Florida Humanities Navigates Sacred Waters

by Sydney Boyd, program manager, Humanities in American Life

Growing up in southeastern Florida, Victoria Machado remembers that if the news wasn’t reporting on an alligator in someone’s pool, then it was focused on water—some kind of torrential downpour that was imminent in the afternoon or an impending hurricane on its way. Water was everywhere. But in 2007, Machado watched a severe drought rage across Florida and dry up lakes in front of her eyes—suddenly something that was everywhere was in scarce supply.

“When we think about stories, we think of this ‘Once upon a time…’ there’s a moral, a take-away, that tells us something larger about ourselves and about our environment,” Machado said in “Sacred Water: Exploring the Protection of Florida’s Fluid Landscapes,” a Florida Humanities virtual presentation recorded on October 14, 2020.

Machado, a Ph.D. candidate in religion and nature at the University of Florida, noted that although the entire state of Florida is roughly 58,560 square miles, Florida’s aquifer, which extends into neighboring states, encompasses 100,000 square miles. This apparent overabundance of water has lowered the price of water and made Floridians feel like there’s an infinite supply of it—a perception of water as a commodity that doesn’t need any special protections.

“Such mentalities led to deeply troubled relationships between the people of Florida and the waters of Florida,” Machado said. Instead, Machado hopes to collectively reimagine our relationship to water through the humanities in the stories we tell about the springs and the Florida Everglades to see water through the lens of what is sacred.

In 2016, for example, when a toxic algae bloom broke out and prompted a state of emergency, some people approached it as a spiritual crisis and turned to water ceremonies. The bloom, caused by fertilizer sewage and manure pollution, started in Lake Okeechobee and spread to beaches, endangering the health of citizens and dealing an enormous blow to the local economy, which leans heavily on tourism. Some people turned to petitions and protest, but a handful of people turned to prayer and their centuries-old relationship to water, Machado said. One of these collectives was the Sacred Water Tribe, which approached the disaster through prayer, mindfulness, and practices around consciousness in an effort to promote the healing of water.

“In between songs and acknowledgements of the natural world is a deep sense of respect and care,” Machado said. “Water is viewed as sacred, as a source of life, and as the lifeblood of mother Earth… water is viewed as an authoritative living entity giving it the power to impact and transform the world in which it flows.”

With water all around, local indigenous leaders host their own gatherings and draw from generational wisdom, Machado said. Betty Osceola, a grandmother in the Panther Clan of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, held a healing ceremony in 2018 that recognized water through a specifically feminine lens as an entity uniting humans with nature and Earth as mother to all human life.

“This ceremony looked to heal relationships with water by understanding that water is not an enemy, but the victim,” Machado said. “Water is viewed as a family member as participants listen to the guidance offered by ancestors in the natural world in order to carry out the ceremonies.”

Other activist groups have approached the water crisis in Florida from an environmental perspective around policy and science, such as the Florida Rights of Nature Movement. Although the Rights of Nature Movement is not necessarily spiritually or religiously driven, Machado said, it aligns with sacred water ceremonies because both reinforce a different narrative about human nature and our interactions.

“This is a narrative that upholds holistic views, similar to that of the sacred water ceremonies,” Machado said. “In both cases, human nature narratives act as a way of furthering environmental conversations beyond the physical towards a deeper level, towards how people view themselves in relation to the world.”

Machado noted that there are a lot of questions this approach might raise, like who speaks for water if it has legal rights? Ultimately, though, Machado is still thinking about the story water tells—right now, the mainstream narrative around water misleads Floridians into thinking there isn’t anything to worry about.

“What I can say is that how we talk about water is changing,” Machado concluded. “And with these transformative narratives, we have the potential to change the dominant story that continues to perpetuate the water crisis.”

This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.