Many people would think water is just an inanimate resource. It is a resource that exists only to quench our thirst and clean our messes and contribute to the economy. But, there’s a belief amongst some North American Indigenous cultures that water is a living spirit with sentience and consciousness. And that she is feminine in nature. Because of this, water and women have special bonds with each other and women have special responsibilities in regards to water.
I would like to first put a disclaimer that Indigenous tribes across North America are incredibly diverse and their cultures and beliefs and languages are incredibly different. This blog post doesn’t represent the viewpoints of all Indigenous tribes in regards to water. Despite being an Indigenous person myself, I would by no means consider myself an expert on Indigenous culture. The information I present in this blog post is information I’ve gained from my own individual research, what I’ve learned from others, my own personal thoughts and information I learned from a class I’m currently taking at the University of Alberta called NS 280: Indigenous Women and Water.
In regards to the title of the blog post I refer to water as Indigenous, because wherever water goes she is Indigenous to the land. I will also be using the pronouns she/her to refer to her, although I know water is more commonly referred to as “it.” And there are Indigenous people all over the globe, but for this blog post I will be using Indigenous only to refer to the Indigenous peoples of North America.
Water is alive and conscious and sacred
In some Indigenous cultures there are common beliefs in regards to water. These beliefs are that:
- Water is the blood veins and blood of Mother Earth.
- Water has a spirit.
- Water has consciousness and memory.
- Water can have relationships with other living beings.
- Water has spiritual and physical healing and cleaning properties.
- Water is feminine.
In Nehiyaw culture there’s a word called wahkohtowin, which means that everything and everyone is related. Water is considered to be one of women’s closest relatives.
Water Connects Everything and Gives us Everything
Water connects everything, including the past and future. The water that flows in you now could have once flowed through the body of a cow or through the roots of a tree. And after she leaves you she will connect you to whoever she flows in next.
Water also gives us everything. Without water we could not clean anything, grow and cook our own food, our bodies could not carry life through us, and we could not even have electricity or plumbing. Without water nothing on earth can live or be clean.
You can say that when you drink water, you’re becoming one with the water and it’s almost a form of love making and union. She becomes a part of your body and flows through you, becoming one with you. She carries your heartbeats and your thoughts and all your emotions and memories. When she leaves you, she will always carry the memories of her time spent with you. She carries those memories with her even as she becomes part of the river again, or when she flows through another person’s body and when she returns back to the earth.
When we are disconnected from water, we die. Dehydration is a lack of adequate water, and when we are dehydrated for long enough our body begins to lose its ability to function. Dehydration physically and mentally affects the body, with dehydration being linked to:
The only medicine for dehydration and the symptoms it causes is water herself.
Water is what keeps our bodies functioning and keeps us alive. Without water, how could thoughts and sensations be carried through our bodies? Without water, who will hold and carry our memories? Without water, who will cleanse our bodies?
Without water, who will give life to our plants? Without water, how could our agricultural and energy industries be sustained? Without water, how will we keep our homes and ourselves clean?
Water does so much for us, but in return what do we do for water?
Roles women have in regards to water
“According to the Grandmothers, the first duty we have towards water is simple gratitude, to offer thanks.”
“Many of the Grandmothers talked about women having a powerful spiritual connection to water as well as serious responsibilities for guarding and managing water resources.”
Women and water are considered to have a special and sacred relationship and bond. In her paper Aboriginal Women, Water and Health, Kim Anderson writes that: “The distinct relationship between women and water according to many Aboriginal cultures is connected to the fact that women’s bodies have the capacity to host and sustain the life force that water represents.”(9)
Both water and women are life givers. And women are considered to be water carriers. Because of this, some Indigenous cultures believe that women in particular have special roles and responsibilities to uphold in regards to water. Some of the responsibilities that some Indigenous cultures believe women have for water is:
- First, simply expressing gratitude to water for everything it does for us.
- Honouring water
- Showing love and respect to water
- Protecting water
- Some of the ways that Indigenous women traditionally showed love and respect and honour to water was through ceremonies such as moon ceremonies and singing songs to water.
Some Indigenous women who are protecting and honouring water
“In our culture, we look at water as a living being, and we’re taught to respect it as if it’s a human. It’s the lifeblood of Mother Earth. Water gives all life. We all live in water for nine months. It’s the only reason we’re here. Without water, there’s no life.”
-Autumn Peltier, via an interview with Royal Roads University
Autumn Peltier is an Anishinaabe woman who has been advocating for water’s protection and spreading awareness on boiling water advisories in Indigenous communities ever since she was a child. She came to international attention when she confronted Justin Trudeau on his broken promises to her people in regards to water when she was twelve years old. And when she was only thirteen years old she advocated for the protection of water to the United Nations. She is currently Chief Water Commissioner for the Anishinabek Nation.
“but this river is sweet
she can be so gentle
so beauty full
she is a water carrier
-Katherena Vermette via her poem “this river” from her poetry book river woman.
