Indian Country has been fighting for water rights since colonists first came to America. While the struggles and needs of each Tribe and Native community vary, there is a common theme: lack of accessibility to clean, safe water. The ability to access clean and safe water is a two-part issue. First, the lack of water infrastructure on reservations makes even getting water to homes from natural sources or existing water mains difficult. Second, too often, water obtained from natural sources is not clean and safe to use.
In 1928 the Meriam Report documented both lack of access to clean water and lack of sanitation facilities for waste disposal in Indian country. Over a century later, the Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. Government has no obligation, or “affirmative duty,” to help tribes secure clean water. Without support from the Federal Government tribes, non-profits, and fierce individuals have banned together to create change. Among those are Sheniah Reed, Autumn Harry, and Loren Waters, three from our 2023 cohort of Environmental Justice Dreamstarters that are fighting for water rights for their communities.
Sheniah Reed, of the Oneida Nation, is currently pursuing a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management at University of Wisconsin- Steven’s Point. Sheniah’s dream is to hold a space for Native youth to learn about environmental injustices, such as poor water quality and food insecurity, and get them involved in protecting their natural resources and in turn native animal species.
There are approximately 1,600 acres of wetlands on the Oneida Reservation that are essential for protecting and improving water quality, storing floodwater, and providing a healthy habitat for fish and wildlife. Sheniah is currently planning a Water is Life Native Nations Conference to connect Native American youth and allies to discuss water quality protection, tribal food sovereignty, and strategize on how to how to get involved in environmental justice efforts. The event is scheduled to take place in February 2024 with an estimated 200 attendees at her school’s Diversity student union. The conference will include a keynote speaker, breakout groups and discussions, and guest speakers that are experts in the fields of environmental justice. Keep an eye out for more information on this special event!
Autumn Harry of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is an active environmental justice leader in her community of Nixon, Nevada. Autumn’s dream is to equip the next generation of Native community organizers to fight the violence against Indigenous homelands and Indigenous women. Pyramid lake, traditionally called Kooyooe Pa’a Panunadu, and the Numu homelands have been taken advantage of by outsiders and developers. One of the greatest challenges her community faces is the ongoing impacts of water theft from upstream communities. Autumn recently concluded her annual “Journey of a Water Protector” Event, an event in honor of her late father Norman Harry who was a renowned water protector. Each year, the event empowers the next generation to continue the Harry family’s work and embark on their own journeys. The annual event consists of instructors and Elders who share their knowledge and journeys, discussions on mining justices, beading and art workshops, drum circles, traditional food, and time to appreciate Numu homelands. We are proud to support all of Autumn’s work for environmental justice, through Dreamstarter and beyond.
Loren Waters of Norman, Oklahoma is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma. Loren’s dream is to inspire Native youth to participate in protecting their environment as well as increase the visibility of Indigenous environmental efforts. Loren hopes to bring more awareness to the Tar Creek Superfund site that is located on Cherokee land. Decades ago, metals from mining waste in the surrounding areas leeched into the groundwater and ponds, contaminating the creek and causing a myriad of health problems in the residents that relied on the water. The EPA declared the area to be one of the most Toxic areas in the United States. With her Mentor and Cherokee Elder, Rebecca Jim, Loren is producing a documentary that focuses on Rebecca’s work for the Tar Creek Superfund Site. The documentary, ᏗᏂᏠᎯ ᎤᏪᏯ (Meet Me At The Creek), is currently in post-production and will wrap filming in July. Recently, Loren was able to share a sample of the film at a conference and will be submitting the completed documentary to film festivals in September. Loren is also planning a film festival on her reservation that will include a screening of her film, special guests, and a panel of Environmental Justice activists to bring awareness to her cause and film.
To learn more about the environmental injustices occurring at Tar Creek, visit https://anthropocenealliance.org/lead-agency/.
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