4.1. Indigenous Research Contributions: Understanding Indigenous Water Relations
As our first contribution towards addressing First Nations water governance challenges, we present a theoretical framework for understanding Indigenous water relations. In doing so, we propose reconfiguring our understanding of human-water relations based on Indigenous knowledge systems, with a focus on Indigenous epistemologies of water. We draw from our own research, existing literature, and Indigenous legal traditions to establish how Indigenous knowledge can help shift current water governance approaches. We see this as a positive intervention in the status quo approach to doing research on water governance issues.
This is a crucial shift in approach given that Indigenous knowledge is typically marginalized by dominant society [58
]. As evidenced by the Indigenous water security challenges described in this paper, Indigenous peoples continue to experience ongoing colonial legacies, which create the adverse social, political, and environmental conditions making Indigenous communities more vulnerable to health problems, and other issues. Even in more inclusive research contexts, Indigenous knowledge is often used in a techno-bureaucratic manner to provide an empiric measurement for policy makers, without considering broader context or the diversity of Indigenous knowledge systems [63
]. These challenges are exacerbated by the current system of laws, sciences, and policies that exclude Indigenous perspectives, knowledges, and worldviews, and choose to privilege western science as the final authority [7
In “Aboriginal Women, Water and Health”, Kim Andersen (2010) discusses the different ways in which water affects the spiritual, physical and mental health of Indigenous people. In this article, Andersen interviews eleven First Nations, Inuit and Métis grandmothers who illustrate how water is needed for Indigenous spiritual and physical health because it is needed to wash, it is needed to drink, and in Indigenous cultures it is also used to send people back into the spirit world. The grandmothers also stressed the cultural significance of water being present in childbearing and discussed the many ways in which water can “heal” [63
]. These spiritual and physical needs are what guide Indigenous peoples in protecting and respecting water through ceremony, song and prayer. Deborah McGregor describes this Indigenous connection to water as:
The ethic of responsibility to water reflects the notion that water is understood as a living force which must be protected and nurtured; it is not a commodity to be bought and sold. Water, according to First Nations peoples, has cleansing and purifying powers. It is the giver of life with which babies are born. It is imperative in our traditions to keep the water clean so it can continue to fulfill its purpose.
McGregor and Andersen describe Indigenous women as the protectors of water for the benefit of generations to come. Based on the reflections of the grandmothers interviewed, Andersen writes that “women have a distinct spiritual connection to water because of their ability to carry the waters of new life” [64
] (p. 36). Additionally, earth is also a woman, and is referred to as a mother, with water being described as her life blood [64
]. Furthermore, it is not just lakes and oceans that require protection, respect and reverence, but also the rivers, streams, and creeks which carry water to and from the oceans and lakes [64
Indigenous cultures and knowledges also stress the significance of water in all creation, including the creation of life itself [62
]. In “Traditional Knowledge and Water Governance,” Deborah McGregor (2014) explains the Indigenous connection to the Creator, which in turn defines their connection to all creation extending to the earth, the plants, the animals, and all people on earth including our ancestors and those yet-to-be-born generations [15
]. It is these relationships with each other, with creation, and with the Creator that gives rise to “natural law” [3
In the report Anishinaabe Nibi Inaakonigewin
, Aimée Craft (2013) discusses what Anishinaabe (the different spellings of this word reflect the diversity of Indigenous cultures throughout Canada, and some of the different spelling systems used in Indigenous languages) water law means to the Anishinaabe people:
Laws govern interactions between beings. In Anishinaabe law, we expand our understanding of “beings” to include life forms such as animals, plants, rocks, in other words anything that has a spirit. Spirits are considered to be beings with whom we interact. Anishinaabe law considers the interactions between and within these beings and understands them to be governed by spiritual, natural and customary laws. Sacred law is the law that is handed down to us by the spirit. Natural law is dictated by what we observe in nature and that “behaviour” which we model ourselves by.
