In this text written together, Alyosha Goldstein and Julia Bernal make sure that the stewardship of water, as well as its access, incarnates a full dimension of the LANDBACK movement. Using the example of the Pueblo Action Alliance directed by Julia, they demonstrate how the fight for WATERBACK is fundamental to both Indigenous sovereignty and to a decolonial ecology.
In early October 2021, Pueblo Action Alliance (PAA) traveled to Washington, DC as an Indigenous contingent of mainly femmes, matriarchs, and 2spirit youth to represent their nations in the fight against extractive colonialism as part of the “People vs. Fossil Fuels” action. The week-long event gathered Indigenous and environmental organizations from across the so-called United States and throughout the world to directly confront the Biden administration with demands for policies to “Build Back Fossil Free.” Thousands of people involved in collectively opposing oil and gas pipelines, fracking, offshore drilling, militarism, plastic production, and the carbon economy came together for this DC action. More than 530 activists were arrested by the police. Indigenous peoples led the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs with a list of demands that included LANDBACK, WATERBACK, as well as the abolition of the bureau itself. Under conditions of accelerating climate catastrophe and insatiable economies of dispossession, foregrounding the interrelation of land, water, air, and Indigenous self-determination is crucial for the fight against the lethal consequences of colonial-capitalist extractivism.
Along with its other environmental and community defense work, youth programs, ceremonial action, and solidarity initiatives, the Pueblo Action Alliance’s “WATERBACK” campaign is an indispensable counterpart to the now prominent Indigenous demand for LANDBACK. Both the campaign, which was launched in November 2020, and PAA’s “WATERBACK Manifesto” call for the rematriation of all water resources stolen under colonial-capitalist regimes and the resurgence of Indigenous self-determination, identity, and worldviews. From a Pueblo perspective, rematriation is reasserting balance with the natural world and centering the maternal relations of water, Indigenous matrilineal systems, and community defense. WATERBACK in practice is not limited to the legal arena of rights or the resolution of water litigation and adjudication, but has to do with the capacity to protect and practice Indigenous political, cultural, and spiritual reciprocity with water, land, and place. The manifesto also refuses the colonial ascription of a monolithic Indigeneity, instead highlighting how Indigenous peoples experience and respond to dispossession specific to their territories. Although at times overlooked and underestimated as a counterforce to imperial dominion, the Indigenous peoples of the 20 current Pueblos in the arid lands of what are presently the states of New Mexico and Texas precede by thousands of years the succession of colonial occupations by Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Centering Pueblo youth and femmes to envision and enact a living Pueblo futurism, the Pueblo Action Alliance asserts the interdependence of land, water, and Indigenous ways of being in the world to reject the prevailing imperatives for property, market value, and so-called economic growth.
Before colonial water governance, Indigenous peoples of their respective territories developed and implemented water management strategies based in reciprocity and stewardship. These strategies continue to be a vital part of Pueblo political life. By contrast, the dominant colonial-capitalist water paradigm quantifies and administers access to water within a market system that privileges use for “economic development” and large-scale agribusiness while ignoring other collective relations with and responsibilities to the more-than-human world. Just as the Public Land Survey System established by the 1785 Land Ordinance systematically imposed a grid of property division amenable to settler real estate transactions, the quantification of water prioritizes capitalist social relations over and against other forms of collective life. This institutionalized and instrumentalized system of water delivery and storage is unsustainable for life on and of the earth.
New possibilities emerge instead from learning from and living with how “water is transformative,” as the WATERBACK Manifesto asserts. The Santa Clara Pueblo architectural historian and artist Rina Swentzell writes vividly of the interrelation of water with all elements of land and life. In a 2012 essay, she observes that “water brings with it the soil, the ground that it moves through, making the quality of water in any watershed unique. Then, as we drink that water, our lifeblood, we are again and always one with and part of that place, part of that watershed, part of that unique community.” This cycle of water and life moves from underground, to the earth’s surface, rising to become clouds in the sky, and then returning to the soil to begin again, all the while nourishing and connecting land, air, and living beings.
