The Peoples of the World Foundation

Education for and about Indigenous Peoples

Op-Ed April, 2017: Before The Storm
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

It is no coincidence that water features prominently in literature. Ever since we started telling stories, water has played varying roles. We find water in abundance in indigenous folklore. Commonly, such folklore tells of mythical creatures that live in water. For example, in parts of Africa, jengu and mami wata are spirits that mediate between the human and supernatural worlds. In some Celtic cultures, roanes (or selkies) are seals that become human when they shed their skin and leave the water. The wonderful 1995 film The Secret of Roan Inish tells their story. In indigenous Australia, bunyip are creatures that eat humans. In North America, the Lakota people believe in the water snake, uncegila.

In most countries today businesses have their own legal status as if they were human. Yet they are not mythical. Indeed they are real enough to be sometimes responsible for polluting some waters so much that even the creatures of antiquity would no longer want to live in them.

Probably the reason why water is such a large part of our storytelling history is that almost all human settlements were originally established close to some water source. They had to be since life cannot survive without it. After centuries of indigenous people protecting their water we finally seem to be awakening to the importance of doing the same. A few days ago we celebrated World Water Day with the premiere of Water Is Life.

Water continues to be important to indigenous people not just as a life giver but also for the spirituality and the sense of community it represents. In eastern Burma (Myanmar) I was in a small Shan village. The river running through it was pretty much the center of activity in the village. It served as a place to bathe (the village has no running water in its houses); it served as a place to wash clothes and household utensils; it served as a meeting place to share news and gossip; and, although I didn't witness it, I was told it serves as a site for rituals.

Reading about this Shan village, you may ask why it would be a business rather than the river that has legal status. Your question would be valid. Until last month you might have asked the same question about three rivers: The Whanganui in New Zealand and the Ganges and Yamuna in India. Now you know the answer: those rivers do have legal status.

It is also no coincidence that these three rivers last month became the first ever to be granted legal status: they have been significant to the indigenous populations of New Zealand and India for thousands of years. The legal precedents are more than symbolic. The rivers are now legally protected from pollution and funding has been appropriated to clean the past pollution they have suffered. We can only hope that this progress represents the calm before the storm.

The Shan are featured in our documentary, Peoples of the World: Southeast Asia.

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