Water. Culture. Tradition. Protection.

“I used to think my inheritance was the land, the right to fish and hunt. But our true inheritance is the responsibility to care for it.” -Shirod Younker, speaking to students at the first Changing Currents Youth Water Summit, August 2019

Water is important to all of us – whether it be for our most basic health needs, our livelihoods, or to maintain the critical ecosystems and beautiful places that have drawn people to Oregon for hundreds of years.

For Oregon tribal members and Indigenous communities that have lived here since time immemorial, the relationship to water goes beyond seeing it as a resource for our use. Water – and specifically the water that nourishes these homelands – is an inherent part of tribal culture, spirituality, society and identity. Many Native people view their relationship to Oregon’s rivers, waterways and the interdependence of natural systems as one of stewardship and reverence. However, the responsibility of stewardship is becoming more difficult to uphold as the demands and pressures on water increase.

Today we introduce you to one of the co-founders of Changing Currents, a new initiative from the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians (ATNI) that aims to foster deeper, collective dialogue about water protection and its importance to tribal communities throughout the Northwest to ensure the health of Native people and preserve Native ways of life for many generations to come.


Direlle Calica is a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and is of Warm Springs, Wasco, Yakama, Molalla and Snoqualamie tribal descent. When she’s not creating new venues for intertribal collaboration on water policy, Direlle serves as the Director of PSU’s Institute for Tribal Government and as ATNI’s Energy Program Policy Analyst. Direlle organized the first Changing Currents Tribal Water Summit in August 2017 at the University of Oregon, which has led to additional summits in Washington (June 2018), Idaho (September 2019), and one dedicated specifically for tribal youth (August 2019).

Over the past year, OEC’s water program staff have traveled around the state with the Changing Currents team to meet with Oregon tribal leaders and natural resource staff to build relationships, learn about tribal water policy priorities, and incorporate tribal values and protocols into our approach to policy advocacy. 

Now we’re taking a moment from the road to feature our partner! Together we are working to elevate the conversation around access to clean water and healthy rivers across Oregon. We hope this conversation inspires you to think more broadly about the many relationships we all have to water and adds context to the statewide conversation about what we need to do to protect it for generations to come.

Without further ado… 

OEC: What is Changing Currents?
Direlle: Changing Currents is an intertribal forum for Oregon tribes and Pacific Northwest tribes to have a dialogue about water issues – whether that’s policy related, infrastructure, or stories about our relation to water in our communities. 

It came about as a concept four or five years ago when we identified a need for a space to talk about water issues where it doesn’t play a secondary role to discussions about fish and wildlife resources or utilities. We wanted to give water top billing and bring it front-and-center; to talk about how water relates every day to our culture, governance, economic infrastructure, and community health and wellness. 

OEC: Your previous work has been in the energy sector. How did you get into water?
Direlle: When I went to law school, I wanted to do water and natural resource policy work. I wasn’t sure how that would intersect with tribes, but I always had a passion for tribal work and tribal law. Since then, I’ve been trying to find a path back to that, even in energy work.

Our energy infrastructure in the Northwest is very related to water policy and water infrastructure. After 11 years working on the energy side, I’ve seen that there’s a lot of translation between both energy and water as resources, especially around energy and water conservation and integrating them into sustainable community models. The difference, however, is that there really isn’t that space for water discussions and planning in the same way as in energy, and there’s going to be a growing need for that. I don’t think I would have seen those intersections if I hadn’t worked in the energy sector.

OEC: Why is this project important now?
Direlle: When there’s increased demand for energy resources, in theory you could add more generation to energy infrastructure. You can’t create new and more water systems.

Water is an area that we’ve taken for granted. There’s a lot at play here, especially in tribal communities with regard to the demand placed on the watersheds we call our homelands. How do we balance our needs with the needs of our neighbors? How do we create a common understanding of our shared need for clean, healthy water?

This has really been highlighted for me in thinking about what my own community is experiencing with aging water infrastructure and system reliability in Warm Springs and concern for access to quality drinking water. Not only are we having issues with broken water lines, but planning a community that pulls drinking water from the lower Deschutes River opened us up to greater health risks. After it travels through Central Oregon cities and agricultural land, when the water gets to us, it’s not the same clean, clear water as in the upper basin. Now we’re having to look at our basic human need for water we can drink, consume and use to take care of our people and health. Clean drinking water is an issue for many communities, but I think especially for other tribal communities who will have to deal with similar challenges in regard to when and where our infrastructure systems were built.

