Skip to content Skip to footer

We All Breathe the Same Air and Drink the Same Water

Some 8

Some 8,000 kilometres from the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Native American environmental experts from 66 tribes came together at a summit here this week to address the most pressing needs in their communities – problems, all emphasised, that know no geographic boundaries.

These include water and air pollution, superfund cleanup, mining and illegal dumping, as well as the impacts of climate change.

Increasingly frequent “100-year” floods in Oklahoma, the disappearance of medicinal plants, the uncharacteristic unreliability of monsoon season in New Mexico, and diminished snow pack on sacred peaks have left most tribal people with little doubt that climate change is already here.

“There are those who still rely on traditional agriculture for their livelihood and for ceremonial purposes – the growing of corn, the harmonious relationship between the seasons,” said Milton Bluehouse of the New Mexico Environment Department, who is also a member of the Navajo Nation.

“Global warming impacts our cultures strongly. In Navajo country, for example, if there’s no snow on the mountain, we can’t have our yeibichei dances,” he told IPS.

A yeibiche dance is a nine-day curing ceremony performed by specially trained medicine people.

“There are people who rely on these healing ceremonies,” Bluehouse said. “Grandmothers who have physical ailments, veterans suffering PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families, all putting tremendous faith in the healing they feel can come through yeibichei dances.”

The 300 participants at the Dec. 2-4 summit hail from sovereign nations found within the borders of the southwestern U.S. states of Oklahoma, where in previous centuries many eastern tribes were relocated to reservations, Texas and New Mexico, where many tribes still live in portions of their pre-conquest ancestral homelands.

Sponsored by the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council (ITEC) with funds from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it included representatives from state and federal agencies – who, while welcomed, faced some tough questions from the audience.

Dr. Al Armendariz, the EPA’s new regional administrator, was asked, for example, how tribes could complete EPA objectives with limited financial resources. Many tribes must compete for EPA grant money and then match grants with up to 50 percent of their own money. For many, the cost of implementing needed programmes is prohibitive.

One assistant director of environmental affairs for his tribe, who preferred to remain anonymous, described the situation to IPS as “like throwing scraps to dogs”.

The EPA’s Region VI is a large area comprised of the states of Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, and of the 66 federally recognised tribes in these states. More than 750,000 Native Americans live on five million acres of tribal land in the region.

Although tribes share many values and goals, there is enormous diversity not only of ecosystems, but in language, customs, and history. New Mexico alone, where the summit took place, is home to 19 Pueblos, two Apache tribes, and part of the Navajo Nation. Some 20 percent of state land is tribally-owned.

But, as the governor of Santa Ana, Bruce Sanchez, put it in opening comments, “We all breathe the same air and drink the same water. There are no boundaries when it comes to the environment. The sooner we learn to survive on the mother earth, the better.”

Others raised concerns about the lingering health effects of past uranium mining, as well as air, land, and water contamination from Los Alamos National Laboratories. Given the Barack Obama administration’s support of nuclear energy as a so-called green alternative to coal and gas, these “legacy issues”, many feel, must be addressed.

Armedariz agreed, and told IPS, “Pushing nuclear power has to happen hand in hand with addressing historical issues. Safety and water issues are very big.”

Many tribal members, who preferred to remain off the record, disagreed with the idea that cleanup issues are “historical”, and remain sceptical that nuclear power can ever be green. In a state with a long history of dealing with pollution from the nuclear industry, the issue won’t go away.

All stressed that there is no single tribal perspective on how to deal with environmental problems because each tribe is unique, but that most tribe share values of protecting and preserving natural land, air, and water cycles for future generations.

Dozens of smaller sessions addressed specific initiatives, from a solar energy project on the small Pueblo of Jemez that offers promise for Indian Country’s capacity to meet the energy needs of the entire U.S. and dramatically reduce its carbon footprint, to a project of the National Tribal Environmental Council (NTEC) to build a national database among the 596 state-recognised tribes, using simple Internet technology to share information with each other and, ultimately, the U.S. and other governments.

NTEC has called for the inclusion of Indian tribal governmental representatives on the U.S. delegation to Copenhagen, and will be bringing a representative of the Montana-based Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes to the Dec. 7-18 U.N. climate conference.

When most people think of how climate change is affecting Native communities, images of Arctic tribes losing habitat to melting ice caps jump to mind. In the southwestern United States, the main issue is – as it has long been – water.

Unaddressed, climate change will bring severe drought. “Water is life,” says Michael Chavarria, former governor and current water quality officer for Santa Clara. “We need to water our corn, our chile, our melons, or they die off. The same for ourselves if we can’t consume our water.”

In New Mexico, river and spring water is used not only for subsistence agriculture, but for “cultural purposes”, with many Pueblo people drinking water in rivers and streams that they consider sacred from the point of origin.

When water or land is threatened, Chavarria, says, “Where are we going to go? There’s nowhere else for us to go. We’ve been on our reservations from time immemorial.”

Genevieve McGeisey, a Seminole water quality scientist with the Santa Ana tribe in New Mexico, agrees that the main impact of climate change in the southwest is the inconsistency of water supplies.

She viewed her work, not just as benefiting one tribe, but as a collaborative effort to help “all the stakeholders in the watershed”.

“We’re supposed to leave something for our kids, not take from them. We’re already five generations in debt. How are we going to fix it for our kids?” she asked.

Native Americans, she says, “need to become our own scientists, our own environmentalists. We can translate back to our tribe and speak to EPA or other government agencies in their terms, to make our concerns understood.”

Bernardino Chavarria Assistant Director in the Office of Environmental Affairs for Santa Clara, refers to the tribal professionals in his field as “conservationists”.

“All have PhD’s,” he said, clarifying that, while many actually do have degrees in environmental fields, “we are [also] all PhD’s of our own people, our own history. There’s so much knowledge in indigenous communities, which have been able to survive in harsh environments because of their knowledge of their land. We need to consult with them, to achieve mutual consent.”

ITEC Director Nancy Johns agrees. “Across the world, diverse as we are, indigenous people have the same appreciation and respect for mother earth.”

This veteran planner of conferences, asked if she could tell the planners of the Copenhagen one thing, answers readily. “Respect tribal sovereignty. Tribes are nations unto themselves. Include tribes in planning and thinking about these issues. Tribes should be right up there at the table.”

We have hours left to raise $12,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.