Conference Themes Emerge from a Program of Diverse Perspectives
by Marie-Blanche Roudaut, WRRC Graduate Outreach Assistant and Susanna Eden, WRRC
Research Center 2015 conference, Indigenous Perspectives on Sustainable Water Practices, brought together a unique diversity of perspectives to share experience and knowledge about indigenous water management and stewardship. More than 330 people attended the conference, representing six states, 49 cities, and 13 tribal nations. Thirty-three speakers with ties to Native American communities across the state presented a variety of viewpoints.
As participants spoke with passion from their different perspectives, several themes emerged. These themes included the importance of equal and respectful collaboration on water rights from the community and grassroots to the tribal government level, the meaning of sustainability for indigenous people, the lack of water for many tribal people, the importance of youth, and passing on traditional knowledge. The example of the struggles and successes of the Gila River Indian Community, or GRIC, was prominent. As hosts of the conference, the GRIC used the opportunity to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which represented a major victory for collaboration.
Presenters who addressed water rights agreed that this is a critical time for Native American communities. Many tribes have achieved water rights settlements, but many others have not. Every tribe is different, thus each will require a unique solution to its water challenges.
Robyn Interpreter, founding partner of Montgomery & Interpreter, PLC, stated during her talk that indigenous communities are turning to water rights negotiations, since going to court has proven less favorable for securing water. While negotiations offer promise, speakers noted that future settlements face barriers. Jason Hauter, Senior Counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld LLP, raised the issue of congressional reluctance to adequately fund water settlements. Interpreter asked how settlements can be reached when water is becoming scarcer and Central Arizona Project (CAP) water may not be as reliable a source in the future. Multiple speakers agreed that Native and non-Native communities will need to collaborate to identify creative and innovative solutions that benefit all Arizona residents.
Several speakers noted that discussions between Native American tribes and federal and state government over water rights were historically marred by an us versus them mind-set. Conference participants acknowledged that in the past tribes have been at a disadvantage with respect to water development. For example, starting in the 19th century, the upstream diversion of water by settlers devastated agrarian tribal communities whose livelihood depended on the Gila and Salt Rivers. Speakers and audience members shared moving descriptions of how these diversions affected the GRIC, illustrating the great losses in terms of land, water, culture, and human capacity; effects which are still felt today.
Conference participants highlighted how times have changed despite past challenges. As described by Senator Carlyle Begay (Arizona State Legislature, District 7), for the past 20 years relationships have improved, mainly because Native communities have an increased impact in Arizona, both politically and economically. Former GRIC General Counsel Rod Lewis sees his communitys long struggle for a water rights settlement and their long-term plans to access multiple sources of water as a model of sustainable water practices and a way to reestablish their agrarian culture and traditions. We owe it to our community to bring back our water and restore who we are. Loss is not the end of the story; the story of welcoming back our precious water is healing our community, Lewis said. David DeJong, author of Forced to Abandon our Fields, pointed out that the GRIC has been building upon their legacy to reconstruct, modernize, and diversify their economy for a sustainable future.
John Echohawk, Executive Director of Native American Rights Fund, pointed out that his organization has a history of building strong relationships with federal and state agencies and tribes to negotiate water rights settlements. The Funds mission has been to sit at the negotiating table with all concerned parties not only to decide how to divide the water fairly, but also to ensure that water settlements give Native communities flexibility on how to use their water. In addition, Echohawk stated that water rights settlements offered a chance to do some healing between Indian and non-Indian communities. As Norm DeWeaver of Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc. put it, collaboration with tribes is the way of the future.
Hauter stressed the fact that water rights settlements have to be approved by Congress and that many in Congress do not understand the issues faced by tribal communities. Settlements must take water costs, including infrastructure and delivery costs, into consideration, as tribes are responsible for maintaining and replacing infrastructure. This requires that settlements have flexibility, such as allowing off-reservation water leasing, exchanges and transfers, and storage that monetize water settlement rights, in order to supplement federal funding, he added.
Janene Yazzie of the Little Colorado River Watershed Chapters Association reflected on the fact that tribal communities are active agents of change, working to build a future that reflects their values. A number of speakers shared her view that looking toward the future, tribes need to be fully involved in finding a solution to Arizonas water management challenges, not only because they are already implementing solutions on their reservations, but also because their perspectives offer alternative ways of approaching water management. Problems are not going to be solved by a simple seat at the table, Yazzie said.
Rod Lewis stressed that there is an increasing awareness of tribes unique situations, their history of water use, their present water needs, and their traditional beliefs regarding water. Similarly, Senator Begay emphasized that discussions about water should be founded on an awareness of the sacredness of water for Native communities. He noted that collaborative, balanced problem solving will require that tribal perspectives are understood by non-Native participants. The conference brought to the forefront how tribes are honoring traditional values as they work to secure water sustainability for current needs and future generations. Sustainability, as defined by Yazzie, means to take only what you need and give back to the next generation. Tony Skrelunas, Program Director at the Grand Canyon Trust, included use water in a meaningful way in his definition of sustainability. Yazzie noted a clash of values because water rights settlements tell us to maximize beneficial use of water, while our traditional ways tell us to conserve and protect our water for the well-being and prosperity for all. We need to respect all life and elements, where everything is connected and sacred. Herman (T.J.) Laffoon, council member for the Colorado River Indian Tribes, or CRIT, pointed out there is a current passing through Native land to strengthen our spirituality, our traditional beliefs and ceremonies, to protect our sacred water.
