I have to admit: until recently, a gathering dedicated to water was a foreign concept to me.


But for the Anishinaabe people, nibi (water) gatherings are a traditional ritual that has endured the test of time. Along the shores of Lake of the Woods, Grand Council Treaty #3 and Decolonizing Water created space for Elders, women, youth, and IISD-ELA’s very own team to congregate for what is called a water song gathering. As a student intern for the world’s freshwater laboratory this summer, I was lucky enough to join!


The purpose of such a gathering is to honour water with songs, blessings, ceremony, and knowledge sharing. Each day started with a traditional water ceremony where all participants smudged and saw water blessed by an Elder. This was the first time I had experienced a dedicated moment in the day to reflect on my relationship with water. And, I suppose, such a lapse points to some of the learning and realizations that I picked up over the course of the gathering.

The Role of Women

The overwhelming presence of women at the nibi gathering was no coincidence; for the Anishinaabe, women bear a sacred connection to water. It is understood that women possess the ability to bring life into the world and are the ones who carry birth water. Consequently, this unique relationship links to the central notion that water is life. With that relationship comes responsibilities, which is why women are seen to have an especially sacred duty to protect water—which is not to say that men and two-spirit people do not also share their respective responsibilities in the work.

Water Is More Than Just a Resource

I have always seen water as a resource, but for the Anishinaabe, its meaning goes deeper; nibi is alive and has a spirit. This key characteristic presents an opportunity to look at water beyond it being a mere site of extraction. So, rather than only thinking about water in terms of what we can take from it or how it can be of use to us, we can ask what we can do for it and what it needs from us.


Throughout the gathering, the importance of making offerings to water was emphasized—for example, we were encouraged to offer the water the tobacco that was gifted to us. There was a palpable dialogue between people and water as grandmothers shared different teachings that water has offered them over the years. These teachings are meant to serve as a guide for how to act and a reminder that there is always more learning to be done. I felt a profound sense of responsibility when people were speaking for the water.


The Importance of Spiritual Protection

Protecting nibi is as much a spiritual process as a physical one. Guests shared how it is imperative to heal the water from the damage that has been done to it and ensure clean and healthy waterways moving forward. At the same time, protecting nibi is connected to the preservation of teachings, knowledge, traditions, and ceremonies.


I think that, regardless of your relationship with water, we all have a duty to care for it.


Attendees spoke about learning the Anishnaabemowin (Ojibwe) language, learning more about water-related teachings, and deepening their connections to Anishinaabe culture. Many stressed the importance of involving more youth in gatherings like these. One of the grandmothers shared a water song that came to her sang it to the lake. It will be recorded and published on the Nibi Portal by Grand Council Treaty #3.

The Healing Properties of Copper and Sound

Speaking on behalf of IISD-ELA, I shared some findings on the healing properties of copper and sound on water that have been published in scientific journals. I focused on these two components because of the significance of water songs and drinking water from copper vessels during water ceremonies. The purpose was to share what currently exists in the Western scientific sphere that relates to Indigenous Knowledge.


One highlight that I shared was a study out of India on the antimicrobial effects of copper in which the scientists first drew from Ayurvedic teachings to guide their study. The article cited Ayurvedic texts that recommend using metals such as copper for water purification, and the study itself examined the effect of copper on the water-borne pathogens E. Coli, Salmonella Typhi, and Vibrio cholerae.


The researchers found that after storing the inoculated waters in copper vessels overnight, none of the three bacteria could be detected. In such a way, we see how different knowledge systems can co-exist in productive ways and that we need not use one to legitimize another or feel obligated to rank them hierarchically.


I think that, regardless of your relationship with water, we all have a duty to care for it. Inevitably this looks different for everyone, whether they find ways to do that in the laboratory or through spiritual or religious practice. We must demonstrate humility in respecting the knowledge we do not yet have as much as we do what which we already know.