Water Song: Indigenous Women and Water

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Lake Winnipeg Water Walk
Katherine Morrisseau-Sinclair, an Indigenous woman who, inspired by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin, started the Lake Winnipeg Water Walk.

In Brief

Water is life and needs to be respected. For the Indigenous people in Canada, there is a reciprocal and unique relationship with water. In particular, Indigenous women share a sacred connection to the spirit of water through their role as child bearers, and have particular responsibilities to protect and nurture water. The forces of colonization and the lack of services to sustain reserves (space), residential schools (relationships), and federally imposed Elected Council systems (governance) have led to a disconnect in the intergenerational transfer of knowledge surrounding water. As a consequence, communities have experienced loss of language, traditional practices, and the roles and responsibilities of Indigenous women related to water. In response, Indigenous women across the country are raising their voices to draw attention to water issues faced in Indigenous communities and the inequities in the involvement of Indigenous women in water governance. They are arguing for the necessity of restoring women’s rightful place in and responsibilities for water governance. Drawing from literature, inspirational examples, and personal communication with Indigenous men and women from across Canada, this article provides a framework that is guided by 10 key principles and seven mechanisms to support Indigenous women in reasserting and reclaiming their influence on water governance.


Key Concepts

  • Water has significant cultural importance to Indigenous communities in Canada.

  • Indigenous women in particular share a sacred connection to the spirit of water through their role as child bearers and have particular responsibilities to protect and nurture water.

  • Through colonialism processes, inequities exist in the involvement of Indigenous women in water governance, necessitating the restoration of womens rightful place and responsibilities in water governance.

  • Indigenous women across the country are raising their voices to draw attention not only to water issues faced in Indigenous and wider communities.

  • As principles and mechanisms are applied to re-empower and support Indigenous women in their role as water stewards and to be part of or lead the water governance dialogue, challenges can be overcome.

The Earth is said to be a woman. In this way it is understood that woman preceded man on the Earth. She is called Mother Earth because from Her come all living things. Water is Her life blood. It flows through Her, nourishes Her, and purifies Her.1

No matter where people reside, what we do for a living, our beliefs, or age, all of us must relate to water in order to live.2 Water is fundamental for our individual and community health, well-being, and sustainability as well as for ecological integrity and function. For Indigenous people in Canada (First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples, nations, or communities) there is a reciprocal and unique relationship with the water; Indigenous women especially are recognized as having a special role and connection with water as they are life-givers.3 Across Canada there has been a movement within Indigenous Nations to “rebuild the connections that have been altered or lost through Western influences, starting with the spiritual and cultural bonds they have had to water.”4 As the traditional water-keepers or care takers of the water, it is predominately Indigenous women who are leading these efforts. Water is an increasingly contested issue as Indigenous Canadian communities continue to assert Aboriginal Title, Treaty, and Rights regarding lands and waters within their traditional territories, revealing the complexity of future water planning, management, and governance. Most recently, the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the Tsilhqotin peoples have Aboriginal Title to over 1,700 square kilometers of their traditional territory.5 While Aboriginal Title to water was not specifically discussed in this decision, it is predicted that it has laid the foundation for Indigenous communities to assert their rights and make claims to water sources within their traditional territories.6

This article reflects on the relationships Indigenous women have to water, the impact of decolonization on, and inequities in the involvement of Indigenous women in water governance, and the need for restoring womens rightful place and responsibilities in these processes. There are nuanced interpretations and different experiences associated with these processes, thus it is not the intent to reflect the views of all Indigenous people across Canada or to provide a thorough discussion on the numerous issues that contextually surround Indigenous women and water. Rather, the intent is to provide instructive examples that represent these different histories. Among the most prominent, colonization and the lack of services to sustain reserves (space), residential schools (relationships), and federally imposed Elected Council systems (governance) have led to a disconnect in the transfer of knowledge. As a consequence, Indigenous communities have suffered a loss of language, traditional practices, and the roles and responsibilities of Indigenous women related to water. This is a reflection of selected literature, water-related events and initiatives, and interviews conducted with eight Indigenous men and women from across Canada in order to explore solutions to engaging Indigenous women in water governance. For the purpose of this paper, water governance refers to the processes and institutions related to the development and management of water resources.7

While the interviewees represented a variety of Nations from many locations (north, south, east, and west) and included both men and women, they do not represent all Nations, or present an exhaustive list of views and perspectives held by Indigenous peoples with regard to water in Canada. It has been a privilege to hear the insights provided by these Indigenous men and women and we deeply appreciate and respect the time they took to share their stories, experiences, and insight with us on this important topic. Some respondents requested to remain anonymous and others agreed to share their names.

