An article for Great Lakes Water Works / Water Allies at the University of Toronto.
downstream is a collection of writings by scholars, artists, scientists and activists who together understand that our shared human need for clean water is vital to building peace and good relationships with one another. I had heard of this research-creation project in my time on Coast Salish Territories (Vancouver) as a student at the University of British Columbia. Having just moved to the East Coast recently with my family, it was a joy to be invited by Water Allies at the University of Toronto to read the book and moderate a panel discussion with the editors who were to join us from the West Coast. The gathering downstream was held at New College on the winter evening of January 25th 2018 and was attended by a diverse mix of about 30 people from across disciplines including local environmentalists, artists, family and friends from a meditation community I practice with.
Rita Wong and Dorothy Christian open the book with an invitation to tell our own water stories. In doing so we begin to name our commitments to the places, peoples and waters we belong to and who sustain us: “when we tell stories of ourselves, we also tell stories of the waters that move through us” (p.7). Inspired by Rita’s own recollections on her ancestral and gifted names, I thought of my own: I was born and raised in Manila (“where there are mangroves”), whose mother tongues include both Tagalog (“from the river”) and Hokkien from my grandparents who migrated from a fishing village in Fujian, China. In the same spirit we invited participants in the gathering to sit around in a circle, share their names and those of water bodies they cared for or are dear to them. We heard of the Great Lakes, ravines, ponds, a glass of water, dried wells, storms and Oceans. Each small water story was poignant, as if in telling them each person was naming themselves as being intricately connected to water. This round of introductions also served as an acknowledgment that we all live and work in the city of Tkaronto, the Mohawk place name to mean “where there are trees in water”.
Lee Maracle, member of the Sto:lo Nation and one of the most celebrated authors in Canada, writes in the book that it takes radical Humility to understand this insight: “WATER OWNS ITSELF.” In fact, we do not own anything. She says, “I do not have rights. I have obligations.” Lee’s message becomes central to the book and inspires the various voices I hear across the chapters; her message is a guide too for how one can read: one needs humility to become a respectful recipient of what is shared in the book, much of which is sacred knowledge. In my own mind I recall humility as being ‘magpakumbaba’ in Filipino: to offer to go low, to move down, downstream. Humility can be a practice of listening and of “speaking nearby”, forms of indirectness as expounded so poetically by Vietnamese filmmaker and scholar, Trinh T. Minh-ha (p.237). It is in the power of humility to challenge the limits and violence of intellect, logic and reason over body and spirit; and humility opens us up to consider other ways of reimagining, relating and being with water. The book features a refreshing selection of creative-critical projects such as dancing and moving with water by Allanah Young Leon, Denise Marie Nadeau and Seongh Odhiambo Horne; Basira Island’s artistic experiments with floating ice books down the river to scatter seeds along the banks; puppet theatre and storytelling by Cathy Stubington; and the ways water walks are ceremonies as taught and explained by Indigenous elders Renée Elizabeth Mzinegiizhigo-kwe Bédard and Violet Caibaiosai. Astrida Neimanis asks us how one can think with water, inviting water to be a collaborator and interlocutor in our own work.
“Could the sacred be what is missing in much of how we do critical scholarship and activism?”
In the panel I shared a story of how I first caught sight of posters about the Great Lakes Water Walk. They were not in the halls of the university, corridors of critical research and scholarship, but I saw them hung in the Multi-Faith Centre where different communities gather regularly for prayer. I asked, “Could the sacred be what is missing in much of how we do critical scholarship and activism?” The book celebrates decolonial work not only as efforts founded and grounded on responsibility, reciprocity and relationships, but also on Reverence. I think of the power of song and singing to the water as taught by Violet Cabaiosai in the book, by Grandmother Josephine Mandamin and the Water Walkers, and consider how much of this is missing in what Dorothy calls our “so-called secular society.” During the panel Rita and Dorothy shared photos from Standing Rock on the screen, where banners beckoned everyone in big bold letters to DEFEND THE SACRED. As one of the participants raised, it may indeed be challenging to speak of the ‘sacred’ as notions of it are often wrapped in religious dogma and entangled in violent histories. The pages of the book, however, brim with sacred knowledge as did the intimate accounts of ceremony recounted by Dorothy in person. In the book as it was in the gathering, the sacred returns back to the centre—a place where Dorothy invites us to love the land as much as does.
Much of the work on water is moved by a vital sense of urgency, an understanding that life itself depends on protecting and caring for water. The compounding socio-ecological crises of the world today are made clear in the book by Melina Laboucan Massimo’s reports of the damage wrecked by the tar sands in her homelands, the planetary distress signals written by Alanna Mitchell, and Wang Ping’s evocative poetry “Tsunami Chant”. This also became obvious at the gathering, with a participant sharing about the current news of water shortage in South Africa and Rita’s own ongoing involvement with resisting the construction of the Site C dam in British Columbia. In light of this urgency, however, Rita shared the frustrations she has had in galvanizing her own community to show up in solidarity with First Nations-led actions for water, as does Janey Lew’s book chapter on “Asian Canadians In/Action with Water”. As an overseas Filipina, I understood. There are the difficulties of fumbling through layered generations of migrations within the Filipino diaspora, complex differences cutting across our own communities along the lines of class, gender and regional identities, and the persisting unfamiliarity of settler colonialism among many of us in Turtle Island. Daunting and heartbreaking the task may often be to invite our own families and communities to learn to be guests and unsettlers on this land, I also remember that the book downstream is in itself a celebration of interdisciplinary writing and intercultural collaboration. Like the circle of seats gathered to hear Rita and Dorothy, the book perhaps expresses what alliances for water may be and become.
A week after the panel at New College, I reconnected with my friend Yishin Khoo who attended the event. We both felt the need to continue sharing our water stories with one another. Could my work in typhoon-stricken coastal communities in the Philippines, and her work re-learning Chinese philosophies on water, shape our own practices of renewing our connection with Nibi (water) in Tkaronto? There is much we realized each of us already understands about water’s teachings of Humility and Reverence from our own cultural knowledges. Before we parted she wrote the following words down on my notebook: “飲水思源”, an old Chinese verse that says, “when drinking water, remember its source.” I thought how beautifully fitting in the spirit of the work water asks us to do. I believe this is what Rita and Dorothy aspires to share with us when they wrote: “We hope that the book fuels your spirit in the watery times to come” (p.18).
Christian, D., & Wong, R. (Eds.). (2017). downstream: reimagining water. Wilfrid Laurier University Press.