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The Top 15 Indigenous Water Stories of 2018

The water connects us all. As we look back on 2018 and the Indigenous water stories and knowledge that flooded our minds key themes emerge as well as questions for what we might face in 2019 as Indigenous Peoples and nations rising to protect the water. The following is a list of the world’s top fifteen Indigenous water stories you engaged with through our twitter account in 2018, as well as others that raise our collective consciousness for the water – in all its forms. Water is the lifeblood of Mother Earth and these stories represent the sometimes difficult but also triumphant journey she faces and the relatives who over the past year came to her defense.


1. Pipelines

Photo Credit: Zack Embree. Thousands gather in Metro Vancouver, British Columbia, for Indigenous-led "Protect the Inlet" mass mobilization against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline.

Like a game of whack-a-mole, Indigenous People are fighting pipeline after pipeline. In 2018 one of the most significant victories for Indigenous Peoples trying to block the Canadian Trans Mountain pipeline occurred when the Federal Court of Appeal found that the Canadian government fell short of meeting its consultation obligations. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion would threaten drinking water supplies of many First Nations. The hope was that the ruling would force Canada to reevaluate the way it adheres to Indigenous rights, but recent consultation hearings have shown that it may be colonial business as usual. Water protectors have mobilized in the Great Lakes region to fight against Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 and Line 5. Indigenous Nations in the region are concerned that the pipelines will destroy watersheds throughout the basin, including vital manomin (wild rice) habits. This year Indigenous People in Louisiana were also fighting to block the Bayou Bridge pipeline, another pipeline project of Energy Transfer Partners (the company behind the Dakota Access pipeline). Fortunately for Tribes in Virginia and North Carolina the Atlantic Coast pipeline permit was suspended in November 2018 when the court ruled the proposed pipeline path would potentially harm endangered and threatened species. Tribes in North Carolina have largely been left out of the permitting process and believe the pipeline is an extreme threat to the water. Indigenous resistance to pipelines is boiling over as nations learn from each other’s struggles, as they did with Standing Rock and the Dakota Access pipeline and with the Keystone XL pipeline. The whack-a-mole metaphor was especially pertinent in 2017 when President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum authorizing the construction of the previously denied Keystone XL pipeline and Dakota Access Pipeline. Thankfully good news arrived in November 2018 when a U.S. federal court blocked any further development of the Keystone XL Pipeline by Canadian company TransCanada. As each new attempt for pipeline proliferation and expansion occurs what is unwavering is Indigenous resistance and resilience for water protection.


2. Mining

Image designed by Dylan Miner. Circular text on the edge drawn by Nicolas Lampert. Guy Reiter from the Menominee Tribe guided us on the text and suggestions for the bear and the sturgeon fish imagery.)

2018 began with Menominee Tribe suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers for failure to review permits for the Back Forty Mine, an open-pit sulfide mine along the Menominee River proposed by Canadian mining company Aquila Resources. The Back Forty Mine threatens the origin of life for Menominee People – the Menominee River. It is sacred and integral to their cultural, spiritual and political existence. The mine would occupy and violate 1836 treaty territory where there are burial grounds, sacred sites, and sites of cultural importance. Unfortunately, the Tribe’s attempts to use the Clean Water Act and the National Historic Preservation Act in its claims to defend the water were dismissed by a judge in December ruling in favor of the Canadian mining company in violation of Indigenous rights. The Menominee will continue to fight to protect the river – water is life. And they were not alone in 2018, echoing this ancestral teaching were Indigenous nations around the world fighting against mining projects that would harm the water. ​​

The Animas River between Silverton and Durango in Colorado, USA, within 24 hours of the 2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill.

