Water: Life Giving, Spirit Fulfilling

Victoria Kayal
JD Candidate, 2019

Western culture recognises water as necessary for physical survival; its value is tied to its physiological benefits. Water in many Indigenous cultures[1] holds additional cultural and spiritual significance.[2] Last year I was given the opportunity to attend a listening circle with four Indigenous women concerning the role that water plays in their culture.[3] It was an eventful evening, and not only because my friend nearly got run over crossing the street outside of the community centre.

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 lifeblood. It flows through her, nourishes her, and purifies her” – Benton-Banai, 1988[4]

In many Indigenous cultures, women have a special relationship with the Earth. Mother Earth is the mother of all, including water and people. Women are linked to Mother Earth as they too give life, carrying their children in water for nine months. Every person is born from water, but women in particular are inextricably linked to it. This has led to a heightened cultural responsibility for women to care for and respect water.

In the circle, Elder Saysewahum said that the stories she was telling are not hers; they are her mother’s, aunts’, grandmothers’, and so forth. The teachings she learned as a child are what she has passed on to her children. Women keep the knowledge of water—this role is unique, and active.[5] It encompasses a culturally holistic understanding of the role that water plays both physically and spiritually to the community.[6]

Having no access to clean, safe drinking water is unacceptably common in Indigenous communities across Canada. The federal government passed The Safe Drinking Water for First Nations Act in 2013. The Act has been criticised for failing to acknowledge the role of Indigenous women in water maintenance, and for ignoring women in the decision-making process.[7] Recognition of women’s powerful relationship with water is lowered the more centralised decision-making becomes, and the more removed it is from Indigenous communities. We should be past the point where it is acceptable to bar Indigenous women from the discussion table.

Where Canadian property law is grounded in concepts of personal ownership, and resource management is inherently tied to power relations, Indigenous laws are grounded in their cultural history. The laws are real because they cannot be changed. Women and water are tied together; it has been this way since the beginning, and it will continue into the future.

It would be easy to create a chart that highlights the dichotomy between Aboriginal and Western cultures, but painting the situation as a clash of cultural values just encourages a system that already ignores the needs of Indigenous people. There are clear cultural differences, but they are not irreconcilable.

At the circle, Caitlin said, “young people today are fighting different battles than our ancestors, but we are fighting for the same reason: to maintain our way of life.” The common law tends to insist on removing the agency of Indigenous women. It is my role to work to oppose this, in whatever way I am told is helpful.

Further reading[8]

Idle No More: http://www.idlenomore.ca/

Aboriginal Water Crisis:

Woman and Water: Collection of Oral Histories:

[1] “Indigenous culture” is a generalisation that I am using to refer more succinctly to the collective beliefs of distinct Aboriginal groups. The women who participated in the circle, as well as the stories I read in my research, are all from different aboriginal groups. The importance of women and water appears to be common amongst many different Aboriginal groups, although I would not claim to know if it was across all.

[2] Michael Blackstock, “Water: A First Nations’ spiritual and ecological perspective” (2001) 1:1 BC J Ecosystems & Management, 1.

[3] Circle Speakers: Elder Juliette McAdam Saysewahum, Big River First Nation; Janice Makokis, Saddle Law Cree Nation; Cynthia Tomlinson, Lubicon Lake Nation; Caitlin, 3rd year student in the English Common Law program.

[4] Cited in Deborah McGregor, “Traditional Knowledge: Considerations of Protecting Water in Ontario” (2012) 3:3 Intl Indigenous Policy J 1.

[5] Natasha J Szach, Keepers of the Water: Exploring Anishinaabe and Métis Women’s Knowledge of Water and Participation in Water Governance in Kenora, Ontario (MNRM, University of Manitoba, 2013) [unpublished].

[6] Kim Anderson, “Aboriginal Women, Water and Health: Reflections from Eleven First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Grandmothers” Paper Commissioned by Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women’s Health & Prairie Women’s Health Centre for Excellence, online: <http://www.onwa.ca/upload/documents/womenandwater.pdf&gt;.

[7] Supra note 6.

[8] Indigenous cultures are largely based on oral histories. The majority of sources listed above are a collection of oral histories, as was the circle that I participated in.

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