The following article is from an archived newsletter. See our Shared Waters newsletter.

Water is Life: Reframing Indigenous Partnerships in Water Stewardship and Research in the Great Lakes

Catherine Febria
University of Windsor

Nibi (Ojibwe for water) is the life force that connects us all. As a new and growing research group at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, the Healthy Headwaters Lab is committed to advancing science that connects land, water and people, beginning with the First Peoples of the region.

The lab’s guiding principles are simple but transformative: We are committed to centering the voices of local communities in our research to ensure that we achieve freshwater sustainability for future generations. Thus, our team is a diverse blend of freshwater scientists and naturalists, local farmers, Indigenous scientists and artists, communicators and more, all connected to water locally and globally.

The science is clear: To ensure impactful management, efforts must align, amplify and maximize partnerships with Indigenous and local knowledge holders. For this and many other reasons, the lab formalized a commitment to Indigenous communities and the recruitment of emerging Indigenous scientists and water stewards. 

Bkejwanong (where the waters divide) in Lake St. Clair is often referred to as the heart of the Great Lakes basin. It is here where the lab co-developed a week-long field course in 2019 and launched new research and community partnerships. These renewed efforts include conservation, invasive species management, and participation in youth mentorship, stewardship and community events.

From the words of two of the emerging water leaders at the lab, here are their experiences:

Destiny Soney, Nin.Da.Waab.Jig project coordinator

destiny soney
Credit: D. Soney

“Bkejwanong ndoonjibaa, Where the waters divide is my home, the land I come from.

To me, nibi is everything. As a woman, even more so. I was always told about the sacred waters we hold, that the start of life is in the water. That it is our responsibility given by creator to take care of that water, both within and around us.

I was asked to join the Healthy Headwaters team in the fall of last year. It seemed so appropriate and fitting to join knowing their mission and how it aligned with these responsibilities. Their mission: to restore freshwater ecosystems to full health and vitality for the benefit of future generations. I did not find it surprising that many of my colleagues were women, they are all brilliant, passionate and hard-working individuals. I am able to work between them at the University of Windsor and my home territory Bkejwanong on research efforts. We help develop sustainable solutions for freshwater with holistic approaches.

I feel grateful knowing the importance of nibi in my culture and to be given the opportunity to help look after it now. Miigwech (Thank you).”


Katrina Keeshig, research partnership coordinator and field guide

Katrina Keeshig
Credit: K. Keeshig

“Neyaashiinigmiing ndonjibaa. Point of land surrounded on three sides by water.

My whole life has been shaped by that water. Even before I could swim, I would cling to family members as they would wade out and dunk me below the cold, clear water of Georgian Bay. After university I left to travel, covering five countries over two years, dreaming of our water the whole time.

Upon returning, I had the great honour of researching a book about nibi and asking our elders to share their stories with me. They shared many stories of change: how the ice had changed, the taste of the water, the abundance of fish, the arrival of invasive species and the way that the community used to gather at the water for everything. Throughout their stories they also shared what needed to be done; return to our teachings, build resiliency in our communities, protect our land and water.

The book also brought me to Parry Sound to speak on behalf of my community about lowering lake levels. I spoke in my native language, Ojibwe, to a crowded room, shaking and proud. All these years later, everything since has been so I could continue to work on and protect water. Now my journey has brought me to the Healthy Headwaters Lab at the University of Windsor. I am surrounded by people from varied backgrounds, all connected through our love of, and desire to protect water and all that she sustains. Water is life.”

There is a growing awareness of the rich but untapped depth of knowledge and experience across Indigenous and local communities in freshwater restoration and management across the Great Lakes.  Strengthened connections to nature are essential to managing and restoring freshwater resources. Indigenous-led initiatives and commitment to partnerships and collaboration will enrichen our collective efforts and be essential in realizing the shared vision for the future of the Great Lakes.

Catherine Febria
University of Windsor

Catherine Febria is a Canada research chair and assistant professor in Freshwater Restoration Ecology at the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and Department of Integrative Biology. She is a headwater stream ecologist and launched the Healthy Headwaters Lab in 2019.

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