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Threats to Indian Country Highlighted by Pii Paash Nation at ‘Waters Connect Us’ Event

Water rights and threats to water throughout Indian country were the subject of a recent gathering, Waters Connect Us, hosted by Gila River Indians.

They came from across the hemisphere to share stories of threats to the water. They gathered, too, to honor the late John Trudell, who walked on last year, and to carry on his message, Water Is Life, by reading his poem of the same name.

It was mid-March, and the Pii Paash Uumish (The People Nation) of the Gila River Indian Community hosted indigenous grassroots water protectors in a three-day gathering, The Waters Connect Us. It started in Phoenix with a tribute to Trudell’s work, hosted by Chicago photographer/activist Rosy Torres. Trudell’s daughter, Tara Trudell, arrived after delivering 400 gallons of drinking water with the No More Deaths program to migrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border. She read original poems as well as Water Is Life, which Trudell wrote in the early ’90s. Poets, spoken-word artists, musicians, painters, and those who had worked with and loved Trudell honored him with songs and memories. Pii Paash rapper and emcee Che Christ closed the evening with songs from his 2012 album The Art of Not Dying: A Diary of Better 2morrows, which Trudell had inspired with words such as these:

"They can't stop the earthquake, the volcano and the tornado. They can't stop power. We are a spiritual connection to the Earth. As individuals we have power and, collectively, we have the same power as the earthquake, the tornado, and the hurricanes.”

Diné activist Louise Benally from the Black Mesa Community in Northern Arizona welcomed everyone on the second day by opening with a water ceremony. Benally has worked tirelessly to stop Peabody Energy Co.’s coal mining operation on her Diné homeland. The installation has caused decades of irreversible damage to the land, water and Diné people since the strip mines began operating in 1970.

But she and others who have fought arduously to stop Peabody may yet see their dream come to fruition. In a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission issued on March 16, Peabody Energy stated that it failed to make interest payments totaling more than $70 million for outstanding loans and indicated “substantial doubt” that the company will be able to continue to operate. If the company does not pay within 30 days, it could default and may have to seek protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. According to Peabody’s website, its NYSE stock price had fallen more than 47 percent, to $2.10 per share, on the day of the announcement.

Community empowerment was next on the agenda, with keynote speaker Debra White Plume, Oglala Lakota, of Owe Aku, speaking on the importance of that and building solidarity in order to protect indigenous water rights from corporate exploitation, greed and federal Indian policy. Owe Aku is a native-led nonprofit organization based on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation that works to preserve and protect the Lakota way of life.

White Plume, a lifelong proponent of environmental and treaty rights, has most recently been in a nine-year battle to stop Canada-based Cameco Corp. from expanding its leach uranium mining operation near Crawford, Nebraska. In 2007, Owe Aku, along with the Oglala Sioux Tribe, filed for intervener status in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB) license renewal process initiated by Cameco, the world’s largest uranium producer. This ongoing battle to protect the tribe’s water rights as defined in the 1868 Ft. Laramie Treaty with the U.S. led to the production of the award-winning documentary Crying Earth Rise Up, which highlights White Plume’s case.

Next were presentations from 19 indigenous nations regarding threats to their water. They also shared success stories with members of the Pii Paash Uumish, whose water supply is being threatened by numerous outside forces.

Reuben Cruz (Pii Paash) presented recently discovered evidence of threats to his community’s water, including a Gila River tribal government deal with Rio Tinto to provide water credits to the proposed Resolution copper mine at sacred Apache Oak Flat, according to the organizer’s press release. In a 2014 announcement, Senator Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) expressed his support of fellow Senator John McCain’s (R-Arizona) 11th-hour controversial deal to sell the sacred land to Resolution Copper Mining Co., a subsidiary of British/Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, and announced that the company had struck a deal with the Gila River Tribe.

“I was encouraged to learn that the company has entered into a contract with the Gila River Indian Community to use a portion of the tribe’s water supplies to meet the long term needs of the mine.” stated Senator Flake in the U.S. Senate Session on December 10, 2014, referring to Resolution Copper.

But Flake was far from neutral, having served as a paid lobbyist for Rio Tinto’s Rossing Uranium Mine in Namibia, Africa in the early 1990s, according to a 2013 report in Huffington Post.

Other political maneuvering is at stake for the Pii Paash, including a land-grab battle to rezone their territory, bringing in reclaimed water in exchange for their clean drinkable water, and a proposed Loop 202 highway project that will divert a vital aquifer recharge watershed, according to Cruz.

“I was honored to host our relatives from near and far, here on our traditional homelands,” Cruz said. “We plan to continue in our water protection work at this critical time as our waters are being sold off and depleted.”

Photo: Courtesy Rosy Torres

Waters Connect Us Organizer Reuben Cruz Pii Paash Nation), gets the crowd going.

Frontline presenters came from as far as Saskatchewan and Ecuador, California and New York, and all points in between. They included Idle No More co-founder Nina Waste’ Wilson (Nakota/Cree), longtime uranium activist Manuel Pino (Acoma Pueblo), Oak Flat leader Wendsler Nosie Sr. (Apache), Eloise Brown (Diné), founder of Doda Desert Rock, and Janene Yazzie (Diné), co-founder of Sixth World Solutions. Leona Morgan (Diné), co-founder of Diné No Nukes and the Radiation Monitoring Project, presented on her work to protect water from uranium mining and led a strategy and organizing exercise aimed to support future Pii Paash actions. The events were documented by the Lakota Media Project, the Peoples Media Project, and youth from the Salt River Indian Community.

Pino, a founding member of Laguna-Acoma for a Safe Environment and board member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, enlivened the crowd as he expressed the harsh reality of decades of exploitation of our natural ecosystems.

“We have lived with contamination so long, that we began to accept it as a fact of life,” stated Pino. “And that has to change.”

The participants came to a consensus to support the Pii Paash’s stand that the Gila River Tribal Council must rescind the actions it took without the knowledge or support of tribal community members, who honor the value of the water their ancestors fought so hard to protect.

“The Waters Connect Us gathering shines a light on the precedent-setting action of the Gila River tribal government to provide its people’s water to Rio Tinto Corporation to mine copper at sacred Oak Flat,” White Plume said. “We support the Gila River Tribe to rescind its action and instead take steps to preserve precious water for the ecosystem and coming generations.”

The gathering grew out of many months of community education and planning by the Pii Paash and allies from the four directions. Attendees helped strategize the next steps for the Pii Paash water protection campaign. Future Waters Connect Us gatherings are planned for late summer in the Four Corners region and Saskatchewan, Canada in the fall.