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.

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 riceand 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.

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.

Read the full article about water rights for Indigenous people by Kayla DeVault at YES! Magazine.