Mni Ki Wakan Water Summit Builds A Movement
"What seed might we plant together today that could make the most difference to the future of the Indigenous Peoples’ Water Summit?”, 26-year-old Thorne LaPointe asked a group of some 50 Indigenous youth, elders, and supporters at the inaugural Mni Ki Wakan: World Indigenous Peoples’ Decade of Water Summit, held July 31–August 2, 2017, in Minneapolis. The question was emblematic of the tone that guided the entire event, marking an exploratory first step upon a 10-year journey toward realizing an Indigenous-led, ecologically sustainable future of restoring clean and healthy water. Indigenous and nonIndigenous participants, primarily youth, began the interactive process of designing a Mni Ki Wakan World Water Agenda, laying out transformative possibilities for the future.
Sicangu Lakota organizers of the Summit welcomed representatives from over 15 Native Nations who shared their visions about the future of water in their communities. While delegates and organizers stressed that each Nation’s approach must vary depending on its circumstance, all agreed that the path forward depends on water that is safe, clean, and respected. The participants collectively envisioned a Mni Ki Wakan world water agenda for the coming years, through sharing the wisdom of Indigenous Peoples, youth, and communities at future summits.
The focus of the Summit was on Indigenous youth and their hopes for their communities, while adults and elders provided a supportive presence. One Lakota elder, Sandra Little, reflected, “I’ve heard a number of times where the youth have felt disconnected from us elders. It doesn’t have to be that way. To be able to connect with elders in their community or within their own families...it’s a two-way street. We’re there with the wisdom, encouragement, and direction they need sometimes. We just need to reach for each other and connect.”
The Summit was an example of just such a two-way street. By intentionally facilitating intergenerational exchanges, and by structuring the event around values-based guiding questions and deeply personal conversations, the organizers ensured that the event was Indigenous in form as well as in content. After the opening prayer, each attendee was asked to share a value that they carried with them to the event. Some of these included “respect,” “equality,” “love for the next generation,” “compassion,” and “we are all related.”
The Summit, which was the first of 10 events planned through 2026, was inspired by scores of local, urban Indigenous youth of diverse Tribal Nations who, in 2008, paddled the sacred waterways of their Dakota predecessors throughout present-day Minnesota. These scouting expeditions explored the feasibility of offering more cultural adventures for youth. In 2009, the first Mde Maka Ska Canoe Nations Gathering was held upon the ancestral lands of the Dakota Nation to enable hundreds of Indigenous youth to participate in group-oriented experiences that would otherwise not be available to them; this event continues today. In 2015, a series of collective visioning and value sessions, known as the Mde Maka Ska Community Conversations, focused on recovering clean and healthy water, and restoring, through the power of Indigenous patience, the original names upon Great Lakes waterways.
The first day of the Summit brought 33 local and visiting Indigenous youth to an early morning Four Sacred Directions Water Walk around Mde Maka Ska (the Lakota name for what is known in English as Lake Calhoun), and a canoe paddle across 3 lakes. The next 2 days were full of powerful, intimate visioning, along with talks and poetry by local Indigenous presenters and intimate musical and dance performances by 17-year-old Tla’amin water activist Ta’kaiya Blaney of British Columbia, Canada, and Dakota dancers Daryl and Ariel Kootenay of Alberta, Canada. Blaney was among about a dozen Indigenous youth who had traveled to attend the Summit. Emerging as an Indigenous leader and musician when she was just eight years old, Blaney has spent the nine years since attending and presenting at multiple UN events and TEDx talks and has combined her activism and her music to make powerful statements about Indigenous Peoples’ rights and lands.
Blaney explained how her name embodies her people’s reverence for water. “My name is Ta’Kaiya; it is a formal way of addressing water in which you are recognizing its inherent sanctity. The literal translation into English is ‘that water over there.’ With the values of my elders that have been instilled in me, which have traveled from generation to generation since what we refer to as ‘time immemorial,’ always existing in a way of gratitude to land and that which gives us life, there is an idea of indebtedness in our culture, that you are indebted to what sustains you, to the water, to the air, to the land. It’s an interdependent relationship...it’s an idea that we’re not just trying to nurture the land as a resource but interject ourselves back into a broken cycle of dependence on the land and the land’s dependence on us as caretakers and stewards.”
Many of the youth had never attended an event like the Summit before, and all were fired up to act on the energy generated together, to be in a space where they could connect with other Indigenous people passionate about protecting water based on Indigenous values. Amber Fineday, a 16-year-old from the Fond du Lac Reservation, described her motivation to attend the Summit: “My water is sick and I want to raise awareness and try to fix it. Five months ago we were told by the reservation that [the water is] dirty, and if you drink it, you’ll get sick. We have to go to the community center to get water.” Fineday proposed a Facebook group to keep summit attendees and others engaged once everyone had returned home. She committed to talking to people at her Tribal Council and with her school principal to find ways of getting others in her community involved in efforts to protect water.
James Freedman, another teen from the Fond du Lac Reservation, said he was motivated to participate in the Summit because “everybody deserves a healthy planet. We’re only here for a short time, so we have to keep it preserved well for the future generations of our families.” Kalila Rampanin, who identifies as Cree, Finnish, and a member of the Nuu-chahnulth First Nation in Canada, said, “Where I live, water is everywhere for us. We all live in a rainforest. I just grew up on the water, ever since I was born. Water is a really good medicine for us. It’s very sacred to me.”
Wrapping up the Summit, prior to a closing prayer, co-organizer and longtime community leader, educator, and rights activist Lemoine LaPointe gave the youth some advice to take home with them. “Above all, just stay united for our values. These cannot die because this is what keeps that fuel, that light [in] you burning. It’s what causes you to walk into a room and everyone in that room can feel you emanate with the power and the positivity that you really are. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Don’t let anyone dim your lights! We, as Native people in particular, have been through that. We have a bright light that the creator placed in us, a nagi, a spirit. Let’s keep it. The only way to keep it is by standing united. One of my grandfathers said, ‘Healing cannot take place alone.’ So we must stand together and understand that the wisdom of our grandfathers, forefathers, predecessors, is good and wise.”
LaPointe’s son and co-organizer, Thorne, added, “You youth came here, and with your best efforts, really helped us to design this. We said it was going to be a water summit designed by our people. We didn’t come here with a premade agenda...we all come from distinctive Nations, and however big or small our efforts may be, we make a difference. We have to understand that we are one. There is a saying: ‘Many people in many places undertaking many tasks can change the world.’ There are 374 million Indigenous people worldwide—that’s 374 million gifts, strengths, and possibilities. Leave knowing that you have a community with you. You are not alone. We are in this together.”
ALL PHOTOS BY SHARRI ABBOTT-KELLER.
— To get involved in the 2018 Mni Ki Wakan: World Indigenous Peoples’ Decade of Water Summit in Minneapolis, MN, visit mnikiwakan.org; Facebook.com/MniKiWakan; or Twitter @ mnikiwakan.