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Autumn Peltier: Saving Sacred Water

For nearly a decade, seventeen-year-old Indigenous activist Autumn Peltier has been speaking to local communities and world leaders about the sacredness of water—and how and why we should protect it. 

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This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls and is based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus. Sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Alexis Stratton and edited by Abby Sher. Narration by Erin Tripp. Our kid host for this story was Aria Tatom. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi.

A big thanks to the whole Rebel Girls team who makes this show possible! For more, visit rebelgirls.com. Until next time, stay REBEL!

Transcript

 
Once upon a time, there was a girl who believed that all water is sacred. Her name was Autumn.

Autumn was born in 2004 in the Wikwemikong Unceded Territory on Manitoulin Island, Canada. 

From a young age, Autumn learned from her elders how to perform water ceremonies, which are special gatherings to celebrate the beauty and sanctity of all the rivers, lakes and oceans. 

In the ceremony, Autumn would dip a special copper cup into the surface of a lake or river, lift the water high, and sing prayers of protection over it. 

One day, when Autumn was eight years old, she was part of a water ceremony with her mother Stephanie and her great aunt Josephine at Serpent River First Nation in Ontario.

When she took a pause to go to the bathroom, signs seemed to shout at her from the walls:

DON’T DRINK THE WATER.  

NOT FOR CONSUMPTION.

BOIL WATER ADVISORY.

Autumn’s eyes widened.

“Why can’t we use the water?” Autumn asked her mom.

“The water isn’t clean,” Stephanie said.

“But why?”

Stephanie told Autumn that the pollution in the water often came from landfills, oil spills, and old mining sites.

If she used the water from the faucet, it might be murky or brown. Or it might look clear, but it would have chemicals in it.

Autumn was confused. 

How could people do this to the water? And to Mother Earth?

Autumn made a promise then and there: Like her mother and her great-aunt, she would help protect the water. 

She would make sure others knew about this problem. 

And she would do whatever she could to fix it.

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From her mom and great-aunt, Autumn learned that many Indigenous or First Nations communities in Canada had been living with polluted water for more than 20 years

While the rest of the country was doing fine, many people in these Indigenous communities could only use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Some had to boil their water to make it safe to use.

As Autumn learned more and more about the situation, she felt like her head was spinning. It made no sense! Everyone deserves to have clean water!

Now, Autumn wasn’t just sad—she was outraged!

But she wasn’t sure what to do. She was just a kid.

Even if she spoke up, would anyone listen?

Autumn looked to her mom and her great-aunt to guide her. For many years, Stephanie and Josephine had worked to pray for and heal the water.

In fact, the year before Autumn was born, Josephine walked around Kitchi Gami, also known as Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. 

It took her more than a month to walk all the way around it. As she walked, she prayed for the healing of the lake and the plants and animals that depend on it. She spoke to people about how pollution was making the water sick. “We have to understand that water is very precious,” she told everyone. It guides us with its constant ebb and flow.

Her journey around the lake inspired many other people to do the same thing. In fact, she helped start a whole movement of water walkers who continue to walk and pray for the water in their communities. And she had a huge influence on Autumn.

Even though Autumn was only eight years old, she decided she had to do something. With the encouragement of her mom and her great-aunt, Autumn started speaking out about the water at her school and in her community.

She told them about the boil water advisories, and how unclean water was harming many First Nations communities.

She told people that water is alive and has a spirit. That water hears, feels, and listens to us. But it cannot speak words the same way humans do—so people like her have to speak for the water.

She told them that if they all worked together, if they spoke out and demanded change, they could help the water heal.

 
Autumn’s elders were so impressed by her passion and her work, that a few years later, they invited her to the Assembly of First Nations’ annual winter meeting in 2016. 

This was a big deal because Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would also be there to discuss change with them!

Autumn spent three days preparing a speech, writing every word by hand. Her mom made her a special water dress for the occasion. It was a deep navy blue with bright flowers and birds sewn into the fabric. 

Autumn was very nervous and excited to step up to the podium in front of so many people. But when she got there, the assembly’s organizers told Autumn not to say anything to Prime Minister Trudeau. She’d only have time to walk up and present him with a gift—a ceremonial water bundle.

