Sharing this post on social media? Use this image description to make it accessible: [Image description: Illustration from ‘We Are Water Protectors’ by Carole Lindstrom & Michaela Goade. A young girl of the Anishinaabe connects with her ancestors through their shared water.]
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What are our families doing right now to protect our water?
There are too few water books explaining why conserving and protecting our water is terrifyingly urgent. Those that touch on water scarcity and pollution often leave us in despair – with no ideas on how we can take action at the root of the problem.
We Are Water Protectors does not promise answers or closure – Lindstrom invites you to learn more and keep going. It’s full of vibrant, fascinating imagery that haunts just enough to keep us thinking after the book is closed.
Centering Indigenous Children
I’ve been for something to put in the ‘things we’re not too keen on’ for our overall awesomeness score below. The best I can do is that I have only a shallow understanding of the symbols and significance of each part of the story – but that’s not the book’s fault. Actually, it’s a bonus!
As settlers, our family needed more scaffolding to parse the story. In our first read, the Earthquakes got bored and wandered off. The text and illustrations are packed with imagery of culture & cosmology of the Anishinaabe. The fact that we can’t parse all of it right away speaks to a failure of our education system, of our settler-centrism, of my failure to prepare them for these pages.
I ended up setting aside We Are Water Protectors for a couple weeks and grabbed more concrete books like Oil and Young Water Protectors to provide some background before trying again. After reading those two, the Earthquakes were able to tie concrete harm to the nebulous terror of the black snake in We Are Water Protectors.
Normally I get a little irritated when an author leaves the work of understanding, parsing, and explaining the significance of a story on the shoulders of a grown up. You know what I’m talking about – board books that look cool on a shelf, filled with elitist jargon so over the heads of most adults that it’s clear the author didn’t put effort into understanding the needs or abilities of a young reader. The industry is rampant with kidlit authors who don’t respect kids. Childism!
This, however, is different. We Are Water Protectors is written for children. This story is written for Indigenous children, and holds enough respect for us settlers that they demand we catch up. I LOVE THIS.
Climate Justice Must Be Indigenous-Led
The Earthquakes are of distant Anishinaabe heritage through their dad. Assimilation has ripped away any cultural ties or understanding of their Indigenous ancestors beyond names and factoids about their family’s indigeneity.
Stories like this give us an opportunity to talk about why they never inherited Anishinaabe stories and traditions, tying in the ways we settler-colonialists have actively forced Indigenous families through assimilation, sowed internalized racism, promoted tokenism of their own relations, and created an environment targeting Indigenous people with violence, poverty, and generational trauma.
We talk about how so many settler families like ours weaponize Indigenous ancestors against actually Indigenous people today.
We talk about how to acknowledge their connection to our shared history without speaking over Indigenous family who were actually raised within nations and traditions – and face targeting and erasure that we don’t.
We talk about how to decolonize by listening and following Indigenous leadership – which starts with the truth about what was lost, and what we settlers have taken.
We start with seeking situations where we are de-centered and disoriented, because only then can we start to understand how little we know – and the deep need to follow Indigenous leadership in the movement for climate justice.
A call for species interdependence
As we’ll learn from Kelsey Leonard (video below) – it’s time for some of us to re-think our relations to animals, plants, and the elements of our planet. It’s actually not that hard to mobilize ourselves into action if we begin to empathize and connect with what we’ve lost. As Lindstrom points out –
We fight for those who cannot fight for themselves: the winged ones, the crawling ones. The four-legged, the two-legged, the plants, trees, rivers, lakes, the earth. We are all related.
Watch As a Family: How Did We Lose Our Connection To Water?
I started writing this before the 2020 wildfires sparked after a months-long drought, ravaging through the west coast, blanketing families at risk of covid complications in smoke. We have billionaires building rockets to Mars, and yet people in Navajo Nation don’t have running water to was their hands through a pandemic. Oil corporations make millions exploiting loopholes while species go extinct due to oil spills.
Honestly – as wildfires rage in a drought, ending water abuse feels too big, and too late. But in the video below, Leonard shows us the path in moving forward. She gives us ways to protect the water that feels so obvious and doable. Could it be this simple to start dismantling colonist supremacy? To transform our relationship with our water, and each other?
I hate watching videos, but this one is really engaging and quite enjoyable to watch. But for those of you for whom videos are inaccessible: here are the main ways we can protect our water:
- Advocate for legal enforcement of water protection policies and drafting more water protection legislation.
- Advocate for legal ‘personhood‘ for rivers and bodies of water, the same way corporations get legal protection as individuals.
- Honor treats. (101-how-to-have-basic-dignity as a government).
- Appoint water guardians, take responsibility for the guardianship of your local water.
- Approach water protection holistically, through an intersectional justice framework.
- Dismantle and end the concept of exclusive water ownership.
How do settlers fit into this story?
What we get out of books like We Are Water Protectors is personal. As settlers starting to understand how our presence here continues the harm of colonization – we struggle to understand our role in decolonizing. If we can’t disconnect our feet from this land – how do we change the way our actions relate to it? How do we transform the harm we’ve done and follow indigenous leadership into returning to sustainability and interdependence?