The Pueblo Action Alliance was first created in response to the Standing Rock movement in 2016. PAA remains aligned with the movement’s insistence that “Water Is Life,” as well as the militant fight for inherent Indigenous sovereignty, treaty rights, and the protection of water and land from extractive colonialism and capitalist depredation. What PAA learned from their collective experience with their northern relatives is that the same extraction was happening on Pueblo sacred and culturally significant lands. In the wake of Standing Rock, PAA organizers began a process of self-education about Indigenous resistance movements on a global scale as well as Pueblo Indigenous history, including the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The PAA studied community and land defense by the Zapatistas in Chiapas and the Purépecha Mountain Community in Michoacán. Facilitated by the international political education initiatives of the Landless Workers Movement/Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), PAA Community Programming Director Reyes DeVore spent time in conversation with Guarani-Kaiowá peoples in Brazil. PAA organizers likewise draw inspiration from the Kanaka Maoli activist, educator, and author Haunani-Kay Trask’s remarks on the importance of keeping the history of Indigenous resistance alive and relevant.
Attuned to the entwined histories of Indigenous dispossession and resurgence, Pueblo Action Alliance prioritizes Pueblo-centric grassroots organizing in order to embody the revolutionary spirit of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. During the 17th century, in response to increasing Spanish colonial violence, terror, enslavement, and efforts to annihilate Pueblo religious beliefs and practices, the leader Po’pay of Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) was guided by a spiritual calling to organize and unify the separate Pueblo nations in the uprising against Spanish rule and missionization. A decade dedicated to building alliances across the Keres, A:shiwii, Tewa, Tiwa, and Towa speaking Pueblo peoples preceded the coordinated insurgency that drove out Spanish colonizers and missionaries. This uprising was the first successful anticolonial revolution of so-called North America, but it remains largely erased in mainstream histories. The 1680 revolt protected and made possible Pueblo futurity. The strategies for aligning and building the collective power of the Pueblos in the years leading up to the revolt remain relevant for organizing today. Pueblo Action Alliance aspires to carry forward this legacy of resistance against colonial dominion and Euro-American patriarchal values. Climate justice is at the center of this struggle today.
In dry regions of the world, such as the so-called Middle East, Northern Africa and the Sahel, Australia, or substantial parts of the Western hemisphere, the politics of water have long foreshadowed what has increasingly become a global struggle against interminable appropriation and devastation on behalf of imperial-capitalist accumulation. Market rationalities create and calculate discrete categories of resources and raw materials subject to distinct domains of speculation and administration. Carbon credit trading and debt-for-climate swaps are examples of the absurdity of such partitioned abstractions masquerading as market-based “solutions.” As the planetary climate catastrophe intensifies, the artificial separation of land, water, air, and the subterranean made under colonial racial capitalism is increasingly untenable. For people living under colonial occupation and imperial dominion, such distinctions have been part and parcel of the experience of dispossession and displacement.
Water infrastructure and hydrologic engineering have been instrumental for continental colonization by the United States. During the mid-19th century massive drainage projects transformed the wetlands of the upper Mississippi River watershed, which includes the traditional homelands of the Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Menominee, Sac and Fox, Meskwaki, Nemahahaki, and other Native nations. Of the 68 million acres of wetland prairie, sloughs, and marshes throughout the watershed that predated settler invasion, 48 million acres were drained under the aegis of the “swamp acts” to make way for farmland. In Illinois, for instance, 90 percent of the original wetlands were drained. Colossal mid-20th century dam projects such as Dalles, Elwha River, and the Pick-Sloan Missouri River Basin Program destroyed traditional fishing sources and farmland and displaced Native peoples including the Yakama, Warm Springs, Nez Percé (Nimiipuu), Umatilla, Klallam, Elwha, Oceti Sakowin, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara nations. Colonization in the arid West entailed and still relies on the development of a vast system of water diversion and transfer. In the western U.S. today, the colonial-capitalist demand for water continues to increase exponentially with only limited acknowledgement of the long-term and escalating conditions of drought. Urban development, extractive industries, the military, and agribusiness compete for already over-appropriated and scarce water. Competition across imposed geopolitical borders and settler-state jurisdictions further compound this unsustainable problem of over allocation.
It is thus necessary to refuse the market-driven commodification, quantification, and extraction of “natural resources” that are the basis of the intensifying climate catastrophe. This compartmentalized and monetized world is ultimately unsustainable in its starkly uneven spatial mechanisms of segregation and geopolitical boundaries over and against people and ecosystems of the more-than-human world. Initiatives by peoples from the atoll island states in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, including Kiribati, Maldives, the Marshall Islands, and Tuvalu, have been at the forefront of calling for action to address rising sea levels, storm surges, coastal erosion, and ocean acidification caused globally by the burning of fossil fuels. Such conditions of climate crisis are not separate or causally distinct from the endemic water shortages and accelerated desertification experienced elsewhere in the world.
