Bringing Indigenous Knowledge to the Table

How a cross-cultural exchange can help Canada preserve and protect water

Participants in the research project take a sunset swim in the Yurayaco River, in Colombia.

"This water for us is the fountain where our spirituality is protected and created. It is where our thoughts and world view are made."—Doris Waira Jacanamijoy Mutumbajoy, member of the Indigenous Inga community in Yurayaco

Photo: Jonathan Ventura

For Indigenous Peoples globally, water is not bound by borders, and is considered sacred and interconnected to all aspects of life. Aimée Craft wants to learn more from international Indigenous communities about protecting this precious resource. With funding from a New Frontiers in Research Fund Exploration grant, Craft is leading an Indigenous knowledge exchange between a Canadian and a Colombian delegation made up of community leaders and researchers.

Topics for their discussions include challenges related to resource extraction, significant environmental degradation, and disregard for Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge in water management and governance.

“It really is a back-and-forth exchange,” Craft says. “There are a lot of interesting parallels and opportunities to learn about among different Indigenous Nations, with similarities and differences that could be helpful.” 

Craft, an Anishinaabe/Métis lawyer from Manitoba, and  an associate professor with the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law, led the research trip of Indigenous Knowledge Keepers to Colombia in May 2022. In May 2023, they will welcome the Colombian delegation to Manitoba and northwestern Ontario, where Craft has worked extensively on Indigenous water governance issues.

A living river

Participants in the Canada-Colombia research exchange gather outside the learning lodge in Yurayaco, after two days of knowledge mobilization. Craft is in the back left row, wearing a red shirt.

Photo: Jonathan Ventura

Colombia is a particularly interesting case study for water advocates like Craft. The country’s constitutional court is the first one to ever weigh in on the question of legal personhood of water, and to grant personhood status to a river. This 2016 landmark ruling declared that the 650-kilometre long Atrato River possessed the rights to protection, conservation, maintenance, and restoration. The court mandated a group of guardians to look after the river.

It’s an idea that peaks Craft’s interest, but she has more questions.

“What does that look like? What lessons have they learned since receiving that mandate? How can Indigenous Nations, who are working to protect their different water bodies, mutually support each other?” For her, the fundamental question is Does legal personhood achieve the goals of the different Indigenous Nations?

She shared that members of the delegation from Manitoba are also considering advocating for the legal personhood of water, specifically lakes and rivers in the province, including Lake Winnipeg—the tenth largest lake in the world.

Exchanging knowledge, opening minds

Craft is internationally recognized for her work on Indigenous water governance, but the research trip to Colombia marked her first as a principal investigator of an international research project.

Meeting in-place, on the lands and waters they are discussing, is essential to the project, she says. The Canadian delegation travelled to multiple communities for meetings in three Colombian regions.

Local men ride through the traditional Indigenous territory of the Wayuu people in the La Guajira region—the largest Indigenous group in Colombia. The area is known for water shortages and drought conditions, with some areas going close to seven years without rain.

Photo: Jonathan Ventura

“I was so impressed by the generosity of the communities and people that don’t have very much but give generously, whether it’s hosting, sharing stories, gifting, and developing relationships.”

In addition to the legal personhood of water, other conversation highlights included sharing concerns about the interruptions of waterways, such as dams, and how to build ally support for causes.

“We want to find ways to assist Indigenous Nations in finding the best ways to communicate—either internally, to external partners, or to gain support internationally,” Craft says. “To find advocacy tools, to reinforce the initiatives that they’ve already undertaken or things that they plan to do.”

The big screen

The Canadian delegation travelled with an Indigenous filmmaker and videographer, who captured participant interviews on camera.

Participants were asked What is your relationship with water? Does it have a spiritual dimension? What are the interruptions that you’ve faced relating to water? How has that impacted your Nation? Do you have systems of protection in place?

When completed, Craft’s work will include published research on the more academic elements of her research, such as the methodology used and a theoretical piece on her observations of Indigenous laws and practices.

However, she is keen to turn the work into something more qualitative and participatory: a series of short films and a website featuring Indigenous perspectives on water and its spiritual dimensions, aimed at both Indigenous and non-Indigenous audiences. The films will be multilingual to capture the words as spoken, including in Indigenous languages.

“There is an important own-voice component to this,” Craft says. “If we’re arguing that self-determination is important, it would be odd to tell the story for someone, when they are best positioned to tell their own story.”

Seizing the moment

As Craft puts it, water is life—critically important to all living things. She is optimistic that research like hers on Indigenous water governance is something tangible that decision-makers can look to going forward as they consider decolonizing water governance by incorporating Indigenous practices into resource management.

“More and more, there’s an acknowledgment that, with Indigenous laws a part of the Canadian legal fabric, there needs to be Indigenous involvement in water governance, and that reconciliation requires us to look to Indigenous Peoples for guidance on environmental issues.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Aimée Craft’s work, visit her website and Decolonizing Water.