However, there were also ​​amazing victory stories in 2018. In February, the Navajo Nation’s fair compensation lawsuit against contractor Environmental Restoration, LLC for the damage caused by the Gold King Mine Spill was allowed to proceed, including their demand for punitive damages. In 2015, 3 million gallons of Gold King Mine wastewater laced with toxic metals dumped into the Animas and San Juan rivers resulting in devastating consequences for the Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Indian Tribe, as well as neighboring states. Many Indigenous victims of the spill are still waiting on compensation for their losses, and the site is listed as a Superfund site with contamination clean-up estimated to take a decade and ecosystem recovery indeterminate. Additional lawsuits are pending in federal court in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Dr. Karletta Chief (Navajo), a hydrologist, is helping communities recover from the spill and using Indigenous science to cultivate a new generation of scientists who can shape future water protection. This year the U.S. Supreme Court also upheld a uranium mining ban in the Grand Canyon protecting the water, sacred sites, and territories for several Tribes especially the Hualapai and Havasupai. In Australia, Indigenous Nations are fighting against the Adani company Carmichael Mine, a massive coal and rail project in Queensland that threatens the waters of the Wangan and Jagalingou people. The project threatens a sacred site of ancestral origin, the Doongmabulla Springs. The practices of Adani Mining are violating Indigenous rights, and their occupation of Indigenous territories is without the free, prior, and informed consent of the Wangan and Jagalingou. The United Nations has been petitioned to intervene and condemn the mining project. In 2018 we were awakened to the insatiable global thirst for the minerals beneath Mother Earth that is threatening the water.


3. Bulk Water Extraction

Six Nations youth protest to put a stop to Nestle.

Bulk water extraction was a major concern for Indigenous Peoples in 2018. One of the biggest culprits violating Indigenous rights for water extraction was water bottling company Nestlé. In April, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved a controversial permit for Nestlé Waters North America to extract more groundwater from the Great Lakes region despite over 80,000 public comments submitted against the permit approval. Many are concerned that there is not enough political will to stop the bulk water extractions threatening the Great Lakes. In South America, the Guarani Aquifer was also threatened in 2018 by a movement for privatization that would benefit the lucrative water industries of multi-national companies such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola. This year the Winnemem Wintu Tribe spoke out in opposition to attempts by Nestlé to bottle Shasta water. In Canada, Six Nations of the Grand River denied requests by Nestlé to draw water for its bottled water operations from Six Nations traditional territory. ​​In November, Six Nations youth marched for the protection of the aquifer, which they claim Nestlé has been stealing water from as they extract without Six Nations consent. The groundwater extraction activities of Nestlé on traditional Six Nations territory are especially disturbing given the lack of access to safe drinking water on the Six Nations reserve. Many Six Nations families have to buy bottled water to meet their household needs, even though the water filling the bottles is being extracted from their ancestral territories and resold to them at an exponential cost. Similarly, in March, K’ómoks First Nation came out in opposition to a bottling water request in their community. In April Maori youth leaders visited the United Nations and spoke out against Chinese water bottling company, Nongfu Spring, who want to extract hundreds of millions of liters of water from traditional Indigenous territories. This year showed us that the water wars are not something of the future; they are a current and present reality for Indigenous Peoples around the world. We are stronger together and our purchasing power as Indigenous Peoples is also commanding. This is the core reasoning behind a call to action issued by the Lakota People’s Law Project to boycott Nestlé and stand against ecocide.


4. Indigenous Declarations

Indigenous declarations for the protection of water and land have been increasing in recent years. In 2018, Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) declared its territory to be an “Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area”. The “Grassy Narrows Land Declaration” bans all industrial logging in Grassy Narrows’ Territory and asserts the Nation has jurisdiction and sovereignty over their lands. The Grassy Narrows Land Declaration was an essential assertion of First Nation sovereignty in response to ongoing water contamination and mercury poisoning of the region’s Indigenous Peoples. However, the Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek did not issue the only Indigenous Declaration this year. Indigenous Peoples at the 8th World Water Forum in Brazil declared that all rivers should be able to run free recognizing that hydrocolonialism around the world through dam proliferation are violating Indigenous Peoples’ rights. ​

