Culture & Conversation Human Rights

For Native Women, It’s All About the Water

Mary Annette Pember

Ojibwe and non-Natives alike, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, are all governed by the great leveler—nature. If we befoul our water, we poison ourselves.

Like Native American tribes in the United States, the Water tribe also has enrollment requirements. For starters, “you have to be at least 60 percent water to be a member,” quipped Oneida journalist Paul DeMain.

DeMain made this point that humans, not corporate entities, are all members of the Water tribe several years ago during the largely Native-driven opposition to the construction of a huge taconite mine in Northern Wisconsin’s Penokee Mountains adjacent to the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation. Proposed by the Gogebic Taconite Company (GTAC) and supported by political leadership in the state, the mine would have released high levels of toxins into the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior. Last year, GTAC shut their offices in the region and for the forseeable future has abandoned the project. It’s unclear if they made their decision based on declining markets for taconite or because the Native Americans and supporters caused too much trouble.

Native Americans have been hollering from the “water is sacred” bully pulpit long before the current protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) began in North Dakota. Why then has the latest demonstration in North Dakota suddenly gotten so much public and governmental support?

I know how my mom and aunties would respond if they were alive today. They would say it is because Native peoples, especially the women, have been doing ceremony and praying for those water spirits that our ancestors instructed us to protect.

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Indigenous women in the United States have been praying for the water for a very long time. In 2003, Anishinaabe grandmothers began leading and organizing Nibi Walks to bring attention to the pollution of our waterways. (“Nibi” is the word for water in Ojibwe.)

Based in Ojibwe ceremonial water teaching, the women (with support from men) collect water from the source of rivers in a copper vessel and carry that vessel over several days to the mouth of the river.

According to the Nibi Walkers, Anishinaabe “prophecies state that when the world has been befouled and the waters turned bitter by disrespect, human beings will have two options from which to choose from: materialism or spirituality.”

Choosing spirituality, they maintain, is the only route. In other words, it’s harder to treat something with disrespect once you’ve honored and prayed for it.

“When we are walking for the water, we are in ceremony from the beginning of the day until we retire at night. We try to move like the river, continuously all day long, every day until we reach our destination. The reason we walk is to honor the rivers and all water, and to speak to the water spirits so that there will be healthy waters for generations to come,” said Sharon Day of the Bois Forte Ojibwe tribe.

Day, 65, has helped organize 12 water walks along the Mississippi, Ohio, and other rivers. The next walk begins October 7, 2016, at the source of the Potomac River at Fairfax Stone Historical Monument Park in Eglon, West Virginia. See the Nibi Walks Facebook page for updated information.

She and other Ojibwe women recently traveled to the Standing Rock reservation to show support for those opposing the pipeline.

The pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken region in western North Dakota to refineries in Texas. Part of the pipeline route would go under Lake Oahe, where the Standing Rock Sioux tribe get their drinking water; they are concerned that a leak would endanger this water.

The core message from Native-driven demonstrations such as those at Standing Rock and the nearby Penokee Mountains has and continues to be about protecting the health of the world’s water.

“We did a water ceremony at the Sacred Stones Camp (the name given to the encampment by the Native peoples camped there). We were unified with everyone there as protectors of the water, and we were doing so with love and in peace,” she told me during a phone interview.

“All of these actions and prayers, the camp in Standing Rock, the Nibi Walks, and Winona LaDuke’s Love Water Not Oil Campaign are combining to bring attention to the health of our water and our planet,” Day said.

LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, is a longtime environmental activist. Founder of the Honor the Earth Project, she has led the “Love Water Not Oil” music tour and annual walk for four years in efforts to bring attention to energy company Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper pipeline that would transport fracked Bakken oil through the lake country of Minnesota, home to traditional Ojibwe wild rice beds.

During the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC, both LaDuke and University of North Dakota professor and independent journalist Mark Trahant (Shoshone-Bannock) noted that the DAPL protest speaks not only to the effect of the pipeline on the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation but to the larger issue of the oil industries’ role in advancing global warming. Increased dependence on fossil fuels contributes to global warming and, subsequently, to pollution of the earth and its water.

In his news website, Trahant wrote that the protests have sparked a long-overdue debate about pipelines. He pointed to the federal government’s Climate Change Assessment, which reads, “Rising temperatures are leading to increased demand for water and energy. In parts of the [Great Plains] region, this will constrain development, stress natural resources, and increase competition for water among communities, agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs.”

“Instead of reducing [oil] consumption, [the pipeline] makes it easier and cheaper for Americans to have more,” Trahant wrote.

In response to Lehrer’s question about why the DAPL protest has drawn so much public support, Trahant noted that mainstream media had been slow to pick up on the popularity of the protest. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! was the one of the few journalists on site when a private security company hired by Dakota Access unleashed attack dogs on protesters.

North Dakota police have subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Goodman, accusing her of entering public property to conduct interviews. Goodman’s footage of snarling dogs biting protesters has contributed to greater mainstream interest in the actions in North Dakota.

By and large, social media has played an enormous role not only in sharing the news about the protest but in framing it as an objection to the broader issue of oil dependence. Indeed earlier this month, activists requested via social media that everyone pray and do ceremony in our own way in support of efforts to stop the pipeline construction.

It’s considered unseemly for a journalist to take a public stand on such issues. However, hearing my mother’s declaration, “Remember, you are Anishinaabe-kwe (Ojibwe woman) before anything else,” I chose to do my ceremony here at home alone and offered up prayers.

Almost immediately after federal Judge James Boasberg denied the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s request for an injunction against the oil pipeline, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Department of Justice, and Army Corps of Engineers issued a joint statement temporarily halting construction bordering Lake Oahe.

The journalist in me wryly noted the coincidence of these events but the Anishinaabe-kwe in me knows about the power of women, prayer, and the powerful new moccasin telegraph, social media.

All the Ojibwe women in my life share a fierce protective instinct surrounding family, culture, and land. For us, family and community include water, land, and wildlife. We carry our young surrounded by water in our wombs; the power of water is etched in an unutterable place in our bodies, beyond words, therefore in the Ojibwe worldview, women are the ones who must care for the water.

We know, deep in our blood memories, that there is no escape from the natural processes that dominate our lives.

It is an instinct unbounded even by death. Although both my mother, Bernice, and Auntie Pat, the strongest women in my life, passed away in 2011 within weeks of each other, I feel as though they’ve issued an orderone that is startling me, my family, and all women into action.

No amount of money, jobs, or political backroom deals can buy off these forces. Ojibwe and non-Natives alike, rich and poor, Democrats and Republicans, are all governed by the great leveler—nature. If we befoul our water, we poison ourselves. This is a simple fact that Ojibwe, especially women, understand.

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