As she waited to meet the prime minister, Autumn touched the cool copper bowl in her hands. It felt as heavy as her heart.

She thought of the First Nations communities without clean water. She thought of the Canadian government’s plans to build more pipelines for oil that would just make the water sicker. She thought of all the stories she’d heard— and all the ways the government had betrayed the trust of her people.

She couldn’t be silent! This was her one opportunity to do something—something big.

She walked toward Prime Minister Trudeau, and he looked down at her with a smile.

Autumn knew this was her cue to give him the water bundle and leave, but instead, she stopped. She took a deep breath and summoned all the courage she had from her mom, her great-aunt, and from the water itself. 

“I’m very unhappy with the choices you’ve made and broken promises to my people,” Autumn said, her voice shaking but sure.

The prime minister looked a little shocked, but he nodded. “I understand that,” he said.

Autumn felt tears welling up in her eyes. She needed him to understand how urgent this was. How the earth and its people were suffering! 

“The pipelines…” she said as she cried. She handed the water bowl to the prime minister. He took it in his hands and looked at Autumn’s tears, at the elders by her side asking for something so vital and important.

“I will protect the water,” the prime minister promised. He had the water bowl in his hands now. And she hoped he felt its power and responsibility. 

Autumn’s bold actions made headlines around the world. 

People were amazed by her courage and convictions. Whenever she was asked about the meeting with Trudeau, Autumn said the same thing: She would hold the prime minister to his promise!

Before long, Autumn started attending—and speaking at—important meetings around the world.

In 2018, Autumn was invited to speak in front of the United Nations. This was her chance to share her message with a group of leaders from all over the world, who were committed to solving global problems.

So Autumn’s mother, Stephanie, booked a flight for them from Toronto to New York City. But the flight was canceled three times

So, Stephanie loaded up their car and drove with Autumn for 15 hours

As the New York City skyline grew bigger on the horizon, Stephanie breathed a sigh of relief.

They had made it!

At the U.N., a big crowd of leaders and government figures gathered for Autumn’s speech. 

As Autumn approached the microphone, butterflies flitted in her stomach. She stepped carefully up to the podium and again took a long, deep breath. 

“I am lending my voice to speak up for water, and Mother Earth…. We cannot just pray anymore. We must do something, and we must do it now.”

When she finished her speech, the room erupted in applause.

From there, Autumn continued to advocate for clean drinking water in Canada’s First Nations and beyond. 

For a long time, she worked alongside her mom and her great-aunt Josephine. But Josephine knew that, soon, Autumn would have to go on without her.

Josephine told her to never stop loving the water and to keep speaking up for it—no matter what.

In February of 2019, Josephine died at age 77.

Autumn was so sad to lose her great-aunt, but she knew Josephine would live on through the important work Autumn did every day – protecting the water every day.

A few months after Josephine died, Autumn was given Josephine’s title. At just 14 years old, Autumn became the Anishinabek Nation Chief Water Commissioner. 

In this position, Autumn would be very important in protecting the waters of the Great Lakes and advocating for First Nations communities.

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Today, at 17 years old, Autumn is one of the most influential water advocates in the world. EachEvery day, she helps raise awareness about the water—and why we need to protect it. 

Autumn has worked with the Canadian government to make sure that the water is safe to drink at one hundred and twenty-six Indigenous water sources. But there are still thirty-seven left to go. Autumn will not stop until all of the water is clean and healthy.

She travels to different countries making speeches and encouraging leaders to think about their personal connection to the water all around us. 

As Autumn says, “Anyone can do this work…. If you have an idea, just do it. No one is going to wait for you or tell you what to do. Use your voice and speak up for our planet.” 

It’s not always easy though. At times, she feels like she wants to give up being a world-wide advocate. After all, she’s still a teenager! In those difficult moments, Autumn remembers all the people who came before her.

She closes her eyes, and imagines her great aunt Josephine walking around the great Lake, Kitchi Gami. At each step, leaves and twigs crunch under Josephine’s feet. The lake’s waters lap at the shore and a cool breeze blows ripples across the surface.

Autumn feels the calm strength of her ancestors. She feels the power of the water leading her forward. No matter how hard it gets. No matter how long the journey. 

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