Monitoring the Water Quality within the traditional territory of the Maymaquayshwak
Back in 2020, I had the opportunity to sit down with Donald Meekis and Dan Duckert to discuss the building and growing relationship between Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council, North Spirit Lake First Nation, and Lakehead University’s Department of Geography. Their work together focuses on understanding the pressures that northern remote communities face with new resource extraction development in their territories, and the potential effects mineral development has on the community’s physical and spiritual values of water. Their work is funded through Indigenous Services Canada – Baseline Health Assessment Program.
This article is based on an interview with Donald Meekis and Dan Duckert who are coordinators on the project. Donald is the Operations Director at Keewaytinook Okimakanak Tribal Council and a community member of Deer Lake First Nation. Dan is the Director of Research, Treaties, Lands and Resources at the Tribal Council and is an adjunct professor in the Geography Department at Lakehead University.
Water Quality Monitoring Project Background
The project takes place in the traditional territory of the Maymayquakshwak where there is a mining interest for a lithium deposit. Advanced exploration has begun, and environmental monitoring is being done by the company. The issue though, is that the results are not effectively present to the Maymayquakshwak. The environmental monitoring done by the company uses western science to monitor the water and the land, but western science often neglects traditional knowledge, and lacks the incorporation of the community and their cultural practices. The research team is working on teasing out an indigenous concept of water quality where stories are told across generations. The voices of the community want to be heard with their knowledge applied. The community is also interested in understanding the western science side of water quality. They want to be able to have a knowledge of both ways of seeing to allow them to have conversation with people who are interested in projects on their land.
The project involves getting people out on the land. There is a partnership with the Keewaytinook Internet high school where students get out on the land tell their stories and learn the water monitoring sample protocol. This is blending the traditional knowledge of the community with the western science of water sampling. The community is encouraged to use the land and tell stories while Dan and his research team are conducting samples. The stories about the land and the water are more than just oral telling they include artwork, writing, video, or any other medium that conveys the importance of water. Sharing stories between the generations of the community is another important aspect of the project. Although covid-19 has altered the initial plans, the team is encouraged with what they experienced on their first trip.
Working Together – the blending of two worldviews
The project is a collaboration between different groups with different experiences and worldviews. Donald mentions that the community is always looking for partnerships and that Dan has been their bridge and that they have created this relationship of “back and forth learning. I learn from Dan and Dan learns from us”. The project embraces a two-eyed seeing approach where solutions develop that satisfy both worldviews. The project involves all generations in the community. There are many opportunities for elders to connect with the youth and for a broad sense of knowledge to be developed.
With the collaboration with Lakehead University, professors and students have the opportunity to take part in this unique project. There is then the possibility for the professors and students to share their experiences and what they’ve learned with the larger community at Lakehead. At the end of the day, the project focuses on blending knowledge. All parties involved have something to give and something to learn. It is through the trust and developed relationships that this unique project has been able to unfold.
What Does Indigenous Water Quality look like?
Indigenous water quality can be somewhat of a foreign concept to the average westerner who views the water as a resource that can be extracted, or that needs physical protection for the purpose of providing goods to humans. Western science focuses on point sampling, but indigenous water quality is cultural. As Donald says, “the people and the land are one”. Elders are important knowledge holders, they know where medicines are, where berries are, where sacred sites are, where grave sites are. Indigenous water quality includes more than the phosphorus levels and turbidity levels. Water is an intimate part of the community. It is more than an ecosystem service; it is their home and their way of life.
Dan plays a role in bridging the indigenous worldview and the western worldview. Dan and other researchers from Lakehead University work together to incorporate both ways of knowing. Mining companies, for example, have an interest in development. They will perform their own monitoring and send results, oftentimes full of jargon to the community. The community wants to understand what is going on, which is where Dan and his team come in. They work with the community, going out on the land and using the land in traditional ways while teaching community members the western point sampling techniques. Problems arise when companies come and try to protect a sacred site by putting a buffer around it. The idea may sound valid on paper, but the buffer changes the spiritual meaning of the site, essentially putting the site on the shelf, treating it as an artifact, and deeming it unable to use. The sacred sites within the watershed and on the river are important to the community, spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.
What does water mean to you and your community?
Donald is from Deer Lake and his community is situated on 65-mile-long lake. Their survival is dependent on the fish, and they are part of the sucker clan. Their history is embedded with stories about water. The water is their home. Donald tells a story about an important trip he took where he retraced his dads courting trails. He traversed the waters between North Spirit Lake where his dad is from and Deer Lake where his mom is from. At one point he got lost and thanks to modern technologies was able to call his dad who from the description of the land could tell Donald where to go to get back on track. Even though he was lost, he was still at home. The idea of home extends beyond the walls of a house for Donald and his community and encompasses the land and water.
There is a confidence that comes with being connected to the land and water and having a relationship with it. Even when you’re lost you can feel you’re at home and know you will survive it. There is knowledge that includes far more than personal experience. It includes the stories and the experiences of the generations that came before. Water is part of their identity. Water is far more than just a liquid you drink, or a place to catch your fish. It holds history and meaning and there is a responsibility embodied with their relationship to water. They take care of the water because the water takes care of them. The water has provided them with home and food for as long as stories can tell. To Donald and his community water is home.