Water is Life

This teaching is based on research led by Professor Aimée Craft (Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa). She has devoted much of her life and career to working for the water and shares some of the teachings she has learned along the way.

Craft, A. (2014). Anishinaabe Nibi Inaakonigewin Report


In 2013, Anishinaabe Elders from Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario gathered at the Rapids on the Roseau River Anishinaabe First Nation Reserve. The purpose of the gathering was to better understand Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigewin (Anishinaabe water law). This gathering marked the first of four yearly gatherings. The theme of the gathering was “water is living, and water is life, in a spiritual and physical way.”

The methodology used throughout the gathering was based around Anishinaabe protocols and ceremonies. These protocols were followed by Elders, researchers, CHRR (Centre for Human Rights and Research) staff and students. Interviews and notes were taken throughout the gathering when permission was given.

The gathering was grounded in Anishinaabe worldview. A worldview that is focused on relationships and the responsibilities associated with those relationships. This worldview includes rights, obligations and responsibilities that are exercised individually and collectively.

Linking back to the gathering’s theme of “water is living and water is life, in a spiritual and physical way” many sub-topics were discussed such as: water has a spirit, we do not “own” water, water is life, water can heal, women are responsible to water, and we must respect water. Highlighted are words spoken by Elders on water at the Gathering.

To live the traditional way of life is one of the most difficult things we can do. But it’s always very rewarding, particularly to come into the lodge and observe a way of life that’s been given to us and passed from generation to generation.
— Nawaa’kamigoweinini

The 2013 Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigewin gathering was powerful in its purpose to bring Anishinaabe together to discuss Anishinaabe law, identity, governance, and water. It brought the focus to the intersections between law and water and how Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigewin requires increased responsibility. Currently the gathering is on its 5th year and has incorporated some or all of its goals it has made from the 2013 gathering to involve more youth, involve more knowledge holders, framing discussions in the Anishinaabe language, and to continue the work in ceremony.

A key message to end with is “we must stop being reactive and start being proactive.” (Peter Atkinson)

KC Adams shares her teachings about clay and water during the 2017 Anishinaabe Nibi gathering. 

A central theme throughout the gathering was Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigenwin. Some of the questions they asked themselves were what Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigenwin means to them, how it is carried through people in their responsibilities to land and water, if law is the right word when discussing Anishinaabe nibi inaakonigenwin, and whether Anishinaabe law can contribute to, or work alongside Western law?

This is confirmed in our stories; everything comes from our sacred law and I can only try my best to understand it. Our laws govern us. Our people say from the beginning of time that the laws are here to help us with our life while we’re here.
— Niizhoosake Copenance
wet beaver.jpg

Anishinaabe laws are upheld by different types of laws: spiritual, the Creater’s law, the Great Binding Law, natural law, customary law, and human law. The report states that “everyone interprets Aninishinaabe law differently – you follow the law in your own ways and it isn’t prescriptive.” To understand Anishinaabe law creation stories are used and these laws are said to flow from sacred law.

Other important elements of the gathering were stories, songs, the Anishinaabe language, and dreams. Language is central for Anishinaabe people to understand who they are and the Anishinaabe way of life so that their knowledge is carried on to the next generations.

Western law tells us exactly how to act; Anishinaabe law will not. Anishinaabe law acts as a guide and tells us what is.
— Aimée Craft

The summary was prepared by Melpatkwa Matthews and reviewed by Myia Antone.