciplinary dialogues. This feature that is already attracting great attention to the Congress is that it is an unavoidably, genuinely, and elaborately interdisciplinary event. The theme is so fully anchored in the unique material, historical, scientific, political, cultural facets of this specific place on earth; you have historical giants from far distant disciplinary and cultural locations all involved — Carl Sandburg, Jens Jensen, Richard Daley, Henry Cowles, Paul Douglas, Dorothy Buell, Frank Lloyd Wright; you have the active involvement of directly affected communities such as First Nations citizens, the Parks Service, and local environmental organizations; to the original core of environmental philosophy scholars and continental philosophy circles have been added the strong interest of major environmental humanities programs from five states, and major commitments for both undergraduate and graduate participation in the Indiana system; while the event itself is reflecting this diversity of interests in its construction, with an artist-in-residence, a counsel fire ring, talks by parks rangers, Native American elders, and community activists; and a geologic-botanical-limnologic-historical-cultural-architectural bus tour.


Finally, although we will have standard panels for faculty to present and discuss their ongoing environmental studies scholarship on traditional panels and round-tables, the Congress is placing great emphasis on the support, development, presentation, and mentoring of graduate student writing. We are also having preconference events for a select number of undergraduate students.  More details to follow.  


The Congress will travel up the coast from Thursday evening to Sunday morning in order to help us understand the environmental story of the Indiana Dunes. Three of the event spaces sit (literally) on Lake Michigan, each several miles apart, each telling a different chapter of the story. Two venues a bit inland will give greater depth to our encounter with this geological-historical-cultural palimpsest. 

The Indiana Dunes Pavilion. This Art Deco structure was built in 1929-30 and recently restored. It is a jointly owned public-private facility with a banquet center and second floor available for public and private events. It sits with stately grandeur on a public sand beach on the lake. It was originally built within the Indiana Dunes State Park as a public visitor destination, although black residents were not allowed until the 1960s. It lies on the site of a 19th century town called City West that served as a way station for fur traders.  

Portage Lake Pavilion. The structure is open to community meetings, but is reserved exclusively for programs focused on environmental issues. This structure tells an important piece of the history of the Dunes environmental movement. It is situated directly behind a U.S. Steel factory and next to what was once a waste treatment plant, yet it now sits on a beautiful public beach, facing a picturesque peer and lighthouse. It is shaped like the prow of a ship with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the lake horizon. The 50-65 seat capacity will be perfect for our Saturday evening keynote.

Marquette Park Pavilion. Located in Gary, Indiana, the pavilion is a WPA project, pavilion and bathing house, and was recently renovated for hosting public and private events. It features a splendid formal garden. Banquet, and meeting facilities. Its immaculately kept grounds rest in a free to the public park and beach meant to represent the renewed hope of Gary for a vibrant commons belonging to the broad working public of the area.    


The University of Michigan Library helpfully describes what makes the interdisciplinary category of environmental humanities distinctive:

"A key element that distinguishes the field is its commitment to collaboration and building a new kind of academic community that fosters dialogue across disciplines in order to offer innovative and effective solutions from a capacious and diverse pool of expertise. Literature, history, philosophy, art, media, religion, and each area of study from the humanities are brought into productive conversation with the scholarship of geography, anthropology, economics, education, and the sciences. The Environmental Humanities are an energetic and progressive field committed to tackling climate change, challenging environmental injustice, mobilizing communities, changing policy, and lessening the gap between human progress and the future survival of the planet and all of its inhabitants."

University of Michigan Library Research Guide

Our Congress is trying to embody this interdisciplinary ideal by welcoming and bringing together a wide spectrum of disciplinary, professional, and community perspectives, and put the in conversation.

research presentations

Panels and Roundtables.  [TBA]

Graduate Student Fellowship Presentations. [TBA]. 

