“Water is Life”—Dreamstarter Autumn Harry’s “Journey of a Water Protector” Event Grounds Organizers in Honoring the Land and its History

“Water is Life”—Dreamstarter Autumn Harry’s “Journey of a Water Protector” Event Grounds Organizers in Honoring the Land and its History

2023 Environmental Justice Dreamstarter Autumn Harry (Numu, Diné) and her mother Beverly Harry (Diné) recently hosted the third “Journey of a Water Protector” gathering in their Kooyooe Pa’a Panunadu (Pyramid Lake) community, during May 30 – June 1, 2024.

Olympic legend Billy Mills shares his inspiring story and emphasizes the importance of supporting Native youth dreams during the ‘Journey of a Water Protector’ event

Autumn’s Dreamstarter project, “The Great Basin Nation Building Initiative,” strengthens and supports ongoing environmental and social justice efforts in her region by training the next generation of Native organizers and offering healing for tribal communities in the face of violence against Native women and their land. “Journey of a Water Protector” is one strategic and personal piece of her work as she ensures lasting access to clean water in Native nations like hers.

More than sixty Pyramid Lake Paiute members, Native organizers, and local activists joined the Harrys over the two-day event. The event incorporated storytelling, Native crafts, traditional food preparation, guided nature excursions, “artivism,” and community-building to connect participants to the land, lake, and each other.

The event began with a grounding and inspirational time inside the Pyramid Lake Museum, where Kooyooe Tukadu (meaning “Cui-ui Eaters,” the traditional name of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe) elder Reynelda James opened with Numu prayer and a sage blessing. Autumn and Beverly Harry welcomed attendees with a reminder that water is life and framed the space as “a training ground for inclusive organizing” to protect water and life.

Billy Mills (Oglala Lakota) gave a keynote address about his legendary Olympic upset and his investment in the dreams of Native youth. Listeners asked questions and shared touching memories about the lasting significance of his win, including photographs of childhood meetings with him and a hand-beaded medallion depicting his world record-breaking 1964 Tokyo finish.

The group then watched two short films highlighting Indigenous environmental activism. The first, Connection, featured Autumn Harry’s early days as a Numu water protector and discussed how Derby Dam wiped out the once-thriving ancient Lahontan cutthroat trout population in Kooyooe Pa’a Panunadu before tribal members and conservationists painstakingly revived the native fish. Then Patagonia’s Meghan Wolf introduced the film Undammed, the story of how Yurok tribal attorney Amy Bowers Cordalis and the Yurok tribe won the fight to restore the Klamath River to its natural habitat. As the largest dam removal project to date, the victory serves as a lesson in organizing, the importance of truly long-term decision-making, the wisdom of the land, and the crucial role of local Indigenous environmental expertise and leadership.

In other afternoon workshops, tribal elders Delmar Stevens (Tabooski Tukadu), Gayleen Roy (Tabooski Tukadu), and Billie Jean Guerrero (Kooyooe Tukadu) instructed participants on traditional rope-making methods using willow and pine needle arts, including medallion weaving and basketmaking. Delmar showed young attendees how to fillet trout using traditional obsidian. Reno “artivists” Orlando Ortiz and Serene Townsell led hands-on workshops on the how-to of screenprinting—creating shirts from Autumn Harry’s design—and developing a visual creative voice. Artist Sophie Sheppard led a group watercolor session honoring the fish of Kooyooe Pa’a Panunadu.

Autumn then framed the current threats to clean water access in the context of her Dreamstarter work. She explained that as the United States government urgently invests in the transition to domestic production of renewable energy, Nevada’s lithium deposits have become the latest gold mine for opportunistic investors. When mining projects are rapidly greenlit, temporary “man camps” crop up in remote communities, leaving tribal women and children vulnerable to physical violence and exploitation. Then the extraction, storage, and reinjection of water during mining projects introduces toxins to drinking and agricultural water—poisoning the people and their food—and destabilizes the desert ecology that Great Basin nations rely upon and know intimately.

The group then moved to a time of discussing specific local mining justice issues with partners from Great Basin Resource Watch, Earthworks, and Imperial Valley tribes. These conversations featured past lessons from uranium mining’s groundwater contamination and active issues for the currently embattled Peehee Mu’huh (Thacker Pass) mine. Key themes included the need for early community consultation, especially with tribal land stewards; sustainable practices that limit energy demand; transparency into industrial interests and power; responsible ecological research and mining practices; and prioritizing a long-enough time horizon over short-term profits. Arlan Melendez (Numu), former Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, also visited to encourage organizers with the story of Indigenous leaders’ successful but ongoing defense against groundwater and air pollution from the Oil Dri Kitty Litter plant.

Finally, attendees processed and incorporated the lessons, skills, and inspiration of Journey of a Water Protector’s instruction through identity-specific talking circles, a peaceful and fun afternoon honoring and swimming in the lake together, and a celebratory traditional feast prepared by Beverly Harry and other elders. First-time attendees expressed intentions to return for future gatherings with fellow water protectors. Encouraged organizers exchanged contact information and discussed commitments and dreams in their roles as water protectors.

As Running Strong celebrates this meaningful gathering, it serves as a great example of the ongoing, necessary work of Dreamstarters, Native environmental leaders, and tribal communities to address the root causes of tribal water scarcity, protect the precious resources they have fought for, and prevent history repeating itself. Autumn Harry reminds us: “There is a huge need for strengthening and training young organizers to lead environmental justice projects. I want our communities to feel seen and heard while we continue to demand justice.”

Running Strong is proud to support ongoing environmental justice initiatives and the grounded, local leadership of Native youth like Autumn Harry. Water is life. We will continue to advance and protect clean water access for Native families for generations to come.

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