The Land Back movement has called for global solidarity to address the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories. The alienation of Indigenous Peoples from Water has largely been absent from this call to action. However, there is a growing consensus among Indigenous Water Protectors who assert that there cannot be Land Back without Water Back.

In a collaborative response to this emerging movement, Dr. Kelsey Leonard, professor in the Faculty of Environment and Canada Research Chair, with an international group of Indigenous researchers have offered a definition of Water Back for Water research.  

Kelsey Leonard

Kelsey Leonard
> Professor, Faculty of Environment
> Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Waters, Climate and Sustainability
> Water Institute and Waterloo Climate Institute member

For the Indigenous author team, for communities, and within the primarily English-language, Indigenous-oriented and -produced research, Water Back means the return of Water and kin to Indigenous governance in a way that empowers the resurgent Indigenous Water relationships that are integral to Indigenous cultural, biological, spiritual and political sovereignty; this includes cosmogony, ceremony, access, law and policies. Water Back in this way is allowing Water to rematriate relationships with Indigenous Peoples, the Lands that are nourished by Water, and the more-than-human relatives that live within and care for Water. Water Back is the restoration of humanity’s responsibility to care for Water and the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ inherent relationships, connections, rights and responsibilities to Water.

“The definition advances a holistic conceptualization, offering an important framework centring Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and being as a foundation for advancing Indigenous Water research,” said Dr. Leonard. “The framework also represents a collective of Indigenous Water researchers restorying how Indigenous Water research relationships are created or rematriated for the protection of the Water, the planet and future generations.”
Water Back.

Water Back. Conceptualizations of the different intersecting elements of Water Back movements across the six core Water themes present in the literature. While different Water Back movements may focus on only a few of the elements in the figure, all are crucial for understanding the movement as a whole. Source: Author-created figure illustrated by Hawlii Pichette.

This new definition emerges from a comprehensive review of Indigenous Water literature. The review presents a first of its kind Indigenous Literature Review methodology and analyzes over 419 published journal articles, government reports and official documents in identifying Water Back themes such as cosmology and governance, colonialism, justice, responsibilities and rights, health, and climate change. Their unique approach grows the scholarly movement to empower Indigenous research methods. It has drawn international attention from water scientists foregrounding Indigenous intergenerational knowledge of weather, Water, and Land as being crucial to both the understanding of historical climate changes and the shaping of healthy future lifeways.
Another significant outcome of the work was recognition that a database specifically dedicated to Indigenous Water research literature was absent. In response, the team made the decision to create and maintain a comprehensive database of the literature they reviewed. The database is now accessible for everyone to use and, starting in the fall of 2023, contributions will be welcomed from individuals or communities globally.
“There has never been one central space where we could access all these important resources,” said Dr. Leonard. “We recognize the importance of collective engagement and shared responsibility in building a living reflection of our relationship with, and commitment to, Indigenous Water research sovereignty. We know this database can fulfill that need.”
The review, Water Back: A Review Centering Rematriation and Indigenous Water Research Sovereignty, is published in the journal Water Alternatives. The research collaborative included Dominique David-Chavez, Deondre Smiles, Lydia Jennings, Rosanna ʻAnolani Alegado, Lani Tsinnajinnie, Joshua Manitowabi, Rachel Arsenault, Rene L. Begay, Aurora Kagawa-Viviani, Dawn D. Davis, Vincent (Billy) van Uitregt, Hawlii Pichette, Max Liboiron, Bradley Moggridge, Stephanie Russo Carroll, Ranalda L. Tsosie and Andrea Gomez.

*Water and Land are capitalized in recognition that they are living entities.