Learning Lessons from the Onewater

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This is the eleventh post in a series on water pedagogies edited by Sritama Chatterjee.


Everyone who has an association with the river, whether Indigenous or not, talks about how important it is. It is the River of Life.

Water is a great teacher. It shows how you can change form to be in flow or frozen or evaporate into the air. Water connects and divides simultaneously, reminding us that through its flows we are all the same, human and more than human.

As an artist and researcher, I have worked closely with water for over a decade. It is both a subject and an active collaborator in my work. The aim of this essay is to explore how rivers act as collaborators and active agents in water pedagogy. As part of this perspective of waterways as collaborators, I will also explore how the contribution of First Nations People as custodians facilitates the personification of water. This essay also puts into context an ongoing engagement with the subject of water and its connection to culture, place, and wellbeing of human and non-human actors and ecologies. My ongoing project Words for Water weaves together these elements as a pathway for understanding and learning from the many different pieces of knowledge of water, especially the deep time knowledge that is embedded in the culture of Indigenous peoples.

This exploration of water has brought many other collaborations and opportunities to share knowledge across disciplines and geographies. One of the ongoing concepts in this work is the notion of the “onewater.” The onewater tells the story of how the river journeys from the mountain to the sea and that the well-being of the water is integral to all life. Onewater also acknowledges the sentience of water, that it is alive and takes many forms depending on the conditions. Cold water becomes solid, hot water turns to steam, fast running water can take everything in its path, and slow dripping water can reshape boulders over time. For some cultures, rivers and seas are also our ancestors, our teacher, and connector to deep time and the world of lore and law.

In 2021, these concerns manifested as a collaborative virtual education program Meeting of the Waters: Locative Media Oceania (LMO) organized by Treecreate and Supercluster, hosted and funded by the Applied Centre of Water Science at the University of Canberra. Over 2.5 weeks a range of First Nations knowledge custodians, scientists, and artists shared and discussed their thoughts on the water in many different contexts – from understanding traditional knowledge to legal and policy aspects of water management and the stories water holds. Over this time an incredible amount of knowledge was shared with the group, much more than what can be described in one article.

One theme which is critical to the ongoing care and management of waterways is the work happening on establishing “Rights of Nature” as a legal framework where First Nations peoples are recognized as having an integral connection to the waters as custodians. For example, the Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River Claims Settlement) Act 2017 passed in Aotearoa New Zealand in outlines the personhood of the Whanganui River and the caretaking role of the iwi that have looked after the awa (river) for than a millenia.

Bodies of water – the importance of custodianship

One of the panels at LMO focused specifically on a critical body of water in Australia – the Murray Darling Basin (MDB). In this session four First Nations representatives Brendan Kennedy, Lee Joachim, Nola Turner Jensen, and Bruce Shillingsworth shared their perspectives on cultural water values and issues facing the MDB.

This conversation covered a lot of issues including the Indigenous context and relationship to this water body and how communities worked together. One of the big learnings I have encountered working with First Nations peoples from across the MDB is how the water has songlines and stories which identify the river system as a human body. The Moira and Barmah lakes in Yorta Yorta Country are the kidneys, and the Coorong are the bowels. The Yorta Yorta people say “We are the river and the river is we,” which clearly connects the relationship between the waterway and its creatures (including humans). One work that explored connection was “Way of the Turtle” a collaboration with Yorta Yorta researcher Lee Joachim and myself, initiated in 2014. One example of our work across knowledges is a video documentation of a project developed as part of the Water, Peace, Power (WPP) residency and exhibition in 2016.

The sound element of the work presented vocals of Parihaka descendant Jo Tito and Yorta Yorta Elder Sharon Atkinson, combining Māori, Yorta Yorta, and English languages and stories. This project was a prototype for a larger work resulting from ongoing community engagement. At WPP Lee and Tracey collaborated with Nigel Helyer, Martin Drury, Andrew Hornblow, and Allan Giddy to create the work. In many ways, the Meeting of the Waters was emblematic of this goal.

On a legal and political level, the First Nations peoples have long been excluded from the decisions made around water management. Our conversation at the Meeting of the Waters focused on the importance of bringing the knowledge and voices of the traditional custodians into dialogue with the legislators.

Water is not only a passive subject to be explored and researched, but water is an active collaborator in the stories it tells. Nature having agency is now an area that is increasingly being recognized in legislation, where nature is given ‘rights.’ One example is the Te Awa Tupua Whanganui River Claims Settlement Bill, 2017. This legislation was widely reported in New Zealand and overseas for conferring a legal personality on the Whanganui River. A legal person is an entity that has the same rights and responsibilities as a human being. The move reflects Whanganui iwi’s (First Nations) unique ancestral relationship with the river. Iwi who lived along the river not only relied on it as an essential food source but also held a deep spiritual connection with it.

In Australia, similar work is happening about a number of rivers, in particular the role of rivers as active collaborators. For example, the Mardoowarra (Fitzroy River) of the northwest region of Australia was also included as a co-author in a paper exploring its story and rights as a living entity, titled Living Waters, Law First: Nyikina and Mangala water governance in the Kimberley, Western Australia. The Living Waters, Law First is a cultural governance framework for water based on a policy position developed by the Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation (WAC) in Western Australia. The work of Anne Poelina as a traditional custodian has made this story and the issues surrounding the care of this river resonant in terms of the need to consider the river as an agent with personhood that needs to be respected.

Water connects life, water is life and her spirit is part of all life that belongs to her…

Many thousands of years ago, water was our first mirror, its calm surface reflecting our world to us. Just like that calm water, my reflections are inspired by the many stories shared across time and space. I do not own them but yet they are part of me, they are part of my belonging in the world. These days I am living on the Gubbi Gubbi lands on which I was born and life has come full circle. The waters of these places run in my blood; they are part of my DNA. This awareness of water as a collaborator can open many possibilities for thinking about water pedagogy in different ways.


Feature image: Sunset over Pumicestone Passage, Yarun (Bribie Island). Photo by the author.
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Dr Tracey M Benson is an interdisciplinary artist and research based in Yarun, Australia

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