OEC: How have you seen Oregon’s environment change in your lifetime? Or through the stories and experiences of your elders?
Direlle: My parents were old enough that they could recall being able to drink untreated water right out of our rivers. Those waterways were pure and clean, and fish were still coming back into the tributaries. My generation is at the pivotal point of wondering, will there still be fish in the mainstem river, are we going to have abundant waters, will we still have snow pack? I don’t think our elders were even thinking about annual snow pack levels and climate change, but the variance in the landscape has come about so quickly. 

We’re losing the last generation of folks that experienced cold, clean water coming out of the mountains, also the last generation to have seen and felt Celilo Falls. Now that is just part of oral tradition. I will never see, and my kids will never hear, the roar of the falls and all of the people gathering fish there, or the abundance of fish there. Now we’re at a time when we are counting fish in single and double digits, but there were thousands for my grandparents’ generation.

What is it that we’re inheriting and what will we leave behind? We’re taught to leave those resources better than when we found them, and it’s getting harder and harder to live up to that cultural ideal. But it’s our duty.

OEC: How do policy efforts today impact our future?
Direlle: As I listen to people talk about how projects like the Jordan Cove LNG terminal will change the landscape of Coos Bay, I hear the same conversations our ancestors heard and the things they felt when people were talking about putting in the federal power projects on the Columbia. Those changes were going to take place regardless of how we felt about them or how they would affect our landscapes.

Can we look to the past to change this narrative today?

We’re at a really critical time. Maybe all generations feel that way, but I really feel like we are. I think back to my childhood and the conversation about global warming (now climate change) 20-40 years ago. That was the time we needed to do something about it, but I feel like it fell on deaf ears with the adults that had the power to do something about it. Now it is landing on the shoulders of my generation and future generations to drive climate and water policy – and wow, do we have a lot of work to do.

OEC: What do you think is the most important thing for non-Native people to understand about tribes and water protection?

Direlle: A lot of people have a romanticized view of Native people and think that we’re part of an historic narrative that is buried in an archaeological archive. But we are a living, thriving people today. The issues facing Native Americans aren’t that different from other people: the economy, healthcare, other social woes.

But for tribal people, this was our homeland – the places we all live today and call Oregon, Washington. We live here now, we lived here before, and we were displaced to reservations. Regardless of where you are in Oregon, you are on tribal, Indigenous people’s land, and we are still here as sovereigns much like other nations, which is important to understand when we are talking about natural resource policy. Oregon tribes are active participants in state and federal policy, as well as stewardship and management of our shared resources. 

OEC: What is your hope for the future of water here and our relationship to it?

Students at the Changing Currents Youth Water Summit in August 2019
Photo credit: Keizia Setyawan

Direlle: We were at a beautiful cove at Shore Acres State Park last week for the Changing Currents Youth Water Summit, and my husband, Shirod, stepped in some petroleum hiding in a pool of water on the beach. It got stuck to his toe and all over his hands. Even in these beautiful places, we can’t take for granted the signs that we’ve done damage. These beaches are not immune to what’s happening out in our oceans, and sometimes you’re literally going to step in it.

I want people to become aware of the misconception that Oregon and the Pacific Northwest is this water-rich region — that we can do with it what we like, and water is always going to be there. That we’re always going to have these beautiful falls coming out of the Willamette National Forest, and have pristine waters. I want people to not take it for granted. Nature can heal itself, but we need to do our part to not add more damage than it can handle. 

Oregon has a history of respecting natural places, keeping beaches clean, recycling bottles – these values have been a part of our culture for decades. I hope we don’t forget that leadership, and part of that story is also acknowledging that Indigenous people have been here taking care of these resources since time immemorial. I want Oregon to continue to be a leader of environmental stewardship, acknowledge the diversity of people living here today, and recognize First Peoples and their relationship to this land.

Stay tuned for more updates on Changing Currents and what we’re hearing from communities around the state about how to plan for a sustainable and just water future. Share your hopes for Oregon’s water future and our relationship to this important resource in the comments below!



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1 Reply to "Water. Culture. Tradition. Protection."

  • David Matz
    September 5, 2019 (2:59 am)

    Thank you for helping create this space for a collaboration on how we all can work to improve access to clean water!