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Indigenous Peoples Cosmovision and Relationship to Water: A Need for a New Paradigm in Water Policy and Water Management

Protect Our Manoomin: Communities must declare all water sources as sacred sites.

prepared 9/24/2011 by Renee Gurneau, Anishinaabe Indigenous Knowledge Institute, and Tom B.K. Goldtooth, Indigenous Environmental Network

“Indigenous elders, who have been grounded in culture and language, are the foundation of traditional education about water. They are our living treasures. Understanding the meaning of water helps us to understand our relationship with, and our interconnectedness with the natural world and with each other. The values of sharing and caring are taught.” – Indigenous Teachings of Water Learned from Elders: the late Sandy Beardy (Cree), Chief Simon Lucas (Nuu Chah Nulth), and Dr. Huirangi Waikerepuru (Maori)

The essential value conflicts between indigenous peoples and western society and in their respective relationships to water lie in the differing creation stories where relationships in Creation are spelled out. What is known aboutOriginal Instruction in the instruction given by the Creator to people at the time of Creation. Even though the expression of spirituality, the ceremonies, etc., is mandated by the environment may differ depending on the environment where the peoples may live, in all religions, Original Instructionconsists of basically two components; one, how people are to treat each other and two, how they are to interact with the rest of creation.

Although it appears simplistic, these differing stories inform how these societies continue to treat water and the rest of the natural world.

Conflicts of the Conquest Mindset

In Western Society, in what has become known as the developed industrialized nations, the basis is in the Judeo-Christian tradition of “Dominion over all things.” This means that the world was created for the use of people and that people are to have final say in how it is used. Although this was not spelled out in the Bible, over time this has come to be interpreted to mean an objectification of the natural world. Earth is to be controlled. Nature is to be managed for the comfort of humans.

In direct opposition to the objectification of the natural world, to the indigenous mind, atr is inexpressively sacred. The reverence we hold for water is difficult to discuss because of the natural reticence that indigenous peoples have to exhibit to the world at large, our most fundamental and sacred teachings. We have good reason for his caution. We are aware that we are presenting our most precious ways of thinking and being in front of a power structure that has no respect for any of this and in fact ridicules and minimizes the importance of indigenous cosmologies, philosophies, and world views.

And in the dynamics of colonization, which have been internalized, demand that we s indigenous peoples are not entitled to our own thinking. All indigenous thought and ways of being were criminalized and so we are hesitant to share our high consciousness with a society that cannot and will not comprehend it. Another element is the protection of Indigenous Knowledge from those who would exploit it and manipulate it for other purposes than what was given.

It is important to spell out how colonization works. This working definition is succinct and definitive.

1.      The invasion of a foreign power.

2.      The criminalization of all things indigenous by the invading power: this means all life-ways, societal norms, education of our children, governance, ways of expressing spiritual knowledge, family structure, gender roles, understanding the relationship and knowledge of the integrated whole of the rest of creation, language,.

3.      The imposition of all societal norms of the invading power upon the indigenous peoples: this means all life ways, societal norms, the land and water are to be not held in reverence, but, divided into individual ownership, language, education of the children becomes one of shame and severing of kinship understanding that held indigenous communities intact, governance becomes an ineffective replication of the structures of the invading power, the power and place of women is diminished, Christianity is imposed and brutally enforced.

4.      All held in place by military might.

Differences in Cosmology   

So, when the European invaders came to indigenous lands they brought with them a cosmology so different from ours that we couldn’t comprehend them and they couldn’t comprehend us. The most destructive value that the European invaders imposed is the quantification and objectification of the natural world by imposing monetary value on sacred things, and committing genocide against the indigenous peoples who resisted.

The assumption that any open land is there for the taking and all they have to do is put up a fence to own it.

One of the first things the invaders did is to dump their garbage into water, contaminating the very force that holds and nurtures all life.

What does his mean for our relationship with water? The discussion about water is just the natural progression of the discussion of all so called “natural resources.” It is about the commodification, the objectification, the dehumanization of all our ways of understanding.

For the indigenous peoples, the suffering caused by all this is beyond human. One of the most residual problems is now we are in a period where we are just enough beyond the trauma to begin to talk about our own experience with a bit of distance.

