As Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk blew tobacco smoke next to him, Lee Polanco Sr. spoke through a megaphone to more than 100 tribal people who gathered at the California State Capitol Steps in Sacramento on Friday, September 26.
“We’re not dead. We don’t belong in museums. We’re here in the streets today to teach the Indians and the non-Indians how to survive because we are running out of water,” said Polanco, an elder of the Coahuiltec people of Texas. “There is nowhere on Earth where life can exist without water. It’s not a commodity.”
September 26 marked Native American Day across California, and the California State Tribal Liaisons organized a “Water Is Sacred” event at the Capitol, featuring speeches by tribal leaders and cultural demonstrations by various tribal dance groups.
Prior to the government-sponsored program, a unified group of activists, community members and leaders representing tribes from throughout the state marched from the Tower Bridge down to the Capitol chanting, “Water is sacred! Not for sale!” and waving signs such as, “We Are Not Defeated!” and, “My Ancestors Taught Me Water Is Sacred.”
Participants said they were told by event organizers that Governor Jerry Brown was unnerved by the march, perceiving it as a protest, and thus declined to make his scheduled appearance at the Native American Day festivities. In previous years he has been on hand to read a proclamation of support.
“It was a beautiful march done in a peaceful way, and it’s unfortunate someone with an active imagination turned a positive message into a negative movement,” said Rhonda Pope of the Buena Vista Rancheria of Me-Wuk Indians, one of the sponsors of the march. “This is one of many things our tribe does to bring unity to the Native community.”
Anecita Agustinez, Tribal Advisor for the California Department of Water Resources, said the governor was simply overbooked, with nearly 800 bills to review before the end of the month.
“To have an event on the Capitol steps with the theme of ‘Water Is Sacred’ really helps people understand our tribal view that water is life, and every drop needs to be valued,” Agustinez said.
California is in the midst of a historic drought, and water is a political issue that can quickly raise tensions, especially with tribes that are trying to protect fisheries, watersheds and ecological systems that are integral to their cultures and economies.
Many California tribal officials and representatives have been critical of the state agencies’ consultation policies, especially in relation to the growth of fracking, Brown’s backing of a proposal to build two giant underground tunnels to export water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and investigations into increasing water storage proposals with dam projects that would damage cultural resources.
“We’re short timers here, and we have to think about what we’re going to leave behind for grandchildren and great grandchildren,” said Sisk, whose own tribe has many sacred sites that would be submerged by a plan to raise the Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. “They don’t need their water to be fracked, dammed and poisoned.”
Winnemem Wintu Chief and Spiritual Leader Caleen Sisk blows tobacco smoke as Lee J. Polanca Sr. of the Coahuiltec people from Texas discuss the sacredness of water at the California State Capitol steps on Friday, September 26.
Also, this fall, California citizens will vote on whether to publicly fund Proposition 1, a water bond of $7.5 billion, which would be used to create additional water storage, clean up groundwater and expand water recycling. The funding is not tied to particular projects, and there is fear that if the bond passes, the money could be used for projects that are damaging to tribal cultural resources and that primarily benefit agricultural interests.
“There are a lot of deals being made at the capitol with the waters,” said Alroy Barlow of the Bishop Paiute Tribe. “It’s important that we pray for the waters, and make sure our voices are heard.”