As a child in upstate New York, Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member Barbara Wall, Ph.D., spent her time in and around the water. Her Nishnabe name, Moktthewenkwe, relates to water. Moktthewen is “water emerging from the ground or a spring.”
“I have so many connections with springs and ceremony and specific springs that it just kind of all came together as my passion,” she said. “Also, I grew up canoeing. I was a competitive swimmer when I was younger. I was always in or on water as a young person.”
Wall now works as an assistant professor in the Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences Program at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada. In the fall of 2022, she also began serving as the acting director of studies for the doctoral program as part of the Chanie Wenjack School for Indigenous Studies — the same program from which she received her doctorate in May 2022.
Her research focuses on water, specifically the Great Lakes region, which is Potawatomi homeland. Wall remembers visiting the southern shore of Lake Superior for the first time as an undergraduate student at Michigan Technological University in the late 1970s.
“Going there and being on that land and around that water was a deep emotional experience of returning home — something that I hadn’t experienced before. I believe that emotional response emphasizes my connection and our connection as Potawatomi people to the Great Lakes,” she said.
After working in California following her time in Michigan, Wall made her way to Canada. She feels her work from the last decade “is what I’ve been supposed to be doing all along.”
“From the beginning of our existence as Potawatomi people, we’ve been water people. We are canoe people. And that water has always provided everything that we need and everything that all of creation, all of the other-than-human beings, need,” Wall said.
She focused on reclaiming and remembering Potawatomi women’s water knowledges and practices for her doctoral research. Wall talked to tribal members from the Potawatomi communities across the United States and Canada about their ceremonial and everyday practices regarding what many refer to as the Earth’s most precious natural resource. She learned Potawatomi-specific ways to gather water from lakes, rivers, springs that “honor the way the water is moving.”
“It really opens your mind to think about if there’s deep intention involved in gathering water, what about other things?’ It opens up your heart and your spirit to think about this and to realize how knowledgeable, strong and truly amazing our ancestors must have been,” she said.
During the 2022 Potawatomi Gathering, Wall led a session about her research to connect Potawatomi members throughout Turtle Island with their traditional beliefs about water. As more and more participants arrived, the class moved from a conference room to an auditorium. After sharing a digital story, song, and a bit about Potawatomi water practices, Wall began a talking circle and invited everyone to discuss their experiences with water. It was her first presentation to tribal members on the subject.
“People seemed to really enjoy it and to have a chance to not only listen but to share their own connection with water. I think we all uplifted each other in talking about that,” she said.
As a professor, Wall takes a different approach with her students. One of her undergraduate classes, Foundations in Indigenous Environmental Studies and Sciences, focuses on the philosophies of Indigenous and western knowledges, and applies collaboration between these knowledge systems to specific current environmental challenges. The course brings together various courses of study — computer science, business, mathematics, psychology, medicine and more.
“As an instructor, it is hard to make things relevant to each one of those disciplines, and that’s where the challenge comes in. But having the students understand that, ‘Oh, even though I’m a biologist, I can learn from a psychologist, and we can put our heads together and combine our skills and our knowledge,’ fosters a spirit of collaboration,” Wall said.
She describes the current generation of undergraduate students as “outspoken and brilliant,” and their persistence and innovation give her hope in a time when climate change threatens the future of water.
In Nishnabe culture, men light and tend to the fire, and women protect and carry the water. Kwek (women) have a sacred duty to hold water ceremonies and speak for the water. Wall dedicated a significant portion of her dissertation research to studying this special relationship between women and water.
“That’s (the relationship) related to our physicality: when we are given that gift of being able to carry new life within our bodies, our babies are surrounded by water and contained in a water vessel — our wombs. In that case, we’re truly and literally, water carriers. And that’s the connection because water is life and because, as female-bodied human beings, we’re the only door that new human life can come through,” she said.
Wall recognizes water as life itself, not only for humans but for all living things on the planet and not just as a resource but a living being that upholds and sustains all of creation. As climate change makes droughts more intense and weather more extreme, the absence or abundance of water in any one place at a particular time shows its power.
“All of the water that we have right now on Earth is all the water that we’ll ever really have. We can only use fresh water, and fresh water is just a minor percentage of the water that exists on the Earth. We all need to protect it. We need to honor her and understand her as a living being and as a spirit that we need to live in relationship with,” Wall said.
More than a decade ago, a ceremony inspired Wall to write a poem about grandmothers literally and metaphorically holding up the Earth. She saw a publisher’s call for essays and creative writing about grandmothers and their role as elders in various communities and cultures for a collection, Grandmothers and Grandmothering: Creative and Critical Contemplations in Honour of our Women Elders.
“I’d never had an essay published or written an essay outside of an academic context before. I was very honored to research and be able to learn about our roles as Potawatomi or Indigenous grandmothers and then make that connection to grandmothers upholding community, upholding family, and upholding the land and the water that we live on,” she said. The essay combines creative writing, story-telling and Wall’s academic research.
Wall considers those opportunities a reminder of her life of abundance since childhood, only possible because of the sacrifices of our Potawatomi ancestors and women before her. She works to pass on the knowledge gifted to her to better the world through the next generations.
“I want to acknowledge my privilege of education and encourage others to take advantage of the gifts and the privileges that are put in your path, to take that and use it in a way to really help our people and to help all of creation and all of life,” Wall said.
The first edition of Grandmothers and Grandmothering came out in October 2021 and featured her piece, Nokmisag: Bemnigying. Find the book on Amazon at cpn.news/grandmothers.