Sanctity of Nbiish


A board book about the importance of Nibi, which means water in Anishinaabemowin (Ojibwe), and our role to thank, respect, love, and protect it

Water is sacred to many peoples and cultures around the world, including Michigan, representing for many a giver of life. Water has been especially revered by many Tribal nations, including Michigan's Indigenous peoples, for whom water represents not only agricultural and economic development, but also cultural practices, health, and the very existence of the tribe and life as a whole.

Indigenous peoples throughout all of the Americas, including Michigan, maintain a special relationship with water and believe that our health as human beings is interdependent and synonymous with the health of water. This sentiment is captured by the Lakota phrase “Mní wičhóni,” or “Water is Life," a phrase that has been adopted by Indigenous advocates to protest at Standing Rock and beyond. The Assembly of First Nations, as well, writes that "water is the most life sustaining gift on Mother Earth and is the interconnection among all living beings. Water sustains us, flows between us, within us, and replenishes us. Water is the blood of Mother Earth and, as such, cleanses not only herself, but all living things."

Much of the sacred knowledge about water has been passed down and shared for countless generations through various Indigenous storytelling traditions, and in many cultures, water maintains deeply important lessons to teach. According to the First Nations Assembly, "water gives us the spiritual teaching that that we too flow into the Great Ocean at the end of our life journey." The Blackfeet, a Great Plains tribe, believe in three realms of existence: Earth, sky, and water, where the "Soyiitapi" or underwater beings live. To the Blackfeet, the water world is especially sacred, since it holds both divine beings and divine animals, such as the beaver, who can speak to humans and who taught the Blackfeet their most important religious ceremony. Water, then, holds great cultural, religious, and health implications for people across the entire Americas and the world.

This includes the Ojibwe people living along Lake Superior, who also revere the water. Agawa Rock, one of the most famous pictograph sites in all of Canada, showcases Ojibwe paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. Located in Lake Superior Provincial Park, Agawa Rock is a sacred location where Ojibwe people have recorded events, dreams, and visions for centuries through paintings on the rocks. Many of these paintings depict land animals that are important to the Ojibwe—such as moose, bear, caribou, and deer—while others depict items and creatures more specific to the water. Some paintings, for instance, include canoes, while others capture "Misshepezhieu," or "The Great Lynx," a horned spirit of the water. According to Algoma Country, "Misshepezhieu could work for or against humans—he could calm the waters, or he could bring wind and storms over Superior by thrashing his tail." Though many have been lost over the years to natural elements, such as sun, snow, and erosion, these pictographs can be visited today along highway 17 north of Sault Ste. Marie.


Agawa Rock pictograph

Despite the religious and cultural importance of water to many Indigenous tribes, the legal rights to water are often contested between tribes and states or localities. Tribes began to have water allocations on tribal lands starting in the early 1800s through treaties, but over 13% of tribal homes still lack access to safe drinking water. According to the National Congress of American Indians, water delivery systems on reservations and water projects on tribal lands are severely underfunded, often going into disrepair. Similarly, tribal lands were not included in the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act, an act that gives authority over conservation of water and soil resources to the Department of Agriculture. Other threats, such as the Enbridge Line 5 and the Dakota Access Pipeline have spurred protests from Indigenous peoples and other advocates for their disregard of Native land and the sanctity of water.

In order to help address some of the water disparities among tribal communities, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund as well as the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund have reserved 1.5% set-asides for tribes. Currently, the National Congress of American Indians is advocating for that number to rise to 3%. Ultimately, many Indigenous tribes are fighting to restore the health and recognition of the sanctity of their waters. 

To learn more about the sanctity of water, visit the National Congress of American Indians and the Assembly of First Nations.

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