A Growing Movement to Reclaim Water Rights for Indigenous People | Civil Eats

A Growing Movement to Reclaim Water Rights for Indigenous People

Native tribes are reliant on their local water sources, which have been continuously exploited and contaminated by the U.S. government and non-Native people. Indigenous groups are finding new ways to demand justice.

The Chacoan Great House of Pueblo Bonito from above the desert of New Mexico in Chaco Canyon

The Chacoan Great House of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon in the New Mexico desert. (Photo credit: Matt Champlin, Getty Images)

In recent years, the hashtag #LandBack has surfaced across Indigenous platforms to signify a need to reclaim ancestral landscapes and protect the sacred and cultural resources they contain. Across the American Southwest, however, there has been an even deeper call to action: “We can’t have #LandBack without #WaterBack” reads the poster material for the Pueblo Action Alliance’s #WaterBack campaign.

Between Arizona and New Mexico alone, 43 federally recognized tribes call the desert landscape home. However, their ways of life have been challenged by centuries of colonization and resource exploitation, resulting in large cities siphoning water from reservations; extractive industries contaminating Indigenous lands; and construction, poachers, and even rock climbers threatening cultural sites and ancient petroglyphs. Chaco Canyon, where Pueblo Action Alliance does much of its work, is unfortunately a nexus for many of these injustices.

Chaco Canyon is a 7.5-mile stretch in the Chaco Wash of northwest New Mexico. It drains into the San Juan River, a critical upstream sandstone formation for delivering water across the San Juan Basin. Specifically, the rincons, angular recesses in rock formations, in the canyon cliff faces divert rainfall to drought-stricken regions of the high desert, a function that directly impacts precipitation levels in an arid region with short growing seasons. About 1,000 years ago, Chaco Canyon also served as an enormous cultural hub for the Chacoans, ancestral Puebloans who quarried the canyon to build great houses that would serve as the political center of the ancient culture.

The houses were so great, in fact, that their sheer size would not be surpassed in North America until 19th-century American construction. It is estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 people dwelled within the region at its peak, harvesting beans, maize, and squash, and even engaging in a massive long-distance turquoise-trading industry. Both practices continue in the contemporary Pueblos, which still exist in the arid Southwest desert.

The Greater Chaco region has such a historical, cultural, and even sacred significance to the Pueblos, Hopi, and Navajo that the region has been designated as the Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Not only is the site filled with sacred ceremonial kivas, partially or wholly underground chambers for performing religious rites, but also the entire region represents a fragile biodiversity and a climate prone to extreme weather from the El Niño–La Niña cycle.

Unfortunately, as with 85 percent of reservation lands in the United States, Chaco Canyon sits on resource-rich soil. Already, 91 percent of the public lands in the canyon are leased for oil and gas extraction. Between the sacredness of the site, its significance to the water basin and biodiversity, and water-intensive industries that intend to exploit it, there is little wonder why the anti-fossil fuel campaign Frack Off Greater Chaco found common cause with the Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA) to oppose the issuing of more leases.

The Many Faces of Water Justice

For Indigenous peoples, water goes several steps further than just providing sustenance. Water became an issue for the Wampanoag, who have fought offshore wind turbines in Massachusetts that would hinder access to the tribe’s sacred sunrise practices. For the Winnemem Wintu of California, raising the height of the Shasta Dam threatened to flood out cultural resources. Similarly, in the Pacific Northwest, salmon people, such as the Suquamish, have united to demand the removal of dams that interfere with salmon migration, critical to their traditional lifeways and beliefs.

The safety of water-grown food and even ceremonial waters are also threatened by the existence of 532 Superfund sites in Indian Country alone, buried in layers of red tape that make cleanup more challenging than in areas not under Indian jurisdiction. The protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock were a stark reminder of how water, extractive industry, and treaty rights intersect. And in my own Ojibwe community in Minnesota, traditional manoomin, a native strain of wild rice, and fish harvesting are challenged not only by non-Indians unfamiliar with Indigenous harvesting rights, but also by the dioxin contamination from abandoned Superfund sites. The list goes on.

Especially in the Southwest, tribes have had to desperately fight for their rights to the water systems their ancestors used for years, but which now come to them in the form of hard-earned “paper rights”—essentially, promises on paper that often are not kept. The point is, water is necessary, and through a combination of red tape, contamination, lack of physical or spiritual access, scarcity due to climate change, or development on ancestral and archaeological sites, tribal communities are disproportionately affected.

That’s why groups like the Pueblo Action Alliance have stepped up not just to protect Chaco Canyon, but also to develop a paradigm shift that integrates traditional Pueblo values into business.

Modeling a Pueblo Way of Life

Pueblo Action Alliance consists of about 10 individuals, the majority of whom are full-time and campaign with the concept of “rematriating” land, water, and general rights to the Pueblos of New Mexico. Drawing on principles that connect clear back to the Chacoan ancestors of Greater Chaco, the group’s director, Julia Fay Bernal, describes the alliance as a non-incorporated organization fiscally sponsored by a 503(c) that centers its entire structure around Pueblo values.

These values include prioritizing good stewardship of ancestral landscapes, maintaining a sliding pay scale that reflects need more than CV-based experience, and accommodating time off on a merit basis. Given that the Pueblo culture is so oriented around family, ceremony, and religious participation, Bernal says the attitude toward time off is “You don’t have to explain to me why you can’t come to work today.” It’s a model that represents trust and respect, standing in stark contrast to most standard Western attitudes of the 9–5 grind, and uniting the Pueblos in ways they hadn’t been since the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against Spanish rule.

