Spirit Island is no doubt one of the most photographed views of the Canadian Rockies. Located deep in Maligne Lake, one has to canoe 30km out-and-back or take a cruise to be able to see this small, land-tied island. The island itself is a spiritual place for the Nakoda people, who believe mountains are physical representations of their ancestors. Taken July 2017.


This commentary is based on speakers notes from an ACWA Talk given by Anecita Agustinez at the ACWA Fall Conference 2019. This talk was prepared for the first TED-talk inspired workshop and was presented in San Diego, California to a large audience from many backgrounds.  The panelists and topics included:

  • The Language of Water: Anecita Agustinez, Tribal Policy Advisor, Department of Water Resources, reflected on how we define words in the water community and how those words can create barriers or silos.
  • One Size Does Not Always Fit All: Lana Haddad, Legislative Services Section Manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, reflected on how outreach and engagement is important work in public sector and recognize how diverse regions in the state connect differently with their community; recognize how to build an inclusive team and be informed by diverse and different perspectives.
  • Working with Diverse Perspectives: Wes Miliband, a partner at Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo shared the complex challenges as an attorney working with diverse clients, Including Tribes, agricultural, or municipal clients.
  • Consensus Building: Danielle Coats, Senior Legislative Program Manager, Eastern Municipal Water District, shared how consensus-building in the policy realm can be challenging with diverse perspectives but is essential to understanding differences and developing shared solutions.

Please allow me to introduce myself in my formal tradition and to take this moment to acknowledge the original inhabitants of the land we occupy today –the Kumeyaay and Luiseno Tribal people. These people have been displaced from their homelands of the San Diego coast, but they still thrive today as Tribal Governments and in fact, some may even be in this audience, and I wish to acknowledge you.

Anecita Agustinez, DWR Tribal Policy Advisor

Ya’a’teeh, Anecita Agustinez [traditional introduction]

Hello, my name is Anecita Agustinez and I am Dine’ from the Navajo Nation, I am born to the BitterWater Clan, which is my maternal clan and I am born for the Illocano Filipino Clan, which is my paternal clan.

I titled my talk today “The Language of Water”.

Water is Earth’s most precious commodity.   Author Masuro Emoto authored a bestseller called The Hidden Messages of Water.  His ideas explored how the influence of our thoughts, our words and our feelings on molecules of water can positively impact the earth. How did he do this?  He used high-speed photography to capture the structure of water at the moment of freezing and therefore, capture our thought process on the formation of water crystals.

His goal was to capture via ice crystals – how we can positively impact the earth.

But as human beings, we already know what affect we have on water and how water impacts us.  Our generation is dealing with societal impacts on groundwater contamination and other pollutants caused by generations of political impacts.

Scientists are confirming what Tribal Elders have known: Water has memory and its very structure is affected by emotions of people.  Water molecules change their position when they interact with positive or negative emotions, and the structure of water is more important than its composition.

Traditional ecological knowledge is stewardship.  It is more than citizen science. It is an empirical knowledge learned through scientific principles of trial and error from over 10,000 plus years of traditional existence.

Water is life. Water is conscious. Water responds and transforms from heat, to cold, to our emotions, to our positive and negative thoughts.

As Water Technicians you are challenged daily with the goals of reframing water management in a technical infrastructure.  As Water Consumers, we are concerned with water delivery systems that benefits us holistically.

Native American Indian communities know the value, the sacredness, the importance of water. If we look at the language or concept of decolonizing water, and we must acknowledge our current modern perversion with water and that we wish to control and consume it and commodify it. 

We need water for life, we need water for recreation, we need water for spiritual growth and a healthy well-being.

It would be fair to say that Water Management – Holistic Water Management – is one of the most significant challenges facing our society today.

How do we achieve that?

We need to demystify the language used in the water sector and use a language that allows more accessibility and understanding to the average consumer, the targeted consumer we identify in our outreach as the disadvantaged, the under-represented, the Tribal communities and citizens whose demographics are not captured in our existing data mapping tools or current census numbers.

We need to overcome generational bias. We are guilty of that in one way or another.  Let’s look at – WATER RIGHTS – and how we define what right we have to water?

When we say “right,” it already implies that there is a potential winner or loser. We need to retreat from words that divide us to words that unite us. We need to also be aware of the language we use in our daily conversation, the documents we print, the information we share, and the language we use at community events and meetings.