Indigenous Communities, Women, and Water

Water has significant cultural importance to Indigenous communities in Canada.  For Indigenous peoples and their ways of life, water is a living thing, a spiritual entity with “life-giving” forces, which comes with certain duties and responsibilities to ensure that it is respected, protected, and nurtured.8–11  As Ardith Walkem, an Indigenous lawyer of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia (BC) explains,explains, “Water is the lifeblood of the land and of the indigenous peoples and cultures that rely upon it.”12 For Indigenous peoples, water quantity and quality are not only ecological and health issues but also parts of a much broader holistic perspective which recognizes that all aspects of Creation are interrelated.13 Water is not only for drinking but also has traditionally and continuously been used in ceremonies, to grow medicines, and for cleansing and purification.3,8

Water is provided by Mother Earth, and mothers create children in water (amniotic fluid). Water is sacred and must be cared for, because without mothers and the water provided by Mother Earth we would not exist.10 Indigenous women have a strong and distinct physical and spiritual relationship with water and have traditionally been tasked with caring for it as it provides us with our first water environment in the womb, announces our birth, and sustains life. Thus, Indigenous women are often called the “Keepers of the Water” or “Carriers of the Water,”2,3,14,15 as the inheritors of water knowledge, protection, and management.9 As Animkiiquay (Katherine Morrisseau-Sinclair) from the Bear Clan and member of the Mideahniquay Society of Three Fires Midewiwin Society explains:

We teach our daughters and granddaughters they are the caretakers and protectors of the water and how to use the sacred water bundle that we have been blessed to carry to help us do this work. This bundle holds the traditional teachings, songs, prayers and ceremonies of our Ancestors generations back.16

CIER
T’souke Elder teaching youth and CIER staff how to bless the waters in prayer.

Attached to this role as caretakers of the water are the responsibilities to respect, honor, and express our gratitude to water and its spirit through ceremonies and songs, enabling water to fulfill its role to provide for Mother Earth and, in turn, all her creatures, including humans.9,10 For example, given that women are especially strong in spirit during their “moon time” and the moon cycles with the water, there are songs that Indigenous women will sing to Grandmother Moon to acknowledge how women are tied to water and Mother Earth, water within us, and the water that sustains us.17

Through this caretaker role, women also care for and protect the water in various ways (e.g., talking circles, water walks, and protecting water sources through traditional protocols).18,19 Gugula, an Indigenous woman from Joeyaska reserve in central interior British Columbia, explained that her “grandmother’s role was to ensure everyone adhered to the traditional protocols that informed how we, collectively as a community, were to care for this particular water resource.”20 Across Canada, several groups of Indigenous women are also advocating for clean drinking water and raising awareness on a political level about the impacts development is having on our water resources.

The forces of colonization have worked to create disconnects with the land and therefore in the role of women in water governance. Through the historical process of colonization (e.g., loss of lands and resources, the establishment of reserves, residential schools, foreign religions, and other federal government laws and policies to maintain control over Indigenous peoples and communities), a culture of discrimination and disenfranchised women and children has emerged. This has been achieved primarily through disconnecting Indigenous people from the land and from the knowledge and practices of previous generations; mothers were not able to learn from their mothers and in turn, were unable to teach their children to become mothers. The result is a myriad of social, political, health, and economic challenges such as substance abuse, lower life expectancy, suicide, and chronic health conditions that continue to plague communities.

