Respecting water: Indigenous water governance, ontologies, and the politics of kinship on the ground

By Nicole Wilson, and Jody Inkster


Indigenous peoples often view water as a living entity or a relative, to which they have a sacred responsibility. Such a perspective frequently conflicts with settler societies’ view of water as a “resource” that can be owned, managed, and exploited. Although rarely articulated explicitly, water conflicts are rooted in ontological differences between Indigenous and settler views of water. Furthermore, the unequal water governance landscape created by settler colonialism has perpetuated the suppression of Indigenous ways of conceptualizing water. This paper thus examines the “political ontology” of water by drawing on insights from the fields of critical Indigenous studies, post-humanism, and water governance. Additionally, we engage a case study of four Yukon First Nations (Carcross/Tagish, Kluane, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and White River First Nations) in the Canadian North to examine their water ontologies through the lens of a politics of kinship including ideas about “respecting water.” We also examine the assumptions of settler-colonial water governance in the territory, shaped by modern land claims and self-government agreements. We close by discussing the implications of Indigenous water ontologies for alternate modes of governing water.

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