Taking a spiritual viewpoint, Vincent Randall of the Yavapai Apache Tribe explained that to his people everything on Earth is alive; water is alive. Water was blessed with special spiritual powers to cleanse and protect. It is sacred. Several speakers indicated that as a spiritual entity, water is intimately intertwined with tribal cultural identity. The importance of natural waters to the tribes was evidenced by the environmental restoration projects described in the conference. Highlighted projects included the Pee Posh Wetland on the GRIC reservation, Natural Corral Creek on the San Carlos Apache reservation, and riparian restoration efforts by the Ak Chin Indian Community and the Hualapai reservation. By clearing debris, replanting native trees, and removing salt cedar and noxious weeds, such projects restore culturally significant natural areas.
Native American panelists and keynote speakers stressed the importance of respecting tradition and knowledge and honoring past leaders. Learning from the past is very important because our ancestors had a sustainable way of life and we need to regain that knowledge to better take care of our land and our natural resources, said Skrelunas. Tribes were resilient because of their traditional knowledge of the land. A number of speakers described how Native communities have developed strategies to conserve water, by using traditional agricultural techniques that are environmentally sustainable, such as earthen dams, diversion dikes, and contour agriculture. As former General Counsel Rod Lewis put it, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, our elders. We would not be the people we are today without them and their struggles.
The conference also included voices from Native Nations where tribal water managers are seeking partnerships to bring investment for infrastructure. Alex Cabillo of the Hualapai Water Resources Department highlighted the need for tribes to control their own water management and to work in partnership with other programs for integrated water resource management. Cheryl Pailzote of the White Mountain Apache Department of Water Resources described their partnership with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in a cooperative agreement for the construction of water treatment and distribution projects to serve communities on the reservation. Ardeth Barnhart, director of the University of Arizona Renewable Energy Network, described another promising source of water on the Navajo reservation: brackish water desalination. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, in partnership with the University of Arizona, is working with the Tribe to develop desalination technology powered by solar energy. The goal of this system is to provide safe, low cost drinking water that can be paid for and maintained by local residents.
Speakers affirmed that tribal communities, with or without water settlements, face a range of critical challenges. For example, financial challenges limit funding for building or maintaining water infrastructure. Jason John of the Navajo Department of Water Resources pointed out that on the Navajo Reservation existing infrastructure is not adequate for current municipal demands and more than $1 billion is needed for water projects. Environmental justice issues were also noted, such as water contamination as a result of human activities and the uneven distribution of access to water. Both Nicole Horseherder, co-founder of To' Nizhoni Ani, an indigenous environmental group, and Bucky Preston, a Hopi farmer and traditionalist, raised the concern of groundwater contamination on Navajo and Hopi lands from mining activities. Horseherder emphasized the problem of unsustainable groundwater use and drawdown of aquifers for mining purposes. Regarding unequal access, Barnhart stated that on the Navajo and Hopi reservations, residents have to travel an average of 24 miles each way to haul potable water. She explained that there are more than 8,000 homes on the Navajo reservation that do not have access to potable water and that 30 to 40 percent of the population has no connection to power grid or water piping infrastructure. Horseherder compared what Navajo on Black Mesa pay on average for water: $3,258 per acrefoot, with what Glendale residents pay: $551 per acre-foot. She added that a CAP farmer will only pay $41 per acre-foot to take water for irrigation. Participants from other indigenous communities also named the high water cost, including the rising price of CAP water, as a challenge.
Dennis Patch, Chairman of CRIT, reminded the audience that water is always going to be part of our history. We will always be fighting for our water. We will always have to be on guard because there will always be people who will want to take our water, even tribes with water rights settlements. Native people have to be educated about water issues. His message was echoed by others, such as Laffoon, who said, We as Native Americans need to stand together to protect our land and our water rights and to conserve our water for future generations.
Many speakers shared the goal of engaging youth in water stewardship. Several programs were described that focused on transferring knowledge to the next generation and educating them on sustainable water use. Karen Francis- Begay, Assistant Vice- President of Tribal Relations at the University of Arizona, discussed how the University offers a number of programs and scholarships for Native Americans students, particularly in the fields of science, technology, and math. Ann Marie Chischilly, Director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University, described how the Institute is training students to become environmental specialists and offers free online classes in environmental studies for Native Americans. Clifford Pablo, Agriculture Extension Agent at the Tohono Oodham Community College, highlighted the youth programs offered at the college, and Stetson Mendoza from the Gila Crossing Community School Garden Program at GRIC stressed the importance of programs that engage youth in traditional agriculture, where children are taught our history, who we are, what we do. Harry Walters, Navajo historian, added that there is a need to teach traditional knowledge and how to relate to the natural world in a spiritual way. Rod Lewis concluded, We still have a lot of issues around water but a lot of space for new talents.
Finally, this 2015 conference ended with a call for non-Natives to become aware of the reality of the situation on reservations and to focus on understanding the needs and challenges facing Native communities. There was a call for non-Natives, especially those at universities, to work with tribal communities in a participatory way to understand their perspectives on water and their community context. Many participants agreed to continue the dialogue into the future and to collaborate in a deeper way with mutual respect. As Norm DeWeaver expressed it, all parties need to understand each other's perspective; this process builds the trust needed for true collaboration and equal representation.