In her poetry book river woman, Métis writer Katherena Vermette writes about the beauty of the river and compares the river to a woman. Her poems in this book are about a variety of different topics from love to colonialism. What really stood out to me was her poems on the river and how she personifies the river and speaks about its beauty. She really spreads awareness on the beauty and femininity of water. By writing about the beauty of water and acknowledging water’s beauty and all that she does for us, I feel that Vermette honours water through writing this poetry book.
“Water remembers everything it travels over and through.
If you have been in water, part of you remains there still.”
-Natalie Diaz via her poem “exhibits from The American Water Museum” via her poetry book Postcolonial Love Poem.
In her poetry book Postcolonial Love Poem, Mohave writer Natalie Diaz includes two poems that focus on water: “The First Water Is the Body” and “exhibits from The American Water Museum.” Both of these poems are heartbreakingly beautiful and when I read them for the first time they both really made me think about my relationship with water and how I treat water and how water treats me. Her poems talk about how water gives us so much and how water has a memory and a body, and how water is our body. Both poems are so beautiful, and the whole poetry book as a whole is beautiful. Through writing these beautiful poems on water I really think that Natalie Diaz has honoured water and spread awareness on the beauty and sentience and importance of water.
What I suggest we can to protect and care for water
“The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body. What we do to one – to the body, to the water – we do to the other.”
-Natalie Diaz via “The First Water is the Body” from her poetry book Postcolonial Love Poem.
I feel a lot of people in North America excessively use and waste water. And I think a lot of us take water for granted and view her as a commodity that exists only to serve our needs. I’m not going to pretend that I’m some perfect environmental angel and that I always treat water with the love and respect she deserves, but ever since learning about how women have a special duty to protect and care for water, I’ve been trying to be better. And these are some things I recommend doing that I think we can all do to try and do to protect and care for water:
- Simply thanking water for all she does for us and speaking to her with love and respect (like when you drink a glass of water, perhaps you could whisper a quick thank you to her.)
- Trying to limit the amount of water we waste.
- Also trying not to waste food . It takes so much water to produce food, and when we waste food, we are also wasting gallons of water.
- Limiting the amount of bottled plastic and canned drinks we consume.
- Trying to use more sustainable cleaning products (This is something I am still learning about and trying to implement in my life. If anyone has any recommendations on sustainable cleaning methods and products please let me know. Right now I am trying to use less Pine-Sol and Lysol when I clean my place. I am trying to use stuff like baking soda and vinegar to clean, and trying to buy biodegradable dish soaps. Also trying to limit my use of paper towels and increase my use of reusable cleaning rags.)
I’m not suggesting we should all be overly frugal in our water use and just take three minute showers once a week, but I’m just suggesting we should try and make a bit more effort to care for and protect water. Hopefully, I’m not coming off as overly preachy and holier-than-thou, but I truly believe that really small actions can have really big impacts. So just doing small things to care for water like expressing gratitude to her or choosing not to purchase a plastic bottle of water from Nestlé can make a big difference, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
Even if you don’t believe that water is truly alive and has a consciousness, she is still in need of protection. She’s our most important and beautiful resource on Earth, and if we don’t protect her from those who would harm her she will die.
I understand that as an individual it would be incredibly difficult to completely stop the pollution and commodification of water. I do understand that a lot of our modern day needs and comforts are possible because of the pollution and commodification of water.
As I wrote earlier I am not an angel. I have purchased plastic bottles of soda and I will probably still occasionally eat fast food such as Wendy’s burgers, even knowing that the fast food industry is a huge contributor of water waste. Additionally, the energy industry is linked to water waste and pollution. But, it would be incredibly hypocritical and unreasonable for me to suggest that we just stop using electricity and heaters and buying gas.
Currently, I don’t think we can completely stop water waste and pollution. But, that’s why I truly think that even just taking small individual actions to protect and care for water can have a big impact. Eg, we can’t just completely stop using electricity, but we can choose to limit how much water we individually waste and hurt. And at the very least we can choose to thank water for all that she does for us.
Water is a living spirit with a sentience and a consciousness and not just an inanimate commodity that exists only to fill plastic bottles and to wash our floors. Water is our life and our medicine. Many Indigenous cultures within North America believe that women have special bonds and connections with water. Our relationship with water begins from the moment we are covered in her within the womb. And, it’s a relationship we continue with her for our entire lives.
So we should try to treat water with more respect and love since she is a living being like us with consciousness and emotion. And, we have a responsibility to water to protect and honour her. And, in return water will protect and love us.
For further information on Indigenous women and water I would recommend reading:
- Aboriginal Women, Water and Health: Reflections from Eleven First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Grandmothers by Kim Anderson
I would also recommend watching these following videos:
I also recommend watchingThe Water Walker documentary, which is a short documentary on Crave focusing on Autumn Peltier and the sacredness and significance of water.
Deena is a currently majoring in English. She is excited to be a blog writer since shes hopes to spread more awareness on topics she is passionate about and to also hopefully spotlight women who are doing amazing things in the local community.