If our suffering is caused by the disruption of all that is ours, then, it would seem that the way to a strong position in any global or national negotiations about “resources” would be to strengthen and revitalize our cultural and spiritual identity. No one can claim our traditional knowledge and give permission to use it except ourselves. Before we share, we must become clear ourselves and secure within our own knowledge. Before we give anyone else permission to use our knowledge we must claim it first as ours. Ignorance of our own sacred teachings about water, about creation is not a natural occurrence. That is why revitalization of language and culture is vital to indigenous thought, etc.

The authority of colonization which is based on an insane idea of racist superiority allows for all things indigenous to be fair game for the taking. And take they do. This entrenched ideology of racial superiority, progress, and entitlement enables a deliberate and intentional disregard for the outcome od shortsighted and destructive policies. The high intelligence of the “Seven Generations” concept, meaning that every decision we make is with the consciousness of how that decision will impact our world and peoples seven generations from now, is completely absent from energy, water, social justice, and land policies of the current dominant and dominating societies.

Indigenous world view perceives all of creation as alive and imbued with all of the intelligence of the Creator. He has put all of his knowledge of the science of creation in every single individual part. Although every atom and particle is individuated, we are all part of an integrated whole. This assumes a caring and loving creation where all parts of creation care for all the other parts. No part is higher. No part has “dominion” over any other part. We were not put here to be “stewards” of anything. Rather we were all created to live in a harmonious, awake, loving, and intelligent relationship with all other aspects of creation. This is what Mitakuye Owasin “All My Relations” of the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota nations means. It is what Mino-bimaadiziiwin“The Good Life” means in the Anishinaabe original instruction. It is the power of the “Good Mind” in the cosmology of the Iroquois nations.

The indigenous view is that the Earth is our true mother who gives birth to us and maintains our life through hers. She is the mother of all living things. Water is her life blood which courses through her body and maintains all life. Our first environment is water. We live in water throughout gestation inside our mother who hen gives birth through water. She hen maintains our life through her own body, through the milk and water of her own body. This is not difficult. From this understanding comes our reverence for water. It is from his comprehension of the totality of creation that our political positions about water are informed and based. It is impossible to act on one part of creation without impacting the rest.

Any way of thinking and acting that objectifies, commodifies, or puts a monetary value on land, air, and water is antithetical to indigenous understanding. Yet we are forced into his world market with nothing to negotiate with except our “natural resources.” Because of the imposition of these alien values, this changes the way in which we relate to the environment we live in. Because there has been a deliberate disruption in the transmission of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next, we find ourselves in the untenable and impossible position of being financially dependent on our own cultural self-destruction.

Within the indigenous languages lay the full capacity to grasp the intricacies of the science of creation. Our creation stories begin with the Creator’s beginning, awakening, and awareness. We liken this to our own birth and water is at the very beginning. Water is the medium which carries us from the spirit world to the physical world. The Mother Earth and our own natural mother have carried [us] and is the sacred vessel of water from which we come.

That water is not treated as sacred contributes to and is even the cause of ill health, poverty, and ignorance. If water had been kept sacred it would not be contaminated.

Without water, nothing could have come together. Matter could not have come together without moisture. Every part of creation took part in the creation of physical life. Life could not have come together without water and without spiritual motivation.

If we are to negotiate from a position of strength, we must come from a position of self-knowledge. Currently, all terms are defined not by indigenous peoples, but, by systems that are not concerned with our interests. It is an imbalanced power structure, where we are always on the defensive.

“We draw no line between what is political and what is spiritual. Our leaders are also spiritual leaders. In making any law, our leaders must consider three things: the effect of their decisions on peace; the effect on the natural order and law; and the effect on future generations. The natural order and laws are self-evident and do not need scientific proof. We believe that all lawmakers should be required to think this way, that all constitutions should contain these principals.”

~ “Circles of Wisdom,” Native Peoples/Native Homelands Climate Change Workshop held in Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1998

Struggle for Water Rights

It is unfortunate that in some countries, the efforts of indigenous peoples to achieve self-determination, land rights, and the securing of their customary water rights has created serious disputes between national governments, local jurisdictions, non-indigenous communities, private sector, industry and indigenous peoples, indigenous peoples right to self-determination and sovereignty, application of traditional knowledge, and cultural practices to protect the water are being disregarded, violated, and disrespected.