Keynotes and Featured Speakers. [TBD]  

Toward Publication. [TBD] 

special events

Bus tour.  A two-hour bus tour through the region, one trip for undergraduates, a second for graduate students and faculty, will take place on Friday. Tour guides on the bus, including a regional ecologist, an indigenous community member guide, a movement historian, a Parks Service interpreter, and an oceanographer/geologist, will collaborate with each other to chart their itinerary and share the mic on the tour. The tour may feature the so-called “sacred places” identified by the Progressive-era movement organizers (Mt. Tom, Dune Creek, Goose Lake, Miller Woods, Dune Country) that sustained the spirit of the movement through its three-quarter century struggle, famous natural sites (Cowles Bog, the “Moving Mountains,” Heron Rookery, Pinhook Bog) that served as the natural laboratories for the early development of ecological science, and sites that tell the complex racial, political, and cultural history of the region such as Bailly Trading Post, Sauk Trail, Furnessville, Gene Stratton-Porter’s Cabin at Wildflower Woods, and the Indian Mounds.

Art Exhibit.  The celebrated regional artist, Jason Wesaw, will grace us with a one-man show for which there will be a reception, and will be present as our artist-in-resident for the length of the Congress. A  member of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi in southwestern Michigan, a photographer, mixed media, and ceramic artist, Jason is in the permanent collections of the Eiteljorg Museum, Grand Valley State University, and the Newberry Library, and has had solo exhibits with the Indiana State Museum & Historic Sites, IU Civil Rights Heritage Center, and the South Bend Museum of Art.  All of his art is related to his culture and the Northeastern Indiana and southwestern Michigan region where the Potawatomi have lived for centuries. In an exhibit statement he writes that his “projects focus on connecting to the land and observing how nature organizes and influences us. There is a means by which the spirit manifests itself in these sacred places and in our own lives often as simple, mundane occurrences.”


Meeting the Community.  [TBA]


Meeting Activists and Local Organizations.   [TBA]

Council Ring.  The famous landscape architect Jens Jenson was a key figure in the Indiana Dunes preservation movement, and he used organizing principles consonant with the democratic pluralism he saw at work in nature. He married the tradition of the council fire that he knew from his own ancient Danish heritage with a similar custom of Native American tribes for movement organizing in what were called “council rings,” open air meetings held on spots that came to be revered. The Congress will have a summative event-in-the-round for debriefing on the last day, looking back at the Congress and looking ahead to possible actions on behalf of the Dunes.

Land Ethics Workshop.  Undergraduate students will participate in a pre-conference workshop on Thursday. It will be organized jointly by Indiana University Northwest, Purdue University Northwest, a representative from the National Parks Service, and First Nations advisor.

En Plein Air Drawing Workshop. Our artist in residence, Jason Wesaw, will provide an opportunity for any Congress participants to understand better the complex ecology of the Dunes by leading a creative arts exercise out in the air, in keeping with a long tradition of creative artists, performers, and citizens who were drawn to the Dunes as a special place on earth. No special skills or materials required.

Career Development Workshop. Run by faculty of Indiana University Northwest and Purdue University Northwest, this pre-conference Thursday workshop for undergraduates will help students learn what are the skill-sets they will need for burgeoning careers in environmental stewardship, and how they can acquire them.



Please note:  Here is a tentative outline of events so that you can plan..There will certainly be some adjustments to details of the schedule as we move closer.



For updates: Please submit your email below to receive updates.



This Congress is a jointly sponsored, fully non-profit, academic event involving several campuses across the Indiana University system, numerous academic units, several professional scholarly circles, and the gracious help of the National Parks Service, Indiana Dunes State Park, and many others. 

John Arthos, Professor, Department of English, Indiana University Bloomington

David Utsler, Philosophy Instructor, North Central Texas College; Philosophy & Humanities Instructor, Collin College

Stephen Wolter, Director, Eppley Institute for Parks & Public Lands,

Indiana University Bloomington

Brian Forist, Lecturer—Parks, Recreation & the Outdoors, School of Public Health,

Indiana University Bloomington

Shannon Gayk, Associate Professor, Department of English,

Indiana University Bloomington

Katie Silvester, Associate Professor, Department of English,

Indiana University Bloomington

Garin Cycholl, Department of English, Indiana University Northwest

Kristin Huysken, Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences, Associate Professor of Geology, Indiana University Northwest

Vanessa Quinn, Associate Dean, College of Engineering & Sciences, Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University Northwest

Mark Bouman, Senior Environmental Social Scientist, Keller Science Action Center, Field Museum, Chicago

George Taylor, Professor Emeritus of Law, School of Law, University of Pittsburgh

Many enthusiastic individuals and distinguished environmental humanities programs from throughout the five-state region surrounding Lake Michigan are coming on board to volunteer help as this Congress starts to take shape.

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