The Backward River

A digital storytelling project of the Freshwater Lab at the University of Illinois at Chicago

An image with an aerial view of the Chicago River running vertically through the center of the image. To the left of the river: smokestacks and industry along the bank of the river. To the right: a polished Chicago downtown skyline with the Willis Tower anchoring the middle and reflecting off of the waters of the river.

The backward river in question is the Chicago, reversed at the dawn of the 20th century to serve industrial capitalism in a rising metropolis. Before 1900, the winding Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan. Since 1900, the river has diverted Lake Michigan water into a canal that branches into the Des Plaines, Illinois, and Mississippi Rivers. Its outlet is the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, you read that correctly. The Chicago River or, more precisely, the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS) punctures the continental divide between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River.

Compelling on its own, our story also dramatizes a widespread scenario of crumbling American infrastructure. At its heart rests a basic denial of malfunction, public harm and the disproportionate burdens placed on communities of color. In telling the story of The Backward River, we aim to cut through this denial and speak plainly.


The chapters below speak through narrative, visuals, podcasts and audio vignettes. Click the image to navigate to each chapter.

The River Speaks

Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal east on Western Avenue bridge, July 9, 2016. (Photo/© Matthew Kaplan Photography)

The Chicago River is a Pipeline

US Army Corps of Engineers map of the Chicago River. Part of the larger Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Water Acknowledgement

The Chicago River flows through the traditional homelands of the Three fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potawatomi Nations. The Fox, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Miami and Sac tribes also call this region home. These communities have been targets of erasure by settler colonialism. The Backward River aims to highlight the histories, cultures and practices of Indigenous peoples who have a right to this land. Today, Chicago’s American Indian presence constitutes one of the country’s largest urban Indigenous communities.

The Backward River aims to address the disproportionate impacts of environmental degradation that burden Indigenous communities. The current uses of our local waters are borne of the violent logic of settler colonialism. We collaborate with Indigenous perspectives, which treat water as a vital artery in connecting trade, travel and family.

By making a water acknowledgement, we take a moment to thank the water for sustaining life and maintaining balance on Earth. We are grateful to the water for moistening the fields where our plants grow, for quenching our thirst, purifying our bodies and allowing us to travel by boat. In the form of springs, rivers, lakes and seas, the water is a mirror that reflects how we treat our environment. In the streams we hear the ancient song that preserves the memory of the beginning of life and our cosmic identity. Water also teaches us adaptability and fluidity, reminding us to mold to the circumstances and remain transparent, calm yet strong at the same time.

Indigenous communities have historically viewed the relationship between water and humans as one of kinship; today, members of this community continue to protect water as a source of healing and to highlight the symbolic power of water that teaches us how to understand history and ourselves.

In the Media

Interviews and Audio