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shirley johnSaugeen First Nation Elder Shirley John November 20 on the shores of the Sauble River.

Hub Staff

While Saugeen First Nation Elder Shirley John doesn’t call herself a water protector per se, she said it’s part of what she does. “I pray for the water all the time, every day,” she said. “I guess it’s part of protecting the water in some sense, I’m about praying for the water.”

We met up with Shirley last November at Sauble Falls. She introduced herself as Strong White Buffalo Woman. “The other name I walk with, She Who Sees Vision of Wisdom,” she said. “I’m Ojibway Mohawk from Saugeen First Nation, my clan is the Loon Clan, my helper is the Turtle and I have the spirit of the Grizzly Bear. I give thanks today for coming here to do the water talk and to discuss the water as it is.”

Not a day goes by where Shirley doesn’t go to water somewhere, whether it be on the shores of Lake Huron, or during a trip into Saugeen Shores or Owen Sound. “I will offer my tobacco, pray for that water, for all nations,” she said, adding that what she does is inclusive. “We invite everyone into that circle because we’re already in the circle so when I pray it’s for everyone, it’s not only for my people,” she said.

“Because this water travels,” Shirley added, gesturing to the Sauble River as it made its way to Lake Huron. “This is flowing really fast and it’s going to meet other bodies of water along the way. Rivers, streams, any little bit of water that’s trickling, as long as it’s moving... you put your tobacco down and ask for those prayers that we have good water for the next generation to come and also for those little ones that are not here yet.”

Like the water, Shirley too has travelled great distances. “From Newfoundland to BC and all those places in between. I’ve gone to England, I’ve gone to Hawaii, I’ve gone to the United States,” she said. “Many places I’ve been doing this, praying for the water, I’ll take my little sacred bundles with me, leave it there,” she said.

Shirley took part in a Saugeen Ojibway Nation Water Walk last summer. When we met in November she had with her a sweater mapping the route the walkers had taken.

“We started off in Neyaashiingamiing, which is Cape Croker, because it’s a sacred place, you have to have special permission to go there,” she said. From Neyaashiingamiing, the walkers went from Wiarton to Owen Sound, down to Collingwood, then to Arthur, across to Goderich and back up the coast through Kincardine, Saugeen Shores, Sauble Beach, Tobermory, before heading back to Neyaashiingamiing. The journey took nearly two weeks.

Shirley has also walked with Grandmother Josephine Mandamin on two of her Water Walks.

“The feeling that a person gets, for myself, walking the spiritual journey of water walking, there’s times you don’t even get tired, there’s times you feel like you’re walking on top of the ground, it just moves you because the one up there is helping you to be where you are, praying for the water and offering those prayers,” she said. “It’s wonderful when you have that connection,” she added.

Shirley said the different places she goes, the different nations she comes across all do similar things for the water. “It’s just a little bit different, that’s all, but they’re praying for the same thing as we are, they’re praying for the goodness of the water, that we’ll have healthy water in the days ahead and the years and months, and for the next generation that’s coming,” she said.

“Makes you wonder what’s going to happen in the next seven years,” Shirley added. “Because the way the water is going, the way the environment is going... it’s part of what’s happening with the climate change, that’s part of it, people need to wake up, if you’re not waking up well the Mother Earth and everything else is going to be destroyed,” she said.

“You’re wondering how come we’re getting floods, how come our buildings are being destroyed, how come we’re having fires, well you’re not listening, as people we’re too busy enjoying life, well yeah, that’s good to do too, enjoy life, but you know we still have to have that moment that we have to be in prayer and give thanks for all that has been given to us.”

Shirley said we’re at a crucial time right now and we need to do this work. “Because things are getting really heavy in this world and the water is expensive, we pay a lot for water where we shouldn’t have to pay for the water,” she said. “We abuse the water in many ways and it shouldn’t be, everybody should be educated in that way.”

From teaching our children not to litter and throw things into the water to being mindful of Mother Earth and not to abuse and destroy her. “We teach the children and sometimes the children will teach us,” Shirley said. “Sometimes they’re so far ahead of us that they have to teach us, are we listening as adults, as aunties and uncles and grandmas and grandpas, are we listening to those little ones,” she asked.

“We have to pay attention to them because they are very knowledgeable, those little ones, they will teach you what they need to do,” she said. “It’s so easy for them to come here and offer their tobacco and their prayers to the water because it’s already in them but we as adults have gotten away from that because things are moving so fast.”

Shirley said finding ways to slow down is important and adds that there are many ways to pray for the water. “Sometimes you don’t have to say much,” she said. “Sometimes we don’t have [tobacco], we just go near the water and offer thanks to the water,” she added but it helped to say it out loud.

Shirley also suggested placing a glass of water in the east window at home. “As long as the morning sun comes towards it you’ve got your water blessing for the day and you take a sip of that,” she said. “Even your family, you can just pick it up and sprinkle it where they’re going to sit, where they’re going to eat, just sprinkle it there and ask for those blessings,” she said.

In 2016 Shirley was awarded the YMCA Peace Medal. Standing for Participation, Empathy, Advocacy, Community and Empowerment, the award celebrates the presence of peace in our communities.

“It’s an every day life, to pass that peace, joy and love no matter where you go, no matter who you come across, it doesn’t matter, we all need help,” she said.

Before we went our separate ways, Shirley sang the Water Song in the four directions and said a prayer for the water.

waterWhen we met with Shirley John she had with her a shirt that mapped the Water Walk she took part in during the summer of 2017. At the bottom is a medicine wheel with red, yellow, black and white, representing all nations, a green tobacco tie that represents Mother Earth, a blue tobacco tie that represents the water and a red tobacco tie that she walked with.

songShirley John sings the Water Song to the four directions.