Valuing water for our shared sustainable future

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Canada Research Chair Kelsey Leonard puts Indigenous knowledge at the forefront of environmental justice Today the planet is straining under the weight of human development and governments and institutions are searching for innovative answers to protect our planet.

Thanks to efforts by researchers like Kelsey Leonard, who joined the Faculty of Environment in 2020, we’re exploring and valuing essential environmental knowledge long ignored by non-Indigenous decision-makers.

Indigenous Peoples have vast knowledge systems and scientific traditions that can work alongside western scientific methods. With global warming now raising sea levels, Leonard’s position as Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Waters, Climate and Sustainability, will help her explore ways of facilitating Indigenous knowledge to restore our threatened oceans, lakes and rivers while assuring Indigenous sovereignty.

For those unsure of what exactly this entails, Leonard’s TED Talk, Why lakes and rivers should have the same rights as humans (viewed by more than 3 million people), explores how reforming our legal system can be a first step to protecting bodies of water and fundamentally transforming how we value this vital living entity.

"A big part of who I am as a scholar and a scientist is very much informed by the identity of being a water person and a person from the shore," says Leonard who is a citizen of Shinnecock Indian Nation located on what’s commonly known as Long Island, New York.  

The territory of the Shinnecock Nation sits on a peninsula jutting out into Shinnecock Bay and shares a barrier island protecting them from the Atlantic Ocean. The people of the Shinnecock Nation are skilled fishers and were traditionally whalers.  

"We are also known for being wampum makers and harvesting and carving wampum used to form many treaties and we continue to cultivate the cultural practice and artistry," she says.

Co-mobilization of Indigenous and western science

Like many coastal communities along the Atlantic seashore of the United States and Canada, the Shinnecock Nation, was severely impacted by Superstorm Sandy in 2012. At the time Leonard was beginning her journey towards a law degree -- which she earned in 2015 -- in an effort to address many of the structural injustices embedded within the law. Such laws promote environmental racism and disproportionate climate impacts for Indigenous Peoples -- including the Shinnecock -- as extreme climate events continue to increase.  

"My research centers around Indigenous water justice, including identifying pathways for Indigenous conservation practices to inform international water policy," says Leonard who recently contributed her expertise to the development of the U.S. Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5).

Leonard represents the Shinnecock Indian Nation as a steering committee member of the Mid-Atlantic Committee of the Ocean charged with the protection and restoration of America’s ocean and coasts. Her scientific and policy background led to her expert testimony on ocean-based climate solutions before the U.S. Congress as America aims to correct course and regain its prominence as a global climate leader.  

"Indigenous Peoples are on the front lines of many of the world’s water security crises. The water challenges and innovations present in our communities can offer best practices for adaptation and resiliency for other communities or societies facing similar water injustices," she says.   

Indigenous Peoples have been excluded from international water management because of an intellectual inherited legacy of colonialism that fails to acknowledge Indigenous experience and expertise.  

It’s something Leonard explores in her most recent report, Turtle Island (North America) Indigenous Higher Education Institutions and Environmental Sustainability Education. In it she applies a critical lens to the environmental and sustainability programs of the 38 Tribal Colleges and Universities in the United States and 26 Indigenous post-secondary institutions in Canada.

"Knowledge translation for co-mobilization of Indigenous and western science to address climate change is one of the greatest obstacles facing contemporary transboundary water governance," she says. "In the context of the Great Lakes, pluralistic and co-existing worldviews often conflict, and shared paths for adaptive solutions are missed. For example, the language used by some western scientists and institutions in developing water governance policy in response to invasive species in the Great Lakes and elsewhere tends to be highly combative, militarized and violent. Policy and processes that emphasize eradication and hard-solutions over nature-based solutions tend to be ill-received by Indigenous Peoples and governments." 

Using Indigenous knowledge for global water challenges 

What Leonard finds fascinating, and counter-intuitive to many non-Indigenous researchers, is that maybe we just haven’t found the purpose of invasive species or the process by which they have now come to exist in this part of the world.  

"In the context of my transboundary research in the region, Indigenous environmental leaders from the Great Lakes often shared with me the belief that every living entity on the planet has a purpose and as a human being our goal is to understand these relationships, roles and responsibilities to that other entity." 

Though her work has brought her from New York to the Grand River valley (or Kenhionhata:tie as it’s known by the Mohawk), Leonard’s focus on water justice remains local as well as global, and her advocacy unwavering.   

"Indigenous science is built from vast knowledge systems that have thrived for millennia in stewardship of Turtle Island and should be the foundation of our shared sustainable future."

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