Be the Water

Presented by Dr. Deborah Danard at the University of Toronto on September 18, 2018.

On Tuesday, September 18, 2018, Dr. Deborah Danard, an Anishinaabekwe from Rainy River First Nation shared Indigenous water teachings with a group of students at the University of Toronto. “Be the Water” was the title of her presentation. It challenged the way people think about water in ways that go beyond law, policy and citizen science. Debby enters the classroom on a Tuesday morning and lays out a cloth. On top of it, she places items that include sage, tobacco, strawberries, an eagle feather and a copper pot. All of these items have a purpose in her ceremony. She begins by lighting the sage and offers the students a chance to purify their senses and cleanse their heart, mind and vision by running their hands over the smoke and placing it over their chest and moving it over their heads. The energy of the classroom became aware and levelled as she began her talk for the water.

“As Creation continues to unfold, we learn what it means to be the water”. In Debby’s words, she explains that water is the miracle of life itself and has a way of connecting spirit with the physical. “Water is a reflection of who we are and what we are doing in society; it can take life, pollute and sicken”. One thing she explained was how “what we do as individuals through our actions is equal to ‘one drop’ and how it ripples out to create an impact”.

In 2006, Danard went on her first water walk, it was after this she started thinking of water through ceremony. She explained that each step was a prayer for the water, not a protest but people coming together. Water walks symbolize histories, carrying forward stories, teachings and the way life should flow. The least people can do is thank the water and take a moment to acknowledge it. Later in her presentation Debby pours water in a copper pot and offered it to the class. She invited the class to set an intention before drinking it. After the water was distributed she sang the ‘Nibi’ (water) song and translated it for everyone to understand the words:

Ne-be Gee Zah- gay- e- goo
Gee Me-gwetch -wayn ne- me – goo
Gee Zah Wayn ne- me- goo

Water, we love you.
We thank you.
We respect you.

As she sang, a small piece of tobacco was offered to each member of the class. We were told to think of something we want to bring into the world, so that when she collects and lights it, our voices will burn as one. Strawberries were offered to everyone toward the end of the ceremony. In Anishinaabe culture, strawberries are considered to be young women’s medicine. They are given to young women to fast from for an entire year when she gets her first menstrual cycle. Because strawberries are shaped like a heart, they remind people of peace, forgiveness and that we need the heart to maintain personal balance.

Danard’s ceremony left an impression on the class. A student confessed that she will never look at water the same again! As we rely on water to function and to thrive, water relies on humans to ensure it can fulfill its own responsibilities too. Identifying with water as humans can also bring things back into balance because we would take care of it as a part of ourselves. As Deborah says succinctly, “what we do to the water, we do to ourselves!”

By: Nasreen Husain