Protecting a sacred resource

Water can’t wait. The importance of restoration & collaboration.

By Aja DeCoteau,
Watershed Department Manager, Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and OEC Board Member

Water is life—Chuush Iwa Wak’ Ishwit in the Yakama language—has become a rallying cry for the water protection movement across the United States. While the Dakota Access Pipeline has brought the rights and traditions of Native people into the national spotlight, preserving the integrity of this sacred resource is not a new challenge for Northwest tribes.

For more than 200 years, development, pollution, and overuse of water have left our rivers—and all life that depends on them—at risk. The record high water temperatures in 2015, and this year’s record-low salmon returns in the Klamath and Columbia rivers, are just some of the symptoms of a degraded earth. These changes leave our traditions and primary tribal food sources hanging in the balance.

OEC’s water team is meeting with tribes to better understand their priorities for our shared water resources and ways we can work together to advance solutions to the water challenges we face as a state.

Tribal environmental regulations on their reservation lands have long gone beyond state and federal regulations to be more protective of natural resources, and through partnerships we are also making progress to incorporate holistic environmental values and management practices throughout the entire region.

Across Oregon, tribes are investing in the restoration of important salmon habitat and working with their neighbors to keep more water flowing in streams. Collaboration between Oregon farmers and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla was critical in restoring salmon to the Umatilla River after 75 years of no returns. Near John Day, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are helping landowners transition to more efficient, modern irrigation methods to help conserve water. And tribes are undertaking projects to rebuild natural stream channels and replant critical native trees and shrubs across the state.

There are many ways of explaining the value of water to our lives.

Some Oregon tribes believe water was the first gift the Creator gave to humans. But for all Oregonians, water is the most important resource we have, and we must all take responsibility for protecting it for future generations.

Together, we can create bigger, broader, long-standing change to the health of our river systems.

“My grandmother taught me that the first thing you do in the morning is drink water. This practice opens up your body to something that is pure, something that is good for you, and serves as a way of giving thanks. Here in Oregon, we pride ourselves on being environmentalists, but are we truly acting like it? The cleansing capability of our waters is eroding because of human pollution. The water needs our help to heal. Water helps sustain us and give us life. Now it is our turn to help water.” 

— Cheryle Kennedy, Tribal Council Vice Chair, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde

“Our people used to drink straight out of the Columbia River. After the dams went in in the 50s and industry increased, we started to get sick. Now, tribal elders say you couldn’t pay them to drink out of the Columbia, our historic lifeline. But there are windsurfers in the river all of the time. How is the health of the river affecting them? Clean, cool water is like our blood – it’s what keeps the earth alive.”

— Kat Brigham, Board of Trustees, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

“Water is sacred. The water protectors at Standing Rock knew that. Billy Frank, Jr. knew that. The residents of Flint, Michigan know it. Human beings are 75% water. We can’t poison or disrupt water without poisoning and disrupting all life.” 

— Shawn Fleek, Northern Arapaho, Community Engagement Coordinator,  OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon

This story first appeared in our bi-annual printed newsletter, Summer 2017.

You can read the full Summer 2017 newsletter (PDF) or sign up to receive monthly email updates from OEC here.


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1 Reply to "Protecting a sacred resource"

  • Jean Wyman
    August 23, 2017 (4:00 am)

    I think this is incredibly cool. As a member of the oppressive class, I love to see Native Americans reassert themselves and their claims to this beautiful land us whities have almost destroyed with our greed. I’ve fought my class all my life. When Wounded Knee happened and Leonard Pelitier was framed and went to prison I could hardly stand it. But now I see Natives using their amazing culture and knowledge of the land to fix the mess we’ve made and it makes all the lost battles seem worth it and maybe won. If there is a place to send a donation, let me know.