Butchulla Bark Declaration

​Indigenous youth were also instrumental in 2018 for voicing concerns for Indigenous waters. In British Columbia 17-year-old Ta'kaiya Blaney (Tla'Amin First Nation) drew inspiration from the youth-led movement ‘March for our Lives’ by Parkland shooting survivors to organize a student walkout in opposition to Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. Indigenous youth continued to lead at the Mni Ki Wakan: World Indigenous Peoples’ Decade of Water Summit, an Indigenous youth initiative that brings together global actors for the protection of water and human rights.​​ The next summit will be held in the summer of 2019 in Aotearoa (New Zealand). ​​As the year came to a close, Indigenous Peoples of the Butchulla Nation in Australia signed the Butchulla Bark Declaration to ban gas fracking from their territory and protect the water. This year showed us that Indigenous declarations are epistemic of Indigenous legal systems and serve as intergenerational assertions of Indigenous sovereignty that are critical to water protection.


5. Defenders of the Sacred and Rising Camps

Photo Credit: Tony Webster. Solidarity with Unist'ot'en, Thunder Bay, Ontario

Photo Credit: Rogue Collective
Photo Credit: Zack Embree

In a decade when we look back on 2018, we will probably say it was the year of encampments for defenders of the sacred. Leading up to this year the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and the leadership of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe changed the world’s understanding of how to make sustainable decisions for water protection. However, what occurred at Standing Rock was a resurgence of old ways built on Indigenous diplomacy and political activism that has been carried through generations. Building on this resurgence new camps emerged for water protection in 2018. ​​The Tiny House Warriors led by Secwepemc Ktunaxa land defender Kanahus Manuel established a village along the Blue River in the path of the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline in hopes to prevent its construction on unceded territory of Secwepemcul’ecw. On the Canada-US border the Makwa and Spirit of the Buffalo camps were set up in opposition to Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 pipeline. Mi'kmaq people continued their active resistance to Alton Gas at their treaty camp and treaty truck house along the Shubenacadie River in defense of land and water. Along the Great Lakes in Northern Michigan Camp Anishinaabek was built to defend the land and water against Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline. The Unis’tot’en Camp was the target of a TransCanada injunction for removal from their occupied traditional lands which are in the path of construction of the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. In opposition to the B.C. court granting the injunction a second camp was set up and the fight to stop the pipeline continues. Indigenous water protectors were also active in 2018 in Louisiana defending against the Bayou Bridge pipeline (BBP) that would connect to the Dakota Access pipeline transporting Energy Transfer Partners’ crude oil. The L’eau Est La Vie (water is life) camp behind much of the BBP resistance is co-led by Indigenous water protector Cherri Foytlin. Representatives of the Houma Nation are resisting the pipeline because of the threats it poses to their drinking water. Many of the actions in defense of the sacred undertaken by Indigenous Peoples this year are still ongoing and have a long and arduous journey ahead of them as they fight to protect the water. ​​

Seneca Nation Defend Ohi:yo’ Press Conference

However, 2018 was also a year for great triumph as the Seneca Nation and water protectors successfully launched a campaign to Defend Ohi:yo’ (Allegheny River) from harmful disposal of shale gas fracking wastewater into their sacred river. This year the Seneca Nation’s defense of Ohi:yo’ stopped a harmful wastewater treatment facility from being built and inspired others to continue their resistance and defending the sacred.

Defend Ohi:yo’ celebrations after permit cancelled.


6. Drinking Water

Drinking water issues facing Indigenous Peoples dominated headlines in 2018. In Canada, the federal government has committed to ending long-term drinking water advisories on reserves by 2021. ​​This year they made some progress and said they are on track to meet their target date. The Middle River community of Tl'azt'en First Nation was among those reserves who had a drinking water advisory lifted this year after 14 years of their water being unsafe to drink. ​