The alliance also takes a unique approach by focusing on community education around issues impacting the region. The group follows relevant state and federal legislation, but, as Bernal describes, it “ultimately in terms of scope of work and capacity focuses on policy that impacts Pueblo lands, ancestral Pueblo territories, and what kind of strain it is having on water.”

The group isn’t just concerned with fracking in Chaco: Various extractive industries in the region are water-intensive in a water-scarce landscape and cause destruction to sacred spaces. Bernal cites the copper mine of Oak Flat as an example affecting the Apache, as well as broader concerns about lithium mining, mercury extraction, and proposed hydrogen hubs in the region, which are all water-intensive processes.

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Pueblo Action Alliance has also partnered with its Navajo counterpart, Diné CARE (Citizens Against Ruining the Environment), to defend common ancestral lands, such as Chaco Canyon, and to rally against a shared legacy of uranium mining and water contamination. Rebecca Tsosie, a law professor at the University of Arizona, has written that tribal sovereignty, the trust doctrine the U.S. government holds with tribes, is “an important legal tool to protect tribal rights to natural resources . . . and embodies a clear duty to protect tribal lands.”

These grassroots organizations center their work around this theory, striving to hold the federal government to its obligations to work with Native tribes to protect the environment, especially water resources. They lean strongly into the legal obligations of the United States to recognize tribal sovereignty, treaty rights, and the trust responsibility that exists between the federal government and tribal nations—an obligation to care for the general welfare of tribal communities.

Construction Models in Indian Country

The NDN Companies take a different approach than the Pueblo Action Alliance. In 2015, Shawna Newman founded her small environmental consulting firm, supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration, in Jacksonville, Florida, to work within the bounds of the contracting world, providing various environmental assessments, remediation, restoration, and even mixed marine construction services.

Newman, who is of Chickasaw and Choctaw descent, grew up near the Poarch Creek Reservation in Pensacola, Florida, and has a bachelor’s degree in environmental science from the University of West Florida. She is engaged with Native youth in STEM education, the Florida Governor’s Council on Indian Affairs, and as a Board Member for the North Florida Land Trust. She describes her inspiration to create the NDN Companies as “a desire to provide environmental assistance and education throughout Indian Country.”

One unique aspect about the business, however, is the focus on tribal consultation. As an Indian-founded and woman-led organization, the NDN Companies help bridge the gap between the interests of the construction industry and the impacts it has on the environment, ancestral landscapes, and cultural resources; and it also keeps agencies from doing more than, in Newman’s words, just “checking a box” to meet regulatory requirements.

Such work has led to NDN bringing cultural awareness training programs to individual companies, the Society of American Military Engineers, and even the U.S. Department of Defense. Her business incorporates elements of tribal water justice in a number of ways, including in projects that build coastal resilience and shoreline erosion protection.

Shawna Newman, President and Founder of The NDN Companiesk, and Geoffrey Reichold, Partner, The NDN Companies. Photo courtesy of Shawna Newman

Shawna Newman, president and Founder of The NDN Companies, and Geoffrey Reichold, partner, The NDN Companies. (Photo courtesy of Shawna Newman)

Besides providing Native American sensitivity training to its clients, the company also helps businesses comply with the National Historic Preservation Act; offers ground-penetrating radar services; and helps with the identification, evaluation, and documentation of Traditional Cultural Properties (TCPs), a designation by the National Park Service of important cultural resources and places. One recent example of the company’s work is when it was hired to provide consultation to the Caddo Nation Tribal Historic Preservation Officer on the Toledo Bend Project, a hydroelectric initiative along the Sabine River in Texas and Louisiana.

“This project involves working with the tribal communities that had once traveled through or settled along this man-made water body to help identify potential areas that need protection,” Newman says. “Protection meaning medicinal plants, artifacts or archaeological finds, and/or vegetation, such as the River Cane that has been utilized in ceremonies or traditional building materials.” The concern with such projects is to prevent damage by creating a management plan for the river authorities to follow. In Newman’s words, “We have been fortunate to help facilitate early conversations prior to any disturbances, and formulate a plan moving forward.”

Newman’s approach aligns with a growing method to include tribal representatives in the planning and management of construction projects. At Arizona State University, the annual Construction in Indian Country conference attracts students, faculty, and companies alike to recruit support from Arizona and New Mexico tribes.

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The Ways Water Speaks

Whether advocating for clean drinking water on reservations contaminated by uranium extraction, or defending archaeological sites against construction that impacts local waterways, Indigenous communities are acutely aware of the need for water justice. Different models fit different approaches, depending on community values and the issue at hand. The Pueblo Action Alliance continues to focus on ancestral land issues, studying new legislation to evaluate its impact on water resources and then educating the Pueblo community to engage civically in the conversation. The NDN Companies, operating in the Southeast, where salt water intrusion is more of a concern than water scarcity, advocates for all tribes and interests across various sectors of the construction industry.

Both approaches draw attention to the unique ways in which tribes are impacted by extractive industries and infrastructure. They provide visibility to Indigenous peoples who have been stewards of ancestral landscapes, such as Chaco Canyon, since time immemorial. Most importantly, they challenge the historic norms of tribal consultation, giving voice to those who understand the sacredness of the tribes’ most precious resource.


This story originally appeared in YES! Magazine, and is reprinted with permission. It has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

Kayla DeVault is an Anishinaabe/Shawnee journalist and certified engineer. She has been a board member with the National Peace Academy, an AISES Sequoyah Fellow, a SustainUs COP22 delegate, and a co-author of the EPA's first-ever report on climate and youth inclusion through the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council Climate Change Youth Working Group. Read more >

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