Craft (2013) further explains that the “Anishinaabe way of life is centered on relationships, and responsibilities are associated with each of those relationships. These relationships give rise to rights, obligations and responsibilities. Rights, obligations and responsibilities are exercised both individually and collectively by the Anishinaabe [66
] (p. 8).” The responsibility and accountability that Indigenous peoples have to water is the reason why Indigenous peoples require their own jurisdiction over water in their communities, and why they should be included in water policy decisions with other governments [8
This further illustrates why it is necessary to shift how dominant water governance frameworks typically view knowledge and resources, McGregor discusses how many Canadians understand water “as a resource, a commodity to be bought and sold” and how this has threatened Indigenous worldviews. McGregor stipulates that the adaptability of Indigenous knowledge systems makes them ideal to “meet new challenges” and ensure “proper conduct” in respect to water relations [15
] (p. 494). She describes how Anishinaabek knowledge guides an understanding of our responsibility to all beings in Creation through stories, which remind us “that our relationships are not centered exclusively on people, but are shared among all our relations”. Through our interactions with Creation, the natural world and the environment, we learn about these relationships and responsibilities [15
] (p. 495). Indigenous legal scholar John Borrows also asserts that Indigenous knowledge can provide valuable information, knowledge and insight on water quality, fish habitats and spawning, animal migrations, and “social and cultural effects of situating new villages”—a concept Borrows calls “(re)placing knowledge” [3
] (p. 437). Borrows points out that new designs for Indigenous co-governance of water would benefit greatly from collaborative research and studies in the areas of law, Indigenous studies, political science, environmental studies and geography:
The rich stories, ceremonies, and traditions within First Nations… contain the law in First Nations communities as they represent the accumulated wisdom and experience of First Nations conflict resolution. Some of these narratives pre-date the common law, have enjoyed their effectiveness for millennia, and have yet to be overruled or extinguished out of existence. These laws relative to environmental protection are strong and contain legal principles that could be integrated into US and Canadian institutions.
Indigenous author Vine Deloria echoes the importance of Indigenous connections and relationships to the “land”, a term he uses to encompass the bodies of water that make up the broader landscape. Deloria adds that land is a significant part of Indigenous peoples’ identities. Deloria describes Indigenous views of land as “the most vital part of man’s existence… It supports them, [and] tells them where they live” [25
] (p. 175). He also discusses the common Indigenous practice of placing the land at the center of their universe. This practice functions to ensure that Indigenous peoples have “a home to go to”, helps to secure their identity, and enables them to live off the land without being disconnected from it [25
Deloria also emphasizes the importance of acknowledging, learning from, and using Indigenous law and knowledge systems so that all people can benefit from Indigenous knowledges. Broad transmission of Indigenous knowledge to non-Indigenous communities has occurred since colonial periods, with the loss of Indigenous languages increasingly necessitating the writing and recording of traditional knowledge [15
]. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge the challenges with sharing Indigenous knowledges. Due to the disempowered status and outstanding land rights issues that many communities face, Indigenous peoples are often wary about sharing their vast repositories of knowledge. In addition, not all knowledge is appropriate for sharing with all people. Indigenous communities often face difficulties around sharing traditional knowledge without giving away sensitive information—a practical reality that researchers and government officials should be aware of [67
Finally, Indigenous water relations are often based on the concept of reciprocity, which includes the maintenance of respectful relations between human and non-human entities. Just as water sustains human life, humans hold an inherent caretaking responsibility for the waters they depend on for their survival. By focusing our attention on reciprocal relationships and away from commodities, Indigenous perspectives can help challenge dominant assumptions regarding water governance [3
] and create a better understanding of how human and non-human entities (including water) are co-constituted in the context of the particular Indigenous lands and cultures.
4.2. Indigenous Research Contributions: Indigenous Water Governance Case Analysis
Our second contribution to Indigenous research methodologies involves directly engaging First Nations communities in research to address current Indigenous water governance and health challenges. Taking a case study approach, we describe three innovations in Indigenous research methodologies that have facilitated respectful collaborations with First Nations communities to address water governance issues and related problems. These cases draw from our own experiences with Indigenous research initiatives across Canada to effectively illustrate an Indigenous-centered approach.
4.2.1. Redesigning the Research Lab: “Two-Eyed Seeing”
As a first innovation, First Nations community leaders are reinventing the research lab based on Indigenous research methodologies. One such example is the Indigenous Community-Based Health Research Lab, located at the First Nations University of Canada in Saskatchewan, run by Dr. Carrie Bourassa, and funded by the Canadian Foundation for Innovation. This laboratory uses Indigenous methodologies to support research with several Indigenous communities on and off-reserve, in rural, remote, and urban contexts.