​Despite the progress made in 2018 to eliminate long-term drinking water advisories on reserves, many First Nations are still living in “Third World conditions” without access to a safe quantity and quality of water for household needs. As the world works to implement the sustainable development goals, researchers in Manitoba received the designation as a UN Academic Impact hub to develop solutions to improve access to water and sanitation for First Nations. McMaster University is working on a project that co-develops water quality tools with nations recognizing that solutions must be tailored locally and a cultural match. A study published in April highlighted the need for real-time monitoring technology to address reserve water quality issues. Progress may have been made in 2018, but many Indigenous Peoples are tired of the false promises, racism, and discrimination that led to the denial of their human right to water. ​

Photo Credit: Waubgeshig Rice/CBC. 'Skoden' appeared in July 2018 on Sudbury's Pearl Street water tower. The term is Indigenous slang, loosely translated at 'let's go then.' It has since been removed.

​In July the term “SKODEN” was graffitied on a Sudbury water tower. The Indigenous term means “let’s go then” and perhaps it was a form of resistance activism to highlight the deplorable water conditions of many First Nations while other communities in Canada live without fear of what comes out of their taps. Unfortunately, Indigenous drinking water issues do not only plague Canada. In Australia, some Indigenous communities have been drinking water high in uranium, and Indigenous Peoples believe the government is ignoring the problem. As Indigenous Peoples when we do not have access to a safe quantity and quality of water for living, we are often forced to leave our homelands so that we can protect our families. Forced migration due to water insecurity was a finding of the U.S. Fourth National Climate Assessment released in November. Additional findings highlighted that one-fifth of all reservation homes and about one-third of people on the Navajo Reservation lacked access to running water (compared with 1% of U.S. national households). This year underscored the extreme water insecurities facing Indigenous Peoples globally from water system contamination due to natural disasters, pipeline leaks, fecal material, algae, and dilapidated infrastructure.


7. Legal Personhood for Water

Satellite image of the Great Lakes from space. 24 April 2000. SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, and ORBIMAGE.

In recent years the legal personhood of water has been gaining traction in legal systems around the world. In 2017 New Zealand granted legal personhood rights to the Whanganui river and soon after rivers in India, Columbia, and Australia received similar legal protections. This year provided further exploration into the practicability of granting legal personhood for the water in nations such as Chile and Canada. The movement for recognition of the legal personhood of water is led by Indigenous Peoples and is supported by Indigenous legal frameworks. As a result, some Indigenous Nations have adopted “Rights of Nature” articles to their constitutions and are exploring additional legal remedies for water protection. In February 2018 a petition presented to the House of Commons requested the Government of Canada formally acknowledge the Great Lakes as Living Entities and grant legal personhood. The petition was tabled later this year, but the movement led by Indigenous Peoples to protect the Great Lakes and have them recognized as living entities continues.


8. Urban Water Security and Indigenous Peoples

Photo Credit Diego Delso. Indigenous people peeling maize while overlooking Quito from El Panecillo, Ecuador.

The world rattled at the start of 2018 with fears that Cape Town, South Africa would become the first major city to run out of water. Cities around the globe are currently facing water shortages or will face massive urban water deficits by 2050. The water governance struggles of Cape Town sparked global concern for the future of urban water security. However, the future of city water was not all doom and gloom in 2018 as some cities learned from Cape Town and are taking up the challenge to build sustainably for 2030. However, what was missing from much of the conversation on urban water insecurity in 2018 was the potential impact water shortages might have on Indigenous Peoples. Some of the cities at risk for water deficits such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Miami, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Mexico City have some of the highest numbers of Indigenous Peoples living in them. Indigenous Peoples have been erased from contemporary understandings of urbanity; however, almost 800,000 Indigenous People live in Mexico City, 56% of Indigenous People in Canada live in urban areas, and 78% of Native Americans call U.S. cities home. Moreover, urban Indigenous populations are only expected to grow in the coming years, and many cities also share territory with existing reservation, reserve, treaty, and unceded lands. Scholars are working to expand urban studies to reframe our understandings of urban space as Indigenous space. Recently in Canada, there has also been an increase in the creation of urban reserves (land designated as a First Nations reserve within a city or town). All of these changes are important to consider as societies innovate for urban water security and hopefully partner with Indigenous Peoples in building sustainable cities.


