Posted by: MC | August 4, 2013

Notes from Mayo – “My water’s talking to your water.”


Harold Gattensby lives at the headwaters of southern lakes in Yukon Territory, Canada.  He is one of the tribal leaders attending the summit here in Mayo, Yukon.

The leaders are from the 72 member tribes composing an alliance that was established a few days before Christmas 1997 in Galena, Alaska — at 40 below freezing.  The alliance brings into collaboration Alaska Tribes and Canada First Nations in the Yukon River Basin for the purpose of identifying indigenous water rights and establishing minimum water quality standards.  Back 16 years ago in Galena the leaders brought the profound concerns of their communities with the face that fish were dying.  Many communities had also found pockets of toxins from mining and military activity and had come to see the implications of sewage dumping.  The gathered leadership decided to initiate the Yukon River Intertribal Watershed Council (YRITWC) to support their collaboration in complete dedication to returning and maintaining original quality, quantity and rate of flow to the Yukon River.

“In 50 years, we’ll drink from the Yukon.”  That has been the YRITWC leaders’ pledge to each other.  Today the gathering of these heads of Nations agreed to endorse a shared Water Quality Plan based in the assertion of their aboriginal rights to be stewards of the land, the water, the fish, wildlife, roots and berries.  These go hand-in-hand with their rights to pass clean water on to their children and grandchildren who in turn will act in the interests of the seven generations following them.

Yesterday, on a remarkably hot day in Mayo (estimates in the low 90s with a report from one home thermometer of 102), Harold Gattensby offered a water ceremony.  In comforting and grounding counterbalance to all the talk of policy and science, Harold spoke directly.  His instruction – “Recognize your shared identity, your kinship with one another and with the water.”  Here are some of the things he said.

“We’re going to take time now to become human together.  We are going to give back to the water.  The water is our relative and through it we’re all related.”  Harold stood in front of the gathering, over 6 feet tall, in jeans and a T-shirt.  He spoke of his wife and 12 kids.  He spoke of how there must be a 13th kid, but he just can’t find it – the one named “not me” who his children always blame for anything that gets broken or misplaced or otherwise compromised around the house.

Harold looked around to the 200 faces under the sweeping ceiling of the large open air tent.  He asked who was from farthest away.  “I’ve heard Detroit.”  Someone said, “there’s a volunteer from Germany.”  His gaze roved to a woman from the UK.  “You’re the one,” he said and invited her up to stand with him.

He asked all the rest of us to look at the two of them – him from northern Yukon, her from England.  “We’re both 80% water,” he said.  “Standing here in front of you together, each of us, 80% water. And do you know how old water is?  It’s four and a half billion years old.”  Harold raised both of his arms high in the air.  Now he was 9 feet tall. “That means 80% of every one of us is 4 and a half billion years old,” he said from all that height.  “And that water is identical in every single person.”

He looked at the British woman and said, “You and I have been breathing the same air for a few days, now.  We’ve been eating the same food.  Pretty soon we could be even more identical.”  A Yukon-sized dragonfly buzzed through the room.  “That dragon fly, too, and the trees – 80% water.  That means my water’s talking to your water and that fact is not just cool it’s universal law.  It means we have to take very good care of the water.  The water is us.  It’s all our relatives.”

Harold smiled at his “British relative” and said she could go back to her seat if she’d like.  She did and he went on to speak of stewardship describing it as the responsibility we have to ourselves and to what we share with all other beings – The responsibility we have to the water to our kinship.  Like he says – it’s not just cool.  It’s bottom line.  “Stewardship only goes away when it’s ignored,” he said. Eventually it gets hard not to see the cost in the land and water, in the fish and wildlife – all sources of sustenance and health for so many of the people of the Yukon River.

And this is true for all people.  As Harold Gattensby said, “we are all made up of water.  We serve our relatives, all people and all beings by taking care of water.”

With that, he invited us outside.  We all stood in a huge circle.  There were songs and statements, there were ceremonial gifts given by each person in the circle and there was a walk – all of us together –together down to the water of the Mayo River, a tributary to the Yukon.  The ceremony echoed the practices and traditions of Harold’s ancestors for as far back as time goes.  He welcomed us all as his relatives.

You are related, too.



NOTE:  I’ll write more on the Summit next week from Portland.  There is so much for us all to be learning from the Yukon River Basin leaders.  We all have water rights and we all have water responsibilities.  There is great opportunity in that.  There is listening, learning and acting in stewardship to be done.


  1. […] Hudson asks that question in her interview on fracking (last week’s blog).  Harold Gattensby asks that question when he lifts his voice and arms calling us all to our stewardship and into our […]

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