“The status of Indigenous women has been under attack since the colonization

of our territories began.  Restoring the role of Indigenous women in all forms

of governance would interrupt this and begin to restore our governance.”21

Inequities exist in the involvement of Indigenous women in water governance, necessitating the restoration of women’s rightful place in and responsibilities to water governance.  Indigenous women face inequities when compared to their Canadian peers, in part as an outcome of colonization and subsequent termination and assimilation policies such as the Indian Act,22,23 which disempowered Indigenous women and excluded them from decision-making processes.4,24 These decisions are the ones that have frequently resulted in the proliferation of high risk drinking water systems in many Indigenous communities in Canada. Several factors such as fragmented jurisdictional issues, marginalization through placing Indigenous communities on reserves, inadequate financial resources and infrastructure, disempowerment, small population size, and physical remoteness of communities have contributed to these high risk systems.

The important relationship between Indigenous women and water is largely ignored. For example, Indigenous women were not part of the national expert panel assembled in 2006 to explore options for a regulatory framework to ensure safe drinking water in communities.25 However, despite the forces of colonization that displaced Indigenous women from their traditional roles as leaders and teachers within their communities, and devalued their knowledge and contributions to sustaining community and creation,9,22,25 Indigenous women continue to show resiliency and strength. They are reasserting their responsibility in nationhood and sustainability and creating contemporary roles in decision-making around water issues at the local, regional, and national levels.

Sharing Water Experiences

Indigenous women across the country are raising their voices to draw attention not only to water issues faced in Indigenous communities, but also water issues that affect all Canadians. The following are a few inspirational illustrations of specific events and initiatives from across Canada. These activities empower and support Indigenous women, building a movement of understanding about the role Indigenous women play with regards to water, the inequities in the involvement of women in water governance, and the need for restoring women’s rightful place in these processes. These experiences support not only awareness but also the participation of Indigenous women in local, regional, and national water dialogues.

Mother Earth Water Walkers

In 2003, a group of Anishinaabe women led by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin of the 3 Fires Lodge initiated the Mother Earth Water Walks (MEWWS) to raise awareness of water issues, both the sacred connection between people – especially women – and the waters, and how women take care of water.26 The first of these water walks took place in the spring of 2003, when the group walked around Lake Superior with a copper pail (due to its sacred and healing properties) of water to draw attention to the need for action regarding water issues. There were subsequent walks each year around the Great Lakes. The MEWWs have become an action of solidarity as many women have taken up the role of speaking and caring for water, renewing their traditional responsibilities,27 and supporting each other. Katherine Morrisseau-Sinclair is one Indigenous woman that was inspired by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin to start the Lake Winnipeg Water Walk and commit to taking care of Lake Winnipeg.28 In recognition for their work, Morrisseau-Sinclair and the Lake Winnipeg Water Walk received the 2014 Champion for Sustainability award from the Manitoba Round Table for Sustainable Development and the Department of Conservation and Water Stewardship.29

Yinka Dene Alliance

CIER
After a week-long water and leadership workshop during which they carried and cared for jars of water, Elder and Youth Water Leaders returned the water to the Similkameen River.

In BC, pipeline development has spurred Indigenous women to rally their communities to achieve a unified, stronger voice for water. As the Enbridge gas company was proposing the Northern Gateway Pipeline to various communities along its routes, a group of Indigenous women from the Saik’uz First Nation focused on building ties with other First Nations in BC. The result was the Yinka Dene Alliance, consisting of six First Nations that united to stop the pipeline. The alliance is drawing on Canadian, international, and Indigenous law to prevent the expansion of the oil industry while organizing campaigns to raise awareness of the devastating impacts of oil sands extraction. The Alliance developed the Save the Fraser Declaration, signed by over 1,600 First Nations and allied American Indian groups, which bans pipelines from their traditional territories in the Fraser River watershed.30

Ontario Indigenous Women’s Water Commission

The Ontario Indigenous Women’s Water Commission (OIWWC) was established by the Ontario Native Women’s Association (ONWA). It represents women from across the 54 ONWA locals, their board members, and Elders. The OIWWC “strives to reassert and promote the traditional and inherent roles of Indigenous women as the caretakers of the waters by engaging in traditional practices, participating in education and planning on water issues, and forming relationships among Indigenous women.”9 The OIWWC developed a Water Rights Toolkit with input from local Elders and community members that recognizes the unique relationship that Indigenous women share with water. It was created to empower Indigenous women who are confronted with water-rights issues and to support them to effectively engage in decision-making processes around water at the community and governmental levels.9