9. Dams

Jim Learning Muskrat Fall Signs

The United States, Canada, Brazil, Guatemala, and Chile all made headlines in 2018 for building large dams while ignoring Indigenous rights. Brazil’s new president Jair Bolsonaro is not supportive of Indigenous rights and is committed to fast tracking mega-dam building in the Amazon. Indigenous Nations are resisting the construction of the São Luiz do Tapajós dam which would flood Munduruku Indigenous territory. This year National Geographic also documented how Chile is trying to build the Central Hidroeléctrica San Pedro dam in violation of Mapuche rights. Then there was the United States who announced in May that it is committed to raising the height of the Shasta Dam despite opposition from the Winnemem Wintu Tribe whose sacred lands would be flooded. Throughout the year Tribal Nations have advocated for dam removals to allow for river restoration and the return of sacred first foods. However, the journey for dam removal and non-proliferation is difficult given the increased need for renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuel dependency. Hydropower has been “greenwashed” and marketed to the public as an answer to the global climate crisis, but many are unaware of the common denominator of Indigenous rights violations. ​

Signs protesting the Site C dam are plentiful along Highway 29 between Fort St. John and Hudson's Hope. Photo credit: Emma Gilchrist, DeSmog Canada.

​Recently in Canada, many First Nations believed that a Federal Court of Appeal decision denying the Trans Mountain Pipeline would impact a decision on the Site C dam in favor of First Nations rights. However, this October the Supreme Court of British Columbia rejected the First Nations requests to stop the Site C dam project. West Moberly First Nation and Prophet River First Nation argue the damming of the Peace River for the Site C hydroelectric project is a violation of their treaty rights and would irreparably harm their nations. B.C. First Nations have claimed that the proliferation of hydropower is a form of “neo-colonization” that must be eradicated. Similarly, the Innu Nation is fighting the Muskrat Falls dam project to protect their sacred shipu (river). In August 200 scholars sent a letter to Prime Minister Trudeau calling on his government to stop the Muskrat Falls Dam project as it violates Innu and Inuit communities’ rights to free, prior, and informed consent. Thus 2018 was a year of continued large dam proliferation at the expense of Indigenous Peoples’ lands and waters.


10. Nations Not Stakeholders

Columbia River

This year was filled with an echoing cry from Indigenous Nations on water governance: “We are Nations not stakeholders!” Such roaring sentiments were never clearer than in the ongoing renegotiations of the Columbia River Treaty. Since May, Tribes and First Nations have repeatedly stated they are being excluded from the treaty renegotiation process. Indigenous Nations are fighting for a seat at the negotiation table instead of vague consultation crumbs being offered by the U.S. and Canadian governments once terms have already been negotiated. Some B.C. First Nations have found this affront to not only violate the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples but also to be a grave step backwards for Canadian reconciliation policy. For Indigenous leaders, the actions of the Canadian and U.S. governments are the most extreme forms of “bad faith diplomacy” that further water colonialism. In 2018 acts of water colonialism were not limited to North America, the Murray Darling Basin in Australia was rattled by corruption, water theft, and environmental crises. Indigenous Nations in the basin have used the Murray-Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations (MLDRIN) and Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations Group (NBAN) to respond to mismanagement in the basin by advocating for Indigenous water rights and securing cultural flows for water protection. Notably, this year the efforts of NBAN and MLDRIN have led to greater transparency and the expansion of the Murray Darling Basin Authority board to include Indigenous members. After 200 years Indigenous Nations in one of the world’s largest river basins now have a formal seat at the table for water decision-making. However, there are still many colonizing forces in the world purposefully trying to exclude Indigenous voices from water governance. This year a United Nations report found that the New Zealand government frequently ignores the Treaty of Waitangi Tribunal recommendations and has not meaningfully engaged Māori leaders for the protection of their water rights. The Waitangi Tribunal has already found in favor of Māori rights to water, but the New Zealand government continues to avoid meaningful consultation for resolution of Indigenous water rights claims. As Indigenous Nations move forward in the assertion of our water rights, we can look to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for guidance in implementing Indigenous water justice.


