'Pray for the waters': Great Water Gathering brings Indigenous, non-Indigenous protectors together

Lenard Monkman, one of two recipients of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, reports from the Great Water Gathering that took place in Manitoba's Whiteshell region in July.

Traditionally known as 'water carriers,' women take on role as protectors of water

Great Water Gathering participants erect a wigwam on the first day of the event. (Lenard Monkman)

Lenard Monkman is one of two recipients of the 2017 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada's major media and community outlets. He reports from the Great Water Gathering that took place in Manitoba's Whiteshell region in July 2017, with support from the fellowship.

Aldeen Mason is a grandmother now, but she still remembers swimming in the Winnipeg River, in her home community of Sagkeeng First Nation. However, her favourite place to swim was also downstream from the local paper mill.

"Whatever they put into the waste, it went into the river and it affected us because we were downstream. And I remember when I was 10 or 11 years old, I would start getting this guck on the bottom of our feet when we went swimming; it would stick to the bottom of your soles," said Mason.

Eventually, the pollution from the mill meant that the Mason family was no longer able to swim in the river, and were forced to fish upstream from the mill.

"We used to have a lot of sturgeon in the river and now you hardly see [them]," she said.

She remembers her father walking to the local paper mill in the 1980s to join a protest.

"Eventually that paper mill closed down. I think it's been about 20 years now," she said. "Sure, people complain about the loss of jobs and stuff like that. For us, that was our life."

Wild rice grows on the shores of Lone Island Lake. (Isabella Campeau)

These days, Mason is doing what she can to let her community know about the importance of clean water.

In the second week of July, Mason and Anishinaabe people from across Canada convened on Lone Island in Manitoba's Whiteshell Provincial Park for the Great Water Gathering.

The goal — to gather in ceremony, pray, and figure out how they can move forward together in protecting the waters of their ancestors.

Mason attended the Great Water Gathering after organizers extended her an invitation in the form of tobacco.

The four-day event was organized by Isaac Murdoch, Christi Belcourt, and local Anishinaabe elders from the region. It was an open invitation for Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to come together in prayer for the waters.

"The idea is to come together to pray for the waters, but also to pray for future generations of not just our children, but of all babies that are going to be born in the future," said Belcourt.

The organizers invited elders from the region to share their traditional knowledge and to offer advice to the gathering on what they could do to protect the waters in their communities.

Cultural relationship and responsibilities to the water

In Anishinaabe spirituality, the elements — fire and water — play a significant role in ceremonies.

Traditionally, men are taught responsibilities for taking care of the fire and are referred to as "fire keepers."

Women are taught water responsibilities and are raised to be "water carriers."

"They say women are water carriers because we all have the 90 per cent water in our body," said Martina Fisher, an Anishinaabe grandmother from Bloodvein First Nation in Manitoba.

She explained that the connection of being a water carrier has to do with pregnancy and a woman's ability to give life.

"For a woman, they carry life for nine months in their womb. And we are all born in the water. We come from the water," said Fisher.

Martina Fisher, an Anishinaabe grandmother from Bloodvein First Nation in Manitoba, says women's connection to water has to do with their ability to give life. (Isabella Campeau)

One of the more well-known Indigenous ceremonies is the sweat lodge. The lodge is dome-shaped and resembles a pregnant woman's womb.

"When you go and pray and take care of yourself and re-cleanse yourself, you go in that womb to pray in there. You're safe in there, just like you were safe in your mother's womb," said Fisher.

Mason added, "When a woman carries a child, it's that water that comes first when a child is ready to be born. It's that water that brings that life that cleanses the way for that life to be born. That's how sacred and special that water is."

Water walks

For Mason, the gathering wasn't the first time that she has been to a ceremony for the waters. She has been on two "water walks" to date — one in British Columbia, and one for Lake Winnipeg.

"Water walks" have become more popular in Indigenous communities over the last few years. They were started in 2003 by Anishinaabekwe grandmother Josephine Mandamin, who picked up a copper pail, filled it with water, and then walked the distance around Lake Superior.

The water walks are led by Indigenous women and are meant to raise awareness for water issues.

Mason describes a water walk as "walking, praying and singing songs for the health of the water."

Aldeen Mason, a grandmother from the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, makes a birch-bark basket during the Great Water Gathering. (Isabella Campeau)

The last water walk that Mason went on for Lake Winnipeg, was initiated by her neighbour who knocked on her door and told her about a dream that she had. They went to a Midewiwin elder to talk about the dream and were told that they would have to pray for the water.

"He told her to get seven women, pipe carriers. We all went down by the water, smoked our pipes and made our food offerings," said Mason.

Offerings, according to Mason, could be berries, food or tobacco.

"It's a way of giving thanks and saying thanks to our spirit helpers. It could be animals. It could be your spirit name. Water spirits — that's why we're here, for the water."

Respecting the water

When Mason was 12 years old, she remembers picking berries with her family in northwestern Ontario. The family stopped to take a break and decided to go for a swim.

"I took my sister, she was dog paddling … and then she panicked. She was flailing about. And so I panicked. I almost drowned."

The near-death experience was a life lesson for her about the respect that water commands.

"That's how powerful water is. It can take your life away. It's special and sacred, it brings life as well," said Mason.

Both Mason and Fisher talked about the cultural significance of water and were happy to be at the Great Water Gathering.

"Just like water, everything on Earth  — you have to respect, so that's how we learn. We learn from the teachings from our grandmothers, our grandfathers," said Fisher.

A man drums on top of a rock on the shores of Lone Island Lake during the Great Water Gathering in July. (Isabella Campeau)

She spoke about the teachings that were passed on from her grandmothers and grandfathers: the sacredness of fire, and how it is used for cooking and warmth, but also the dangers of playing with fire.

"If you don't respect anything, you're going to pay for it." said Fisher.

In a country where there are many First Nations without access to clean drinking water, the actions that these women are taking for the waters are important for the next generation of people living in Canada.

"Thanks to our elders, our ancestors, seven generations ago," said Fisher. "They prayed for us. They prayed for these ones. So it's up to us, to pray for the next seven generations."