The Indigenous Community-Based Health Research Lab (recently re-named in ceremony by lab Elder Betty McKenna as Morning Star Lodge) includes a community lab, which provides a safe space for Indigenous community partners to engage in various Indigenous community-based research projects, as well as a lab for training undergraduate and graduate students. Examples of alternative research practices used include applying Indigenous methodologies to code data; preparing tobacco bundles under the guidance of a research team Elder; reviewing and editing video footage; and learning about “body mapping”. Body mapping is literally the process of creating body maps through a variety of techniques that can include painting, photography, drawing, or a combination of artistic techniques that represent an individual’s aspect of their life, body, and the world and environment in which they live. Essentially, it is a form of storytelling done through symbols that the individual or participants can share. In an Indigenous context, an Elder or Knowledge Keeper facilitates and assists with the process to help participants share their individual stories. This technique is often seen as having therapeutic value [68
The lab practices the philosophy of two-eyed seeing and reciprocal learning, discussed above, which draws from the strengths of both Indigenous and western knowledges and ways of knowing [28
]. One example of the successful interplay between knowledge systems is the Indigenous Storytelling methodology, often referred to as the conversational method on Indigenous Research Methodology (IRM), that is used by Dr. Margaret Kovach [69
]. This approach can be seen as a way of gathering knowledge in the oral storytelling tradition within IRM [69
]. As one example in the lab, data is collected from participants using storytelling methodology. The group then works in the student training lab to employ NVivo qualitative analysis software for the initial data coding. Afterward, the entire research team uses the community lab for second and third level coding, where the group uses Indigenous methods to collectively analyze the data, an approach that is referred to as the Collective Consensual Data Analytic Procedure (CCDAP) [70
The lab space emphasizes critical mentorship of emerging health researchers. The lab group practices a mentorship model that is based on respect, responsibility, reciprocity and relevance, as core values of Indigenous research [47
]. The student training lab fosters a team environment for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral trainees, supervised by Dr. Bourassa and her academic group. Elders are actively involved in guiding every research project, and are always available to the student trainees. Mentorship in the lab happens not only between academic supervisor/student, but also between students, as well as between Elders and students, community members and students, and especially between community members and academics. Academic team members often remark how much they learn from the Elders and community members in this setting.
One of the most important outcomes from this work is the facilitation of mentorship—not only amongst and between student and community trainees, but also amongst and between student/community trainees and research team members. Research teams may include academic leads, Elders/Knowledge Keepers, community leads/co-leads, physicians, nurses, clinicians, policy makers, and this is what makes our approach so powerful. We have heard many testimonials from students and our diverse team members explaining how much they have learned through this reciprocal learning process. It is a process that opens up new avenues for individuals to explore and develop new methodologies, new epistemologies, and new ways of thinking and collaborating. Recently, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation recognized this important work by naming one of our students and our lab as part of the #IAmInnovation Campaign. By developing an innovative research process, team members create new pathways for research applications, including new approaches to solving water governance problems.
4.2.2. Indigenous Research and International Water Policy: Knowledge Sharing Frameworks
Our second case follows Indigenous research methods that have helped to include traditional knowledge in complex water governance negotiations. This work discusses a series of agreements involving the Chiefs of Ontario, and a series of policy agreements on Great Lakes water quality occurring at multiple scales. Such approaches are particularly important for supporting decolonizing efforts, particularly water co-governance frameworks that enable First Nations communities to take on a meaningful decision-making role alongside state agencies. In this case, Indigenous research methodologies played a key role in facilitating the recognition and inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in dominant water policies. This was accomplished, in part, by building a shared knowledge base across multiple First Nations communities through a respectful, collaborative, and non-extractive research framework.
After fifteen years of advocacy to change policy direction in relation to the Great Lakes, in 2001, the Chiefs of Ontario directly engaged in policy research with Elders, Traditional knowledge (TK) holders/practitioners and keepers to influence water policy and governance. By developing a “knowledge sharing framework” [71
], the Chiefs worked to affect policy at the international (Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement), national (Canada-Ontario Agreement respecting the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement), and provincial (Great Lakes Strategy and Great Lakes Protection Act) levels. The knowledge sharing framework approach facilitates more innovative and culturally appropriate modes of working with Indigenous peoples and their knowledge, in addition to mobilizing Indigenous knowledges for broader aims and aspirations.
A knowledge sharing framework is a research approach [71
] that brings knowledge holders together to share their expertise, experiences and knowledge through an open process. TK holders/Elders share knowledge with each other, rather than have knowledge extracted from them on an individual basis (e.g., through interviews). Knowledge sharing was achieved through a series of gatherings that occurred over a number of years [72
]. In the collective knowledge sharing process, ceremony and Indigenous language formed an essential aspect of the gatherings, along with the observation of traditional protocols. This approach is similar to the Anishinaabek water law research methodology employed by Aimée Craft, which uses a “faculty of Elders” approach [15
TK holders/Elders shared with each other to build upon their experiences and expertise. Both men and women were invited to participate, in part to account for gender differences. Knowledge related to taking care of water, water laws, water governance, and traditional knowledge was shared at these gatherings and recorded. Through advocacy involving the Chiefs of Ontario (a political coordinating and advocacy organization representing 133 First Nations in Ontario), the Chiefs of Ontario gained empirical evidence (throughout these gatherings over 100 Elders/TK holders participated) to support the inclusion of First Nations peoples and TK in broader policy and governance frameworks.