As the United States was settled and States obtained statehood, Indian Lands were seized and Tribes terminated, Tribal land bases were substantially reduced in size, Tribes were relocated, and the water rights attached to those lands were also affected.

As Tribes are being re-stored their federal recognition status and non-federaly recognized Tribes needs and status are being addressed by this current administration, we will be dealing with the issues of water rights and tribal sovereignty at every political level. It will have a profound effect on each of you, especially at the local level.

Tribal Governments recognize that Water is one of the most important natural resources that exists.  Many Tribes have tribal monitoring systems in place that monitor surface water for potential contamination –this includes rivers, streams and tributaries and other water bodies.

Chumash ceremonial leader Mati Waiya performs a water blessing ceremonyperformed as an act of respect for the tribe’s ancestors.  Photo by Carl Costas / DWR

Many Tribes in California have sought and achieved through the U.S. EPA the “Treatment as a State” status for water quality monitoring.

As water agencies, managers, planners, consultants – you must take into consideration your water inventory, water scarcity and water source allocation is in balance with water rights of all beneficial users, including tribal water rights.

Water inventory should take into consideration an environmental inventory of the water needs of the fish, animal and plant species.

To achieve success, you must engage with diverse groups and aligning governments, not only local government, but Tribal Government and their Tribal Citizens. You must recognize various types of Tribal Land, such as ancestral land, fee land, and public domain allotments under Tribal control.

90% of all Americans receive their water from a public water supply. Tribal water systems are not normally in any of these calculations.   Tribal water systems are usually groundwater dependent on wells or their sacred aquifers.

You all represent public water systems and water agencies, and you are well aware that it is the small rural water systems and Tribal water systems that do not get included in these metrics for accountability.

Out of the 574 Indian Tribes in the U.S. about 325 of them have a land base. The lands that are under Indian control are usually at the headwaters of all major water systems, watersheds, water ways and tributaries.

What is our relationship to water?

-do we control it?
-do we have a responsibility to it?
-do we have jurisdiction over it?

Native American Indian sacredness, the importance of water. If we look at the language or concept of decolonizing water, and we must acknowledge our current modern perversion with water and that we wish to control and consume it and commodify it.

We must look at our modern framework and respect the water – respect that is has natural jurisdictions and not our political human-made boundaries. Watersheds remind us that waters are not responsive to our boundaries and political jurisdictions.

The movement of rights of nature is more than a growing trend – we can no longer view the world as mere warehouse of commodities for humans to exploit, but as an equal to whom we owe responsibilities.

Many of us take for granted turning on the tap and flushing a toilet….. but over 2 million American citizens live without these conveniences, with Native Americans as the most likely group to be without access to safe drinking water.

58 out of every 1,000 Native American households lack plumbing.  For non-Native Americans, that number is 3 out of every 1,000 residents.  These disparities have implications for public health and Federal and State dollars do not translate into water infrastructure on Tribal reservations.

From a tribal perspective, the continued survival of Indian Nations depends to some extent upon the Tribe’s ability to protect and preserve their cultural resources. Federal and State actions have a profound effect on Tribal culture, and cultural resources.

For example, hydroelectric power plants and dam building have had severe impacts on sacred places and on natural springs that affect fish and wildlife and natural vegetation, which causes further impacts on cultural and ceremonial practices.  The desecration of these sacred cultural landscapes that threaten natural springs and other sites, are essential to the balance of life for native culture.

Capacities of Tribal governments vary, just like local governments.  Tribes as primary stewards of the tribal landscape have a historical knowledge of land management and can provide infinite knowledge on maintaining the cultural integrity of a cultural landscape.

Tribal practices of land management are being understood and accepted and acknowledged as a sustained practice in our efforts to combat the effects of climate change.

As we work on our common goal of land management and sustainability, our mutual goals should include respect for existing Tribal water rights and cultural resources.

In addition to the Human Right to Water – we must also respect the Rights of Nature.

The Rights of Nature is an international concept that argues nature should have the same rights as humans. Tribal Elders recognized that Water retains memory and conveys information and many indigenous communities across the country and throughout the world are granting Personhood status for lakes, rivers and tributaries.

Internationally, in 2017, quite a few countries have given jurisdiction to water. In New Zealand, for example, the Whanganui River has been granted legal personhood through legislation. Personhood status grants the natural resource its own legal identity with rights, duties and liabilities of legal person.

Whanganui River, photo by Felix Engelhart

The Whanganui River is the third largest river in New Zealand.

In India