Respect for water, and honoring the spirit of water before using it, are the fundamental principles underlying all traditional water teachings, participants at the Water for Life conference in Winnipeg heard.
Kathy Bird, a traditional teacher with Matootoo Lake Medicine Lodge, said she first encountered ideas about the sacredness of water early in life when the Elders told children, "Never pee in the water." While she did not fully understand the significance then, things really came into focus once she entered the Midewin Lodge and began receiving teachings from the grandmothers at Roseau River, Man.
Bird received the name she needed to work with water from a traditional teacher following a fast. Her Anishnabe name means "down to the earth comes the cloud, or mist." Today she works with traditional medicines, helping and learning from other healers.
Water, Bird said, is not only what gives all traditional medicines their potency: it is a medicine in itself.
"I'm so grateful for those teachings. This is the medicine that brings them all together, whether it's something we drink, wash with or make eye drops with," she explained.
Women have always been the caretakers of water in traditional cultures because of their integral connections to Mother Earth, Bird said.
"The Earth gives life - food, medicine, clothing and shelter. She gives life forth, and because we give life forth we are connected to her in that way."
The amniotic fluid cushioning babies in the womb is just one of the deep and ancient connections women have with water. "There are specific teachings on grandmother moon and her responsibility, and how she can move the waters and the tides," Bird added.
More and more, younger Aboriginal women are starting to learn such teachings, Bird said, describing a ceremony the grandmothers at Roseau River perform when lakes and rivers open in the spring.
While it's the grandmothers that lead the ceremony, women of all ages participate. The grandmothers prepare four squares of cloth: green, red, yellow and brown. The four colors represent spring and rebirth, blooming and growth, preparing to sleep and going back to sleep.
The grandmothers each take a small amount of tobacco from a bowl that's passed around, put prayers into the tobacco and place it in each piece of cloth, which are tied into bundles and placed in the lake or river. An offering and prayer to the spirit in the water is made, asking the spirit to be strong for the people that need help.
"You always talk to the spirits around and in water to do the work that you need," Bird explained.
Working with traditional healers and sick people, she said, has opened her eyes to how little water people drink. "They'll have 10 cups of coffee, or tea or pop. They'll say they're very thirsty, then reach for pop, coffee or tea. I'm amazed how many people don't drink that natural medicine.
"I really believe we get a lot of sicknesses because of that. We're not drinking enough water to flush out our systems. So I encourage people, instead of pop buy a bottle of water."
Commercially bottled water, however, brings in its own set of issues, Bird acknowledged during the question and answer period after her presentation.
One such issue raised was the commodification of a substance that is essential to all life. Bottled water is now a multi-billion- dollar-a-year business around the globe, and increasing numbers of these water entrepreneurs are Aboriginal, either individually or at the band level.
Elders foresaw this issue of buying and selling water a long time ago, Bird said.
"I remember my auntie and granny saying, 'Who can own the water? Some day this will come back on us.'"
Related to this is the use of plastic in the bottled water industry. Plastic is viewed as inherently unhealthy by traditional healers, Bird said, noting that when she and other healers prepare medicines, it is placed in paper bags. Further, there i the huge amount of plastic garbage created through buying and consuming bottled water.
Another question related to climate change, and the effect of global warming on water sources. "Is there anything in the traditional teachings that deals with that?" one participant asked.
"I believe that if we had maintained the teachings of respect and honoring the Earth, we would not have to worry about these things," Bird answered.
With all the work that needs to be done to protect water, Bird is excited and energized by how young Aboriginal women are starting to reclaim the teachings. "I believe the things we're doing through our ceremonies, for example the coming into womanhood with girls, these girls will share these teachings with their families."
All these teachings are bound up with the concept of natural processes and laws, and the heavy price humans and our Earth pay when such laws are not obeyed.