The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources

The Centre for Indigenous Environmental Resources (CIER), a First Nation-directed environmental nonprofit organization with charitable status, has been working on Indigenous water issues for many years.31 From 2012 to 2013, CIER led an ambitious and successful ‘Youth Water Leaders’ project where 16 Indigenous youth (of which eight were female) from four different communities (Beausoleil First Nation, Lower Similkameen Indian Band, Iskatewizaagegan #39 Independent First Nation, and Fort Smith) representing each of Canada’s four main watersheds were engaged in and educated about water issues. This initiative gave the youth an opportunity to become leaders in the challenge to have universal access to safe drinking water and healthy freshwater ecosystems across the country. During four, week-long workshops (one in each partnering community), the youth learned from and were inspired by a variety of Elders and community and Canadian leaders from media, politics, advocacy, literary, science, and other relevant fields. The youth were commissioned to work together to craft real solutions to water issues, which they implemented with the support of their local communities and CIER. Respected Indigenous women were involved in each workshop to share with the youth traditional teachings about water and how it is being managed and perform water ceremonies. In one particular exercise, the youth had to take care of a jar of water for a week, put positive energies into the water, speak lovingly to the water, and take it everywhere they went. At the end of the workshop week, they returned the water to the river. This taught the youth that water is life and deserves to be taken care of and respected. Since completing this program, female Indigenous youth from Iskatewizaagegan #39 formed an environmental and water organization called Ferda Water. The group has implemented a peer-to-peer learning approach by sharing what they have done with youth from other First Nations (e.g., starting a community garden and water testing workshops). As a result, those youth have gone back to implement similar initiatives.32

Water Declaration of the First Nations in Ontario

In October 2008, First Nations communities from across Ontario met in Garden River First Nation to share their perspectives on water and to discuss current water issues and models on how to move forward in protecting the waters. This led to the Water Declaration of the Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe in Ontario, which explains the importance of water to the First Nations culture and their responsibilities to protect and respect the waters for future generations. The Declaration clearly articulates the important role Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk, and Onkwehonwe women play as “the keepers of the waters as women bring babies into the world carried on by the breaking of the water and;…through the teachings of women have the responsibility to care for the land and the waters by our Creator.”33

“Aboriginal women have a special connection to water that mainstream

society has not considered in formal decision-making processes.

This lack of recognition has not stopped Aboriginal women from

fulfilling their obligations. They continue to do as they have always done,

guided by spiritual teachings, traditions, values, and ceremonies.”25

Mi’kmaq Women Protest

Indigenous people around the country are rising up to stand against developments that impact water. In October of 2013, a protest against shale gas exploration in New Brunswick came to a head against Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers. The majority of protestors were Mi’kmaq women who were upholding their traditional responsibilities to care for the water. The women drummed, sang, prayed, and smudged RCMP officers. However, the protest escalated to the point where the RCMP intervened with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and dogs for crowd control and arrested 40 people. A respected Mi’kmaq Elder from Elsipogotg First Nation said that it should not be called a protest, saying rather, “I want to call it protect. We are here to protect our water, our land. We have a river. It’s a beautiful river. We love it and respect it.”34

Ayse Gursoz
Josephine Mandaman, a First Nations Grandmother, Anishinaabekwe from Manitoulin Island, during a water blessing ceremony at the Hudson River before the 2014 People’s Climate March in New York.

Weaving the Threads of Indigenous Engagement and Empowerment

Water is life and needs to be respected. With Indigenous women’s sacred connections to water comes responsibilities to protect and nurture it for current and future generations. Indigenous women’s voices need to be valued and their positions re-established in their roles regarding water governance to better inform the water governance dialogue at all scales. As this is a national problem that requires local solutions, how this is accomplished will vary across the country depending on several factors, including the historical role of Indigenous women, internal and external influences, and readiness and available capacity to engage. However, through developing these solutions, there are some overarching principles articulated in documents such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the process provided for in both the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples Report, and the Truth and Reconciliation Report, in addition to leading Supreme Court of Canada decisions respecting and incorporating traditional teachings and knowledge into how water is governed and improving gender equity through shared leadership. Ultimately, the engagement and empowerment of Indigenous women will contribute towards promoting the sustainability of our waters, lands, communities, and families.