In 2008, the gatherings culminated in the Water Declaration of the Anishinaabek, Mushkegowuk and Onkwehonwe, which forms the basis of the First Nations policy direction [72
]. The Water Declaration has influenced provincial policy and finds expression in the Great Lakes Strategy. The emphasis on traditional knowledge (TK) and continued advocacy also resulted in the recognition of TK in the Great Lakes Protection Act, 2015. The Great Lakes Protection Act includes provisions for Indigenous involvement in water governance through the creation of the Great Lakes Guardian Council. In this way, research based on Indigenous methodologies has facilitated the recognition of TK in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between Canada and United States (2012).
Knowledge sharing gatherings are ongoing as TK continues to shape water governance in Ontario [15
], and more recent approaches focus on youth engagement. TK holders/Elders have stated that they wish to share their knowledge with youth, so that TK can be utilized at the community level as well as broader policy and governance levels. In 2015, the Chiefs of Ontario coordinated an Elder/youth gathering in Sault. St. Marie, which they called the “Following in the footsteps of our Ancestors Elders and Youth Water Gathering”. The purpose of the gathering was to enable the sharing of traditional knowledge related to protecting the waters, particularly the Great Lakes. The gathering offered First Nations youth the opportunity to connect with Elders, share knowledge, and begin to build their capacity as leaders.
The Chiefs of Ontario‘s advocacy for the inclusion of TK in Great Lakes governance has resulted in the explicit recognition of traditional knowledge in the Canada-Ontario Agreement on Great Lakes Water Quality and Ecosystem Health (COA), 2014. The Agreement contains an Annex devoted to engagement with First Nations. For example, Annex 13 includes the explicit goal to “Enhance understanding and appreciation for the Great Lakes by considering traditional knowledge”, and “envisions a result of creating opportunities to collaborate with First Nations on traditional knowledge”. This commitment led to a TEK/youth gathering held in 2015 (see http://www.chiefs-of-ontario.org/node/398
for a video of the gathering). It has also led to the funding of pilot projects to demonstrate how TEK can apply to addressing Great Lakes environmental challenges. More recently, the Government of Canada announced via the 2017 budget the establishment of the Great Lakes Protection Initiative (GLPI), which in turn supports the Great Lakes Indigenous Fund (GLIF). The GLIF supports Indigenous community-based projects to protect the Great Lakes.
4.2.3. Research Methods for Decolonizing Water: Reciprocal Learning
Our third case considers the authors’ current work as members of the Sustainable Water Governance and Indigenous Law partnership project. The decolonizing water partnership currently includes 44 interdisciplinary research collaborators, with funding support that extends from 2016 to 2023. One of the project goals is to help create and support a framework for reciprocal learning as a key strategy for operationalizing Indigenous research methods within academic and policy networks, and as an important step towards decolonizing water in practice.
Part of our role within the Indigenous Research Methods Working Group is to provide the foundation for ethical research for the working group as a diverse team of individuals coming from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous backgrounds, and from the biophysical and social sciences. Our group’s expertise includes Indigenous community health, environmental toxicology, transboundary water governance, Indigenous resource management, and Indigenous law. Some of us have in-depth experience with conducting Indigenous research, while others are new to this work. We view the decision to establish a formalized governance body on Indigenous research methods as an important step towards developing a more Indigenous-centered research and policy agenda for water governance.
A starting place for understanding how we apply reciprocal learning lies with the core values of Indigenous community-based research: respect, responsibility, reciprocity and relevance [47
]. To work in the spirit of reciprocal learning means engaging in partnership with communities [73
]. This requires shifting from the “postcolonial stance of expert-subject” to collaborative inquiry, engaging in “open dialogue around hidden nature of power and inequities”, and building capacity among community and academic partners [42
We approach reciprocal learning through an action research framework. The partnership’s work aims to address current water policy issues of the highest concern for First Nations communities, which include First Nations boil water advisories, proposed construction of the Site C mega dam, the increasing development and transport of oil and gas within Indigenous territories, and other community concerns. Thus, the reciprocal learning approach can be used as a means of “building inter- and intra-tribal solidarity and political coalition” [74
] (p. 241) [75
] (p. 159).