What we got out of it was the missing link between the dry nonfiction and the stories of who we are as one people. The comfort for us, is seeing how the protagonist dons medicine wheel earrings, which represent (among many things) – all people across the world. We are reminded that we are all connected, and we settlers belong in this relationship with the water, too.
You might also like: Kids Books Dismantling The Myth of a ‘First Thanksgiving’
Parenting is Praxis:
These conversations have to go somewhere. We can’t just read a book for ‘awareness’ and consider our work done. Here are a few ways we transform our family discussions from We Are Water Protectors into action:
- Personal: As this book, and Kelsey Leonard speaks to in her TED talk: We need to continue transforming the way in which we value water and how we, and everyone we love, connects to it.
- Hyper-local: Defund oil companies: Continuously searching for ways to reduce our reliance on oil, including switching to an electric vehicle, using solar panels, searching for biodegradable and locally made non-plastic supplies, and buying using less stuff in general.
- In our communities: Follow Indigenous leadership: Decolonized resistance against inequity and exploitation (such as the water rights movement) must be interdependent and collaborative – which means this work is decentralized throughout the world and there is no one authoritative group who can provide a 1-2-3 checklist of what we should do. That’s why we must each connect with local Indigenous nations and activists within our community and follow their lead in decolonizing. For our local action, we follow the lead of the Mashpee Wampanoag, the Ponkapoag Massachusett Tribe & UAINE. In widening my aperture for Indigenous cultural kidlit, I defer to American Indians In Children’s Literature and Des Colores.
Because Indigenous communities are, like all targeted groups, non-monolithic, this also means continuing to search for and listen to a wide variety of Indigenous sources – particularly those who are multiply-marginalized.
- In our government: Write, call, and raise hell with elected officials against both local and national energy fossil fuel consumption and for greater restrictions and oversight (or outright bans) on environmentally destructive energy practices. Demand they honor treaties and land protection restrictions.
- National and global: Give back and financial contributions to youth-led & inter-generational indigenous groups, such as Seeding Sovereignty and the International Indigenous Youth Council. Also supporting clean water access for families through the Navajo Water Project.
You might also like: Protecting The Water In Your Own Backyard with ‘Luz Makes A Splash’
This is your go-to book for…
- Validating the experiences and resiliency of Indigenous kids.
- Keeping kids engaged and motivated to resist climate devastation, colonization, and corporate exploitation.
- Motivating kids of Anishinaabe heritage to learn more about lost cultural ties and stories.
- Breaking myths that Indigenous people were wiped out during the genocide of manifest destiny.
You might also like: Indigenous Peoples’ Day Family Action Toolkit
We read this in rotation along with…
This isn’t a one-and-done conversation. We need to bring this conversation back to kids from multiple angles. Here are a few more books continue this conversation.
- My Wounded Island – Similarly tied into story and metaphor, this story gives kids a clear understanding of the impact of environmental devastation on Indigenous people right now.
- Oil – After Deb Reese of AICL succinctly chastised the Winters for erasing and misrepresenting Indigenous people from their 2017 book on the atomic bomb, The Secret Project. Three years later, note the repeated assertion on the present-day Indigenous people in the Winters’ 2020 book, ‘Oil.’ But does it go far enough to reference a generalized and ultimately faceless pan-‘Native people,’ (as opposed to the many specific nations impacted)? We get a strong sense of injustice given the impact of the oil industry on animals – not so much on the Indigenous people living interdependent with those lands and animals. That said – while We Are Water Protectors retains symbolism that kids will need lived experience (or lots of research) to unpack, Oil creates a framework for literal-minded kids who have a hard time envisioning an oil pipeline envisioned as a giant Black snake. The Earthquakes had a hard time parsing the metaphor and symbolism in We Are Water Protectors. It was only after we read Oil, followed by We Are Water Protectors, did the Earthquakes fully comprehend the danger of the black snake / oil pipeline.
- Fry Bread & The People Shall Continue – Affirming the refrain ‘We are still here’
- The Wedding Portrait – Stories of direct action for those who strive to be good ancestors.
- Luz Sees The Light – A direct, literal story on the immediate impact of unsustainable oil consumption within urban and suburban neighborhoods, and Luz Makes a Splash, on the importance of protecting and conserving local water. This story, however, erases the role of Indigenous water protectors who have led and maintain the bulk of the work.
- Young Water Protectors – An #OwnVoices story by Aslan Tudor, providing photographs and a short recounting of his time protesting at the Dakota Access Pipeline with Standing Rock.
- The Water Princess – #OwnVoices story but Georgie Badiel of Burkina Faso, of the journey to collect and clean polluted, inaccessible water.
- Check out my ever-updating list of kids books about intersectional climate justice on Bookshop.
You might also like: Why Young Activists Depend On The Fight For Elder Rights
Is this #OwnVoices?
Oh, you betcha!
Author: Carole Lindstrom (she/her), Anishinaabe/Métis, tribally enrolled with the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe.
Illustrator: Michaela Goade (she/her), of Tlingit descent and tribally enrolled with the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
How we calculate the overall awesomeness score of books.
Transparency & Cahoots!
I borrowed a copy of We Are Water Protectors from our local library, (which we support with donations). If you don’t have access to a library, learn how to support your local indie bookstore on Bookshop.
Stay Curious, Stand Brave, and Support Indigenous-Led Climate Justice
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