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  • Writer's pictureDan Robinson

Water and an Expansive Spirit - a conversation with Holly Bird

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

“Most people are good people and are simply trying to live comfortably,” Holly Bird said, “raise their children or their families, and trying to work. And we see that all over the world actually. And it's not anything surprising or especially extraordinary. It's just kind of like, generally, this is how it is.”

We are in this together, as one community, and as an Indigenous woman, that spirit of community extends beyond just humans, according to Bird. “One of the basic tenets of Indigenous spirituality is our acknowledgement of the spirit of all things around us, not just ourselves. We acknowledge that the Creator made everything and in everything, there is a spirit of some kind.”

Bird, who is an attorney and a judge, talked about how that is also the understanding that Indigenous people have about water as well. “When we talk about recognizing that spirit of water, working with that spirit of water as a spiritual connection, that's recognizing the sacredness of everything, and that we're all part of that, so it's really important that we recognize that we're not separate from it. One of the things I always like to say to people who kind of have a mindset,” she said, “and some of it is faith based, that they are separate from the earth in a way, like they are stewards of the Earth, owners of the earth rather than interconnected with the earth. There's a separation of us from the animals so to speak. And our people think that's insane, because we are so directly connected.”

Lake Michigan Dunes (photo by Dan Robinson)

An Expansive Spirit

That expansive spirit, as I like to think of it, comes naturally to Bird, as she’s had experiences from a wide variety of influences. She is descended from the San Felipe Pueblo/Yaqui/Apache tribes and the English Isles. She has a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts and Anthropology, as well as her law degree, having studied in both the U.S. and Europe.

Those varied and diverse experiences have prepared her well for a variety of roles she’s fulfilled, all with that expansive spirit of community. Just a few of those roles include currently serving as a Supreme Court Justice for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and previously as a judge for the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. She’s also worked with adults and youth, including now as the co-director of Title Track, a Michigan nonprofit dedicated to clean water, racial equity, and youth empowerment.

On top of all that, she played a central role in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but I’ll save that particular part of her story for the next post.

For now, I want you to get to know Bird (be sure to watch her interview below) and the importance of water to her.

"We Know How Precious It Is"

“As an indigenous woman, it is part of our responsibility and our role to help care for that, for the water and our relationship with the water. And so I take that responsibility very seriously. And that's, that's something that I'm just born with by virtue of gender,” Bird said. “We're the ones that create life. We have sort of that direct connection with the creation spirit. And so much of our lives are invested in the giving and taking of water, whether it's through the birthing process, where we're all bathing our young ones in the water of our wombs, to gathering water, to cooking with water, bathing with water, I mean, all of it. We know how precious it is, and how much we use it. Quite often, we're also the nurturers of gardens or of farms. And so, if anybody has ever grown up in an area where water is either rationed, or is subject to droughts or famines, we know it's absolutely necessary for life.”

Bird added that, “growing up on the Great Lakes, obviously, has influenced that as well.” We’re privileged to be living in an area of such abundant water, she added. “I've been so fortunate to live on some of the world's largest areas of freshwater in the world, and I never take it for granted. It's so beautiful, and I know how rare that is.”

“I've been to other places in the world where even some of my traditional people are from, where it's really dry and dusty, and the rivers that flow through those areas are just not as accessible, not as clean sometimes, and definitely not what we see here. And with the advent of climate change, and with all of the things that we see happening around water, it just inspires me to action,” Bird added.

“When we think about the quality of life that we all want to have, we think seven generations ahead and we go, wow, at this point, will any of our seventh generation be able to use this water or have access to it? Much less our own children right now, you know, with climate change coming so quickly. So, I can’t not be a water protector. I can't not do this work because it is so important.”

Healing the Relationship Between Youth and Water

Bird continues passing along a connection to water to the next generation through her work with Title Track. With Title Track’s program called River Quest, she said, “we met with the youth in Flint (MI), where a lot of youth have a really damaged relationship with water. Not just because people in their family had gotten sick with it, because of the lead pipes and whatnot, but also because of the way it's handled in their own community. It's hard to be near a source of water that's fresh and clean. It often is polluted or it looks bad, and they don't go near it, right?”

River Quest sought to reestablish a relationship with water for the young people of Flint, “because without that beneficial relationship or understanding of water, that disease of water, and disease within water, within ourselves, is only going to continue and probably get worse. So, kids naturally understand this, though, which is a beautiful thing,” she said. “If you've ever watched the simple thing of a child taking a bath, or being in a swimming pool, the joy that they get from interacting with clean water is healing in itself. It can bring them joy, it can relax them, and all of these things are absolutely essential for a healthy body.”

What is true for children is really true for all of us, at any age. Water is healing, is necessary, is life. “The one way that I think it's best to explain that is, the water can live without us," Bird said. “The water can exist in perfect harmony with itself and all of creation without us. But, we can't live without it, right? So what does that tell you about the relationship we should be having with the water? It's really one of pure dependence and subsistence. And so our respect for the water and for the spirit of the water should recognize that.”

You can read the second piece from the interview with Holly Bird here, where she talks about her work to protect the water at Standing Rock and to fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, including how that movement translates to the work of protecting the Great Lakes.


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