Written by Elaine Coburn in conversation with Angele Alook
Indigenous peoples have inherent rights to the lands on which they have lived since time immemorial. That is the message from Professor Angele Alook, member of the Bigstone Cree Nation and faculty in the School of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies. These rights, Alook emphasizes, bring responsibilities to protect the land and the water.
Violation of Treaty rights by the colonial state interferes with these sacred responsibilities to the natural world. This is a matter of sovereignty. It is also a matter of climate justice.
Fossil fuel companies operating on Indigenous lands destroy the land and water. It is against this destruction that First Nations take up their Treaty Rights, Alook explains, led by Water Protectors, who are responsible for the sacred duty to protect the Earth.
Water Protectors became known to international publics in the movement to challenge the Dakota Access Pipeline on the lands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Fulfilling traditional and ongoing responsibilities, Alook explains, Indigenous women and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people led the way in honouring their responsibilities to the land and standing against settler colonial ecological violence.
When Water Protectors at Standing Rock were sprayed with hoses and violently detained by the police, their steadfast defense became a stand against settler colonial dispossession, against violence targeting Indigenous women and genderqueer people, and for Indigenous survivance.
As Anishinaabe intellectual Gerald Vizenor explains in his book, Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, such moments refuse settler colonial attempts to reduce Indigenous peoples to victims. In Alook’s words, survivance means that, “Indigenous peoples have always been here, we are here now, and we will be here for future generations.” Protecting the water participates in the creation of new futures for Indigenous peoples, for their cultures and for their knowledges.
In Alook’s home territory of Treaty 8, Cree and Dene people are fighting to protect the Lower Athabasca River system, which includes the Peace-Athabasca Delta. This water system is critical, Alook explains, if First Nation members are practicing their Treaty rights and maintain relationships with the river and the land that sustain their distinctive ways of living and being. A 2010 study on the Athabasca River done by the Firelight Group, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and Mikisew First Nation, called As Long as the River Runs emphasizes that the Athabasca river is at the very heart of their Traditional lands.
In keeping with this report, Alook emphasizes that without enough clean water in the river system, “we cannot access areas that matter to us culturally and spiritually and we cannot sustain our families on the traditional foods that keep us healthy.” Similarly, As Long as the River Runs explains, “Losing the ability to access creeks, side channels and tributaries by boat means losing access to the land. Losing access to the land means lost opportunities for language and knowledge transmission, and for maintaining connections between generations, as well as between people, animals,” and “waters that are at the heart of being Dene and being Cree”.
Protecting the river water from climate change is about protecting Indigenous futures. Water protectors enact Indigenous sovereignty by carrying out responsibilities to sacred lands. They delink from settler colonialism and provide gendered relinking to Indigenous knowledges. This renews land-based practices, which are necessary to fight climate change.
Alook concludes, “Our land-based knowledge’s are vital to Indigenous peoples but in an era of climate change, they matter to everyone. There will be no sustainable future without us.”