11. Native American Water Rights Include Groundwater

Agua Caliente Indian Canyons Stream. Photo courtesy of Trip Advisor.

​​Groundwater rights for Tribal Nations in the U.S. made headlines once again in 2018 as a groundbreaking study on the changing scope of Native American water rights was published in the journal Science in August by a team of Stanford University researchers. Their findings are based on a recent ruling from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirming that the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians has a reserved right to groundwater. In late 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court denied an appeal and the ruling of the lower courts in favor of the Tribe set a legal precedent for Indigenous groundwater claims charting a path for a new era of Indigenous water justice. The article entitled “Indigenous communities, groundwater opportunities” mapped unresolved Indigenous groundwater claims in vast areas of Indian Country. The authors also put forward that with increasing certainty of Indigenous water rights there is increased opportunity for Indigenous Nations to participate in emerging water markets. Now the study is not without critique and suffers from inadequate representation and co-authorship by the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, but we cannot deny that the publication’s global reach is changing groundwater discourse and putting Indigenous groundwater rights on the map. In June 2018 several Tribes including the Navajo and Southern Shoshoni began collaborating in opposition to a groundwater extraction scheme by Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) that would take 27 million gallons of groundwater each year from aquifers the Tribes depend on for their communities. There will undoubtedly be more litigation and water rights settlements of Indigenous claims to groundwater in the years to come. Despite the ongoing battle to quantify their groundwater rights the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians remains committed to exploring new ways to collaborate on water management and conservation issues with non-Indigenous partners in their community. Perhaps 2018 was a watermark year for groundwater rights not because the scales of justice weighed in favor of Indigenous Peoples, but because the conversation is now the catalyst for visioning a future that champions water security for all.


12. Fishing Rights

Men and women hauling a fishing net and fish on the Quileute Indian Reservation  Creator: Thompson, J.W.

Treaties are the supreme law of the land. However, in 2018 the treaties with Indigenous Nations continued to come under attack and be dishonored by the settler nations who signed them and their citizens who inherit the right of responsibility to ensure their fulfillment. This year was a tumultuous year for the protection of Indigenous fishing rights. Many Indigenous Peoples, especially our fishermen, feel as though the fish wars never ended. It is ironic that one of the greatest threats to settler fragility is a fish harvested by an Indigenous person. But this year the news was filled with stories of individuals calling the police on people of color for doing normal everyday tasks such as grilling for a BBQ, selling drinks at a kid’s beverage stand, and even Native American boys going on a college tour. So, it often comes with little surprise to Indigenous Peoples when they have their rights violated and their fish confiscated by settler government officers for exercising their ancestral and treaty-protected rights to fish. As one Cree father, the center of a recent Albert fishing rights case, told his eight-year-old son after he was discriminated against for exercising their rights “He (conservation officer) didn't understand what treaty rights are. We have a treaty right to catch fish but he didn't understand what it means, so now I have to go to court and talk to the judge and explain what a treaty right is and why we have a treaty right to keep these fish.” This Cree man is Clayton Cunningham and it is Indigenous People like him and others this year and past who fight for future generations and to ensure the treaties are honored. There also Indigenous Nations and territories that have existed prior to the imagined U.S./Canada border. In the exercise of their fishing rights the Peskotomuhkati Band are using the Desautel ruling (allowing an Indigenous man with U.S. citizenship to hunt in Canada) to advocate for the rights of all Passamaquoddy to fish in their ancestral waters. Similarly, fishermen from the Shinnecock Nation are fighting to protect their fishing rights in another “boundary” dispute. Ultimately, the fish do not acknowledge political boundaries and Indigenous Peoples are exercising rights that have existed since time immemorial and are treaty protected. This year also saw great moments of triumph for Indigenous fishing rights including the 4-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington v. U.S. that affirmed the ruling of the lower court requiring the state to fix or replace hundreds of culverts for the restoration of salmon habitats, which the Tribes argue is about “the inherent right to harvest from a plentiful, healthy supply of salmon.” Another Indigenous fishing win came this year when the B.C. Supreme Court issued a 400-page ruling finding that Fisheries and Oceans Canada had wrongly obstructed the fishing rights of First Nations and paved the way for an Indigenous commercial fishery. Despite these victories, it is harrowing that settler nations spend millions of dollars in litigation to try to escape their original promises made in the treaties with Indigenous Nations.