Through literature, inspirational examples, and personal communication with Indigenous men and women from across Canada, a framework emerged that is guided by several key principles and mechanisms to support the success of engaging and re-empowering Indigenous women in water governance. This framework of principles and mechanisms can support a discussion on how Indigenous women will reassert their traditional and contemporary roles as caretakers of water.

Key Principles

In order to effectively support Indigenous women in asserting their traditional role as the “Keepers of the Water,” the following principles should be considered:

  • Knowledge sharing and shared learning: Indigenous women knowing their history, and opportunities for gathering to listen, share, and reflect in different ways (e.g., speaking, walking, and ceremonies) and spaces (e.g., on the land, in workshops, and in online forums).
  • Scale of connections: Once Indigenous women have knowledge, they can organize at different scales (locally, nation-to-nation, provincially, and nationally).
  • Communication: Communication between Indigenous women, non-Indigenous women, and others will take varying amounts of time and require different strategies, including harnessing social media and other outlets to share and retain experiences and knowledge.
  • Flexibility, time, and patience: Change, and the processes by which change occurs, cannot be prescribed. Change must be organic, emerging from communities while recognizing the need for balance between the urgency of need, constraints of time, and resources available.
  • Relationships: Taking the time to establish relationships through respect and gaining trust; the importance of listening; and, mutual respect for different cultures (e.g., historical influences, traditional protocols, and ceremonies).
  • Readiness for change: Having the desire, space, and capacity for Indigenous women to engage in a water dialogue through planning and engagement with local, provincial, and national governments.
  • Roles and responsibilities: Solutions will require different stakeholders, including NGOs, governments, and academia across levels to start action and facilitate change.
  • Engagement: Engagement processes will be different across Canada, but women should be the drivers of the engagement process.
  • Values: Even though contexts (economic, social, environmental, and cultural) continue to change, values remain the same and it is essential to find ways to incorporate traditional values.
  • Leadership: Providing opportunities and resources for Indigenous women to take on a variety of culturally appropriate and self-defined leadership roles.

Pathways to Success

The following mechanisms can be employed to develop and implement these processes while upholding the key principles to support Indigenous women in reasserting and reclaiming their influence on water governance:

  • Using shared approaches: Enable Indigenous and non-Indigenous women, groups, and communities to learn from one another, engage, and re-empower Indigenous women to influence water governance processes.
  • Clear, tangible, actionable solutions: Learn from other actionable solutions that have successfully involved and promoted Indigenous women, such as the unity of six First Nations to develop the Yinka Dene Alliance or the OIWWC, which was constituted by Indigenous women.
  • Identification of key individuals and the role of traditional knowledge holders: For example, the Water Walkers recognize and embrace/act upon/reclaim the important role of traditional knowledge holders in raising awareness about the importance of water.
  • Tools, skills, and knowledge platforms: Scale out of proven solutions requires sharing experiences and knowledge that can kick-start action without having to reinvent the canoe. Innovations in information and computer technologies are making this global shared learning more accessible to more people. In order to maximize the impact of these resources, training opportunities are required by everyone involved with water to ensure the ability to discern, analyze, and implement solutions.35 There are international resources showcasing the development and utility of tools, skills, and knowledge platforms that could be adapted for engaging and empowering Indigenous women in water governance.36,37 Other national examples could include the creation of a proposed Indigenous water security toolkit that has an Indigenous gender lens or an online knowledge portal where Indigenous women can virtually meet and discuss collaborative opportunities for starting action and creating change with regards to Indigenous women’s role in water governance.
  • Sufficient resources and adequate timing to facilitate maximum participation: Indigenous women often lack the resources (financial, human, technical, time) to adequately engage in water governance processes and create sustainable change. These constraints need to be recognized, understood, and negated/neutralized to facilitate maximum participation.
  • A safe and respectful space to gather and participate in a meaningful manner: For example, using traditional rules of engagement, opening meetings with traditional ceremonies, and involving and recognizing Elders when appropriate.
  • Engagement needs to be efficient and effective: Problems need to be addressed by sharing solutions, establishing concrete action plans, implementing these plans in a timely manner, and ensuring success through iterative evaluation.38

“We continue to educate and support women’s knowledge of the

important role water plays in both the traditional sense and the

environmental sense, and how valuable their role is in protecting the water.