Throughout indigenous territories worldwide, indigenous peoples are experiencing increasing scarcity of fresh waters and the lack of access to water resources, including oceans. In these times of scarcity, governments are creating commercial interests in water that lead to inequities in distribution and prevent access to the life giving nature of water.

Water as a Commodity – Continued Conflicts within in Neo-Colonial Framework

Indigenous traditional knowledge developed over the millennia is undermined by an over-reliance on relatively recent and narrowly defined western scientific methods, standards, and technologies. Indigenous peoples support the implementation of strong measures to allow the full contribution by indigenous peoples to share our experiences, knowledge, and concerns.

Economic globalization constitutes one of the main obstacles for both the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection of water resources. In the Global South, transnational corporations and industrialized countries are imposing their global agenda on  the negotiations and agreements of the United Nation system; the World Bank and other financial institutions; and the World Trade Organization and other free trade bodies; which reduce the rights enshrined in national constitutions, international conventions and agreements. Water is now being viewed as an economic commodity, and no longer a basic human right. This viewpoint is what underpins programs on water privatization and full-cost recovery, which is increasing mass poverty instead of reducing it.

Review of models of privatization of water and sanitation systems demonstrates that transnational corporations, regardless of hoe responsibility they try to carry out their business, are simply not designed to provide public services to all people on an equitable basis.

Indigenous peoples feel that water and sanitation services must be provided by the public, with full and effective participation of our indigenous peoples and local communities. An increase of innovative public financing mechanisms is needed. Experience demonstrates that water services by the private sector are not working.

Indigenous peoples are concerned that once water and sanitation services are privatized, the essence of life itself, which is the sacredness of water, would be determined and defined by the market system. Under the mechanism of privatization, the delivery of water services is based on the “ability to pay,” which means that poor communities frequently end up without adequate services. Indigenous peoples are concerned with this, since globally we are the poorest of the poor. An economic market-based system is not designed to conserve natural resources such as water. Maximizing profits means encouraging increased consumption. Water must be maintained as a public trust.

Water Contamination and Poor Water Conditions 

Contamination of traditional food resources is becoming an increasing issue of concern among indigenous peoples. The link of these traditional foods to sources of drinking water, irrigations systems, and food from local lakes, rivers, springs, and wells is very evident in many communities, in both developed and developing countries. In South America for example, indigenous peoples in the Andes and Amazon Basin regions are exposed to high levels of arsenic and mercury in local water systems and in the fish population. This creates health problems among children and in breast feeding babies. For many tribal groups in Africa, unsafe drinking water and unhygienic handling of food is contributing to high levels of diarrheal diseases in infants and children. Indigenous peoples in the industrialized rich countries of the North also have examples of conditions of poverty, struggles for water rights, drought conditions, scarcity of water, ill-health from water borne diseases, such as found in developing countries.

Canada is a wealthy country with a large indigenous First Nations population which, according to statistics, has a lower life expectancy, higher infant mortality and greater disease burden than the dominant society. A study of water and sewage facilities conducted by Health Canada (a federal agency) and the Department of Indian Affairs (another federal agency), examined 863 First Nations community water treatment systems and 425 community sewage-treatment systems. It found that vast improvements in health, leading to economic development and poverty reduction, could be achieved by providing indigenous communities with a good water supply and improved waste sanitation systems.

Water quality and adequate water supply, wastewater, sanitation and waste disposal systems are essential to the health of indigenous peoples and local communities. Among the many indigenous peoples communities worldwide, in both developing and developed countries, safe and adequate water supply and wastewater disposal facilities are lacking. An alarming number of indigenous peoples have unsafe drinking water, and the numbers are growing. There is a lack of the existence of community infrastructure programs to address the most immediate health threats, requiring the provision of clean water, basic sanitation facilities and safe housing.

Underlying the Water Crisis is a Governance Crisis and a Cultural Crisis

An ethical framework based upon respect for life-giving water and its cultural manifestations is of critical importance for water policy and use. When water is disrespected, misused, and poorly managed, indigenous peoples see the life threatening impacts on all of creation, all populations and human settlements.

Over 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity is found within indigenous peoples lands and territories. Indigenous peoples represent approximately 350 million individuals in the world and make up approximately 90% of the world’s cultural diversity.