13. Orca Mother Mourning Her Calf

Photo taken by Janice Waite, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Mammal Laboratory.

In August the world mourned for a mother’s loss of her child. The mother Tahlequah, also known as J35, and her calf were Orca whales of the J pod of the Southern Resident community – the Pacific Ocean is their home. The same ocean afflicted by the plastic garbage patch, increased oil tanker traffic, and depletion of their primary food source chinook salmon. At the end of July, Tahlequah gave birth to a calf near Victoria, British Columbia but shortly thereafter the newborn calf died, and in what many saw as the ultimate act of mourning, Tahlequah carried her deceased child on “her forehead for an unprecedented 17 days and roughly 1,000 miles.” It is unclear why J35 was named Tahlequah, but the weight of its origin is not forgotten. The name Tahlequah originates from the Cherokee Nation and among some there is an oral history that attributes the name to a period of rebuilding by the Cherokee people after they were forced on the Trail of Tears where thousands of innocent men, women, and children died. There is no mourning or sadness like that of the tears a mother sheds for the loss of a child. Tahlequah and her calf were an awakening. Whales have long been messengers for Indigenous Peoples. In June, only a month before Tahlequah’s mourning pilgrimage, the Trump Administration disbanded the National Ocean Policy removing references to climate change, ecosystem-based management, and Indigenous Peoples. ​​​​The Ocean and our relatives are crying out, and many Indigenous Nations are heeding their cry. Indigenous artists have memorialized mother and calf in a wide array of mediums including at the SWAIA Indian Market Fashion Show as a ribbon skirt, the physical embodiment of female connection to Mother Earth as it sweeps the ground. In June, the Canadian government and coastal First Nations agreed to co-management of marine ecosystems. Most recently, Tahlequah and her calf have been invoked in public hearings across the Pacific Northwest fighting against the Trans Mountain pipeline and other threats to the water and our relatives.


14. Mobilizing Indigenous Water Sciences

Getting a hands on demonstration from salmon fisherwomen. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

There was an increasing demand for the integration of Indigenous science for water management this year. However, the difficulty that also arose was around implementation. Indigenous sciences are knowledge systems that must maintain ownership by the Indigenous Nations from which they originate. Indigenous science cannot be cherry-picked for use by western scientists. This presents a challenge for many non-Indigenous governments, scientists and practitioners who are increasingly seeing water policy mandates for the inclusion of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (sometimes termed traditional ecological knowledge) but receive little to no guidance on how to authentically value Indigenous science and build decision-making partnerships with Indigenous Nations. But fear not, because 2018 gifted us with Indigenous-led water science research programs from around the world that hopefully will inspire our shared sustainable path forward. One example comes from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario Canada where researchers were awarded a Global Water Futures grant for a project on “Co-creating of Indigenous Water Quality Tools” — supervised by Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill (Mohawk), the Paul R. MacPherson Chair in Indigenous Studies at McMaster University. For this project, an interdisciplinary team of scientists are working to co-develop sensors and other water quality management tools that will allow Six Nations of the Grand River and Lubicon Lake First Nation to monitor drinking water quality. On the other side of the Canadian coast at the University of British Columbia there is the Decolonizing Water Project, an Indigenous-led program for co-research on water that is also working to bridge the gap for cost-effective water monitoring tools for Indigenous Nations. In 2018 good news for Indigenous science also emerged out of Aotearoa where the Cawthron Institute published findings that river health should include kaupapa Māori approaches for water management. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual conference held in Washington, D.C. this year also featured the most Native Science and Indigenous oriented sessions in its history and the creation of the Indigenous AGU Collaborative Network. A call to action was issued by Dr. Karletta Chief (Navajo) to all AGU members to “attend an AGU 2018 Indigenous session and to consider mentoring a Native American student in Earth and planetary sciences.”

