“The river is us; the river is in our veins”: re-defining river restoration in three Indigenous communities


Indigenous communities are increasingly taking the lead in river restoration, using the process as an opportunity to re-engage deeply with their rivers, while revealing socio-cultural and political dimensions of restoration underreported in ecological and social science literatures. We engaged in collaborative research with representatives from three Indigenous nations in the United States, New Zealand, and Canada to explore the relationship between Indigenous ways of knowing and being (i.e., “Indigenous knowledges”) and their restoration efforts. Our research project asks the following: how are Indigenous knowledges enacted through river restoration and how do they affect outcomes? How do the experiences of these Indigenous communities broaden our understanding of the social dimensions of river restoration? Our research reveals how socio-cultural protocols and spiritual practices are intertwined with restoration methodologies, showing why cultural approaches to restoration matter. We found that in many cases, a changing political or legal context helps create space for assertion of Indigenous spiritual and cultural values, while the restoration efforts themselves have the potential to both repair community relationships with water and empower communities vis-à-vis the wider society. We show that restoration has the potential to not only restore ecosystem processes and services, but to repair and transform human relationships with rivers and create space politically for decolonizing river governance.

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  1. 1.

    Derek Bailey, former GTB Chairman, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioeGjVqJTBs.

  2. 2.

    For example, the Penobscot Nation has overseen dam removal on the Penobscot River, the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe was instrumental in the removal of the Elwha dams, and the Klamath Tribes have been key players in the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement.

  3. 3.

    This river is more commonly called the Boardman River. Ottaway is an Anishnaabe name.

  4. 4.

    Raupatu is a Māori term that refers to the invasion and confiscation of Waikato lands.

  5. 5.

    For an in depth analysis of the politics of various Waikato River Māori groups’ care for their river, see Muru-Lanning 2016.

  6. 6.

    The State of Michigan refuses to call this work “co-management” despite the fact that the provisions of the Great Lakes and inland consent decrees connected to the Treaty of 1836 follow very closely the definitions of co-management in the literature, e.g., Pinkerton 1994.

  7. 7.

    For Waikato-Tainui, three or seven whakaritenga (ritual) are part of a prayer that seeks blessing, safepassage, and anointment by acknowledging the Mauri (life force) of the river and their ancestors.

  8. 8.

    Waka ama means outrigger canoeing. For example, see http://www.wakaama.co.nz/stories .


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We would like to thank the Ottaway, St. Claire and Waikato rivers for all that they have taught us before and during our knowledge exchange. We would also like to thank all the community members who welcomed us into their territories and participated in our exchange, including those named and unnamed in this manuscript. Thank you to the Porter Family Foundation for generously funding our research. We thank JoRee LaFrance for her participation and assistance throughout the research process and Jonathan Chipman for helping us create our map figures. Finally, we thank our editors and anonymous reviewers for helping to drastically improve this paper.

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Correspondence to Nicholas James Reo.

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Handled by Kyle Whyte, Michigan State University, USA.

Coleen Fox and Nicholas Reo served as co-first authors on this manuscript, co-leading the research and writing processes.

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Fox, C.A., Reo, N.J., Turner, D.A. et al. “The river is us; the river is in our veins”: re-defining river restoration in three Indigenous communities. Sustain Sci 12, 521–533 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-016-0421-1

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  • River restoration
  • Indigenous knowledge
  • Māori
  • Anishinaabe