Key Points

1.      Indigenous peoples’ interest on water and customary uses must be recognized by governments by ensuring that indigenous rights are enshrined in national legislation and policy.

2.      Governments must enhance the participation and mutual partnership of indigenous peoples, in all aspects of agricultural water use, development and management of water resources, development of water and sanitation services and to recognize indigenous peoples interests on water use, allocation and customary uses, improved services for better water management means, improved water governance which ensures effective use of existing resources and the active participation of indigenous peoples, a substantial increase in financing water infrastructure and targeted financing schemes; and mechanisms for empowerment and capacity building.

3.      Effective development and management of water resources, efficient and equitable provision of water supply and sanitation services are essential for poverty reduction, ecosystem protection and sustainable growth. Adopt strategies that explore alternatives to large-scale private sector systems and technologies by seeking innovations in formal or informal small-scale water system providers, intermediate technologies, indigenous knowledge and community-based approaches.

4.      Governments to recognize within many indigenous cultures, the women are often the caretakers and users of traditional water resource systems requiring the need for mainstreaming gender in integrated water management planning, implementation and monitoring. Implementation an ecological approach that incorporates Indigenous Knowledge Ecological Knowledge (TEK) principals of water management. Integrate indigenous TEK principals of the sacred nature of water.

5.      Governments should acknowledge the basic human right to water that the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ECOSOC) affirmed in November 2002. Recognition of this right in national policy-making and legislation is critical to bring about fundamental approach to poverty eradication. Human rights and environmental obligations of States must be complied with by the World Trade Organization (WTO), the General Agreement of Trade Services (GATS) and other regional and bilateral trade agreements.

6.      Governments, private sector, donors, financial institutions, NGOs, and intergovernmental organizations must implement the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIPs) that was adopted in 2007 by the United Nations General Assembly. One article of this Declaration addresses the rights of indigenous peoples free prior and informed consent and consultation by cultural appropriate means in all decision-making activities and all matters, including partnerships. In many indigenous communities, collective decision-making enhances indigenous peoples self-development.

7.      National and international capital should be available to local levels, sub-sovereigns and indigenous peoples to finance small-scale appropriate technology water infrastructures and sanitation services. International and domestic systems of restoration, financing, investments, and compensation to be established in partnership with indigenous peoples to restore the integrity of damaged watersheds and ecosystems.

We recognize, honor, and respect water as sacred and the sustainer of all life. Water is the source of life, it is far more than a human right, it is a right for all of nature, all plants, all animals. Within many indigenous cultures, our women are the traditional caretakers of water.


There is a need for a new paradigm in this world, in relation to how it defines its relationship to Mother Earth and water. This paradigm requires a change in the human relationship with the natural world from one of exploitation to a relationship that recognizes the sacredness of water. This viewpoint would value the importance for the protection of sacred water sources such as headwaters, springs, and other water systems that have cultural and spiritual significance to indigenous peoples.

As a crosscutting issue, the agenda of addressing this water crisis must fully embrace the reality of the global crisis affecting our local communities. The social, ecological, and political systems, globally and nationally are on the verge of catastrophic change. Very few societies are prepared for this change. Governmental efforts to respond to these issues are inadequate. Corporate and industrial efforts to reform the way they do things don’t happen because of systemic limits that require continued growth and profit at the expense of the protection of water, the environment, ecosystem and habitat, human health, human rights, and the general well-being of society.

Global sustainability can only be reached if we seek greater local and regional self-sufficiency, not less. Building our economies on local watershed systems is the only way to integrate sound environmental policies with peoples’ productive capacities and to protect our water at the same time.

Dialogue is needed amongst indigenous and non-indigenous stakeholders and especially the public/civil society to reevaluate a colonial law system that doesn’t work. A body of law needs to be developed that recognizes the inherent rights of the environment, of animals, fish, birds, plants, and water itself outside of their usefulness to humans. This would address the question as to the Law of Nature, however with the framework of indigenous natural laws, or within the framework of Original Instructions. Most colonial Western law limits Nature and what some North America indigenous peoples term as the Circle of Life, as mere property or natural “resources” to be exploited.

                  Communities must declare all water sources as sacred sites.

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