We restore their roles through educating and through traditional knowledge.”39

Challenges

There are several potential barriers to engaging Indigenous women and supporting them in their water stewardship roles. The solutions to these types of challenges will vary and will require a multipronged approach. However, to address these solutions requires building relationships based on respect, reconciliation, and responsibility. One barrier that must be overcome is that traditional knowledge keepers are often not involved in dialogues and decision-making and appropriate cultural protocols are not acknowledged. Another barrier is that men often dominate leadership positions without engaging Indigenous women. For example, in some paternalistic-based Indigenous communities where women are not allowed to participate in certain cultural ceremonies (e.g., sweat lodges or using a traditional drum), fewer women are in leadership roles. On the other hand, in some maternalistic-based Indigenous communities that have been influenced by colonial processes, Indigenous women have lost their traditional roles as water leaders. A third barrier is the broader impact from colonialism (e.g., residential schools, disconnect to the land, loss of language and culture) and the need for truth and reconciliation providing an additional incentive to move forward with engaging Indigenous women in reclaiming their role in water governance.

In order to collectively overcome these barriers, it is essential to redress the balance of women from economic, cultural, and social perspectives. This will only happen if time and money are not used as excuses to constrain the processes because the “best decisions take the appropriate length of time.” It is a balancing act to bring traditional knowledge, values, and practices into new processes, although increasingly the balance is being recognized and operationalized. As people continue to understand and respect the role of Indigenous women, they will continue to embrace opportunities to engage them in water governance processes.

Outcomes

CIER
A Fisher River Cree Nation Elder shares stories of historical and contemporary uses of water, and women’s roles as caretakers of the water.

As these principles and mechanisms are applied, Indigenous women will be supported and re-empowered in their roles as water stewards and leaders of the water governance dialogue. The inspirational illustrations of specific events and initiatives from across Canada shared in this reflection have resulted in: i) renewing traditional responsibilities of Indigenous women; ii) the development of declarations to protect land and resources and re-establish Indigenous women’s roles as water leaders in task forces, working groups, and new administrative positions in community, local, and national governance; and, iii) the creation of a youth environmental and water organization. While the broader outcomes are plentiful and will vary across contexts, these are just a few that can be highlighted from these reflections.

Bringing Indigenous women together not only supports efforts in asserting their traditional roles as the “keepers of the water,” but also engages Indigenous women (at different scales) in water stewardship activities. While not necessarily true at the individual level, collectively, women have been identified as effective agents of change and innovators of solutions.38 Harnessing the gender traits and traditional roles of Indigenous women in particular, could lead to policy development that, in addition to addressing ecological integrity, community sustainability, and cultural restoration, addresses broader gender equality. It further creates opportunities for children to learn traditional practices related to water alongside their mothers and a critical space for Indigenous women to connect, learn, and share for sustainable empowerment and engagement. Ultimately, it is essential to create kinship among Indigenous women and non-Indigenous peoples to protect water resources and the environment for future generations.

“A traditional role of women in water governance will allow us to undertake

activities that are respectful of water and thus attempt to keep our society

in balance.”40

These outcomes can only be realized through a willingness, on behalf of all people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous, men and women), to understand and act upon the recognition of gender equities, the lack of access to efficient and safe drinking water in Indigenous Canadian communities, and the importance of reconciliation between Indigenous communities and the rest of Canadian society. In developing solutions to these three issues, they cannot be viewed in isolation but as a collective that can be used to catalyze change and overcome the historical intergenerational, intergovernment, and intergender complexities that will move us towards a sustainable society from an equitable water security perspective.

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