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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