Representatives from Mountain Institute accept St Andrews Prize May 2018.

Indigenous knowledge systems enhance the diversity of the sciences, but mobilization for our collective benefit is strengthened by the allies who heed our calls for collaboration. The stories of Indigenous water science prevailing in 2018 continued when the University of St Andrews Prize for the Environment was awarded to the Mountain Institute and the Indigenous communities of Canchayllo and Miraflores in Peru for their use of Indigenous science to restore ancestral water technologies and hydraulic systems for mountain water security. These stories are emblematic of what we hope becomes an ever-growing trend for 2019 where Indigenous science is not only valued but Indigenous-led and implemented.


15. Indigenous Water Protectors Receive Recognition

In 2018, the world received the message that it is time to “Warrior Up” from teenage Anishinaabekwe Autumn Peltier as she addressed the United Nations General Assembly during the March World Water Week at UN headquarters in New York City. She may be young, but she is one of the world’s most formidable water protectors. The youth are not our future they are our present leading us into a new era of global climate consciousness. If 2018 showed us anything it was a reclamation of Indigenous power and that the future of water security is very much female. Joan Carling received a Champions of the Earth Award from UNESCO in recognition of her work in defense of land and water for Indigenous Peoples of the Philippines. However, Carling’s advocacy for Indigenous rights also made her a target of an authoritarian government listing her on the terrorist watch list. Her story is not unlike many other Indigenous activists labeled as terrorists, arrested, imprisoned, or worse murdered for their defense of Mother Earth. And yet the water protectors continued to rise triumphantly throughout the year. Protectors such as Mere Tamanui, a Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti woman, who received a New Zealand River Award for her work using Māori knowledge and science to restore the rivers of Aotearoa. Then there was Chief Lorraine Crane of Slate Falls Nation who received the inaugural First Nation Water Leadership Award from the Government of Canada for her work to combat her nation’s long-term drinking water advisories. This year an Indigenous author, Joanne Robertson (Anishinaabe), was also recognized for her water work; specifically her book The Water Walker (Second Story Press) won an Indigenous Literature Award. This same book has been instrumental in cultivating a movement of #JuniorWaterWalkers, a cohort of school children from classrooms around the world learning about how to protect the water to honor the work of Grandmother Josephine Mandamin one of the nookomisag (grandmothers) to have walked all of the Great Lakes in ceremony for their protection. This year amazing Indigenous women mobilized in defense of the lifeblood of Mother Earth and were recognized for their courage, kindness, and fortitude. They also inspired a new generation of water protectors through the speeches they gave, the awards they won, the books they wrote, and all the other thankless jobs they undertook to protect the water. I am sure if you asked them why they do what they do they would simply, but beautiful reply because ‘Water is Life’.


In 2019, we hope that the water protectors continue to rise. We hope that the women whose bodies are so intimately connected to Mother Earth are sheltered from violence and lifted up so that they may carry out their responsibilities for the water. We hope for a world that unshackles itself from the chains of colonialism and capitalism. We hope that rivers run free and wild. We hope that Indigenous rights are respected and that UNDRIP is implemented. We hope that the world begins to rebuild its connection to water and recognize it has spirit, it is living, and deserves legal rights and protections. Lastly, we hope that our minds may come together and the world comes to know the true meaning of ‘Water is Life’.

Follow Indigenous Waters on Twitter for 2019 Indigenous water stories @TribalWater. Follow Kelsey on Twitter @KelseyTLeonard.

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