The legal basis of most Native water rights in the United States is the 1908 Supreme Court decision in Winters v. United States, which affirmed the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation’s water rights over and against non-Indigenous farmers in Montana who were arguing that the land reserved for the tribe by treaty in 1888 did not reserve or include water. The ensuing reserved water rights doctrine, while denying the artifice of a juridical partitioning of land and water, conveyed rights “to an extent reasonably necessary to irrigate [tribal] lands”—in other words, with the ideologically narrowed priority of small-scale commercial agriculture. Over the past century, reserved water rights for tribes nevertheless have been continually undermined by a combination of the steadfast reluctance of the U.S. Congress to appropriate the funding required to secure water for tribes and endemic mismanagement by the U.S. Department of the Interior. As such, in the further abstraction of water from living social materialities, the Winters doctrine has largely delivered what litigators describe as “paper water” rather than what they term “wet water.”
The historical context for the Pueblo nations in what is presently called New Mexico has been different from other Native American nations for a number of reasons, not least of which was the 1876 U.S. Supreme Court decision that Pueblos were not Indians according to the congressional definition and were not therefore entitled to protection under federal law. Here again, we see a form of compartmentalization operationalized in colonial-capitalist efforts to divide and conquer. Decisions of the Supreme Court of the New Mexico Territory and the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Nonintercourse Act did not restrict the alienability of Pueblo lands. In other words, unlike the treaties that govern most Native relations with the U.S., Pueblo land grants did not provide an equivalent protection of Pueblo territorial sovereignty. When the Supreme Court reversed its position in 1913, the land title to much of the state was called into question. The Pueblo Lands Act of 1924 intervened so that the Pueblos were to receive compensation for damages resulting from the United States’ negligence in protecting Pueblo lands and water. The Senate and House reports described the purpose of the act as “to provide for the final adjudication and settlement of a very complicated and difficult series of conflicting titles affecting lands claimed by the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico.” The act likewise mandated the purchase of land and water rights to replace those which have been lost due to federal negligence.
By the time of the 1938 Rio Grande Compact, however, the participating states of Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas made little effort to account for or protect Pueblo water rights. While stating that “nothing in this Compact shall be construed as affecting the obligations of the United States of America to Mexico under existing treaties, or to the Indian Tribes, or as impairing the rights of the Indian Tribes,” no representatives of Native nations were included in its deliberation or drafting. Over the past 50 years, a series of lawsuits have sought to clarify or adjudicate unsettled “Indian water claims” but have not resolved Pueblo water rights in populated areas like the Middle Rio Grande perhaps out of fear that Pueblo nations may claim more political power. Negotiated settlements rather than precedent setting court rulings have been the principal outcome of most of these long-term litigations. This has the effect, even when the terms of settlement are relatively favorable for the Pueblos involved, of stabilizing state and private development without addressing the underlying issues of Pueblo sovereignty. Indeed, as recently as 2016, a New Mexico district court ruled that Spanish conquest extinguished the water rights of the Pueblos of Santa Ana, Zia, and Jemez in the Jemez River Basin. Although this ruling was appealed and overturned in September 2020, the state’s investment in claiming Spanish colonization as historically definitive says a lot about current water politics in New Mexico.
Still contending with the everyday material, spiritual, and political legacies of colonialism, Pueblo nations are now also deeply impacted by the dire circumstances of climate catastrophe. For the greater part of this century, the fossil fuel industries have dominated current land management strategies over and against sovereign Pueblo nations and their communities. Ancestral Pueblo territories such as the Greater Chaco region are significant sites of struggle in which the Pueblo Action Alliance works in coalition with other grassroots Indigenous and environmental groups to protect water, land, air, the people and inherent sovereignty against global capitalism and such lethal effects of the fossil fuel economy as greenhouse gas emissions. U.S. Department of the Interior agencies like the Bureau of Land Management have co-opted the federal fossil fuel leasing program in the service of an industry-friendly agenda. Even under the elected leadership of Pueblo kin, colonialism and its values continue to influence the interpretation of U.S. policy and approaches to climate action. As a community-based youth and femme-led organization, Pueblo Action Alliance works as a counterbalance to the accommodationist pressures of the legislative business as usual. Grounded in everyday organizing, ceremony, community defense, and solidarity, the PAA enacts a revolutionary commitment to the legacy of Po’pay and demonstrates that, as declared on the alliance’s website, “the Pueblo Revolt never ended.” ■