The reciprocal learning framework also provides a useful methodology for carrying out the philosophy of two-eyed seeing. This mode of research emphasizes a two-way process, where knowledge flows back and forth between learning partners to support equitable exchange between Indigenous Elders, traditional knowledge holders, grandmothers and grandfathers on the one hand, and academic researchers on the other. Reciprocal learning is therefore a non-hierarchical process, which emphasizes the reflexive, relational and holistic nature of knowledge production.
While the goals set out by other emancipatory research approaches like community-based or Indigenous research may include reciprocal learning, we see a distinction with reciprocal learning, which requires that both communities and academics learn something new through the research process in a deep, intentional, and useful way.
The decolonizing water partnership is currently developing its policy on reciprocal learning. Part of the approach includes offering training for communities and their youth, especially following Indigenous pedagogies that emphasize learning from the land. Partnership members are also working to ensure the research is in conversation with Indigenous water advocates, so that research is both informing and informed by community organizing. Another part of the work involves extending beyond academic publications to express decolonizing water concepts and findings through more broadly accessible formats and forums, e.g., through art exhibits, Indigenous radio, film, social media, and the Indigenous youth movement.
Research partners are also “setting up strategic directions” for the work so that First Nations can self-determine their own needs and priorities, and define how research should proceed [28
]. This requires following First Nations OCAP (Ownership, Control, Access and Possession) protocols. These efforts involve working out terms for information sharing that both protect cultural knowledge, and ensure that information is “available and useful long into the future” [46
]. The extended time frame for the project provides a hopeful opportunity to conduct the careful relationship building that needs to occur for the partnership to succeed, following the principle, “Go slow, do it right”.
As this is the first stage of a long-term research project, it is still too early to share results on community engagement through reciprocal learning. However, the partnership group has taken a reciprocal learning approach to its meetings. This has helped build stronger connections and collaborations in our interdisciplinary team. The approach has also enabled project participants to include guidance from Indigenous Elders, as well as to better engage with learning from the water and land itself as part of the work.
4.2.4. Case Study Synthesis: Reciprocal Relations, Reciprocal Learning
Whether we are working in the research lab, the field, or at the negotiating table, all of these cases speak to the importance of learning from Indigenous research methodologies to practice more respectful, reciprocal relations with the earth, and with its waters. This work requires engaging in deep social learning that attends to the underlying values and worldviews that inform our water relations and policies [76
]. As demonstrated by our cases, two-eyed seeing brings important insights into how we build a research team that includes multiple generations, coming from academic and non-academic backgrounds, in order to improve First Nations community health. Knowledge sharing frameworks that facilitate conversations between Elders and traditional knowledge holders across multiple First Nations communities create new possibilities for multi-cultural and multi-national water policies. Reciprocal learning frameworks set a high expectation for equitable exchange and learning to occur at a deep level for both Indigenous community members and academic researchers.
These cases provide a basis for our recommendations of best practices in Indigenous research, which can inform long-term water policy solutions (see Table 1
). Because Indigenous knowledge has developed based on a different set of relationships with the natural environment, Indigenous perspectives can help to challenge our assumptions regarding water governance [3
]. At the same time, western science offers additional knowledge and tools to support First Nations community goals. As discussed earlier, we view our work in the context of reciprocal learning, respectfully learning from each other to provide mutual benefits, and to appreciate the interconnections between humans and the natural world [3
Our case study research also demonstrates that the practice of reciprocal learning can take many forms. Sometimes it means using research principles that enhance the capacity of community research partners, in the spirit of reciprocity. Sometimes it applies to personal interactions, such as learning about who you are and where you come from (Phare, 2009). Reciprocal learning is also intended to create the space for (re)placing knowledge [3
] by bringing First Nations ideas and knowledge into community design. For example, First Nations’ experiences can anticipate the impacts that specific external activities will have on the environment, as well as suggest specialized techniques that may ensure that undesired impacts will not occur.
We continue to learn and develop our understanding of reciprocal learning, as we apply these principles within our Indigenous Methodologies Working Group. As a small community of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers committed to interdisciplinary research, the authors strive to situate ourselves and our experiences in the work that we have done, both individually and together as a team [28
], and to learn deeply from one another. As we work together, it is our goal to share this knowledge and its effectiveness toward achieving positive solutions for water issues with multi-generational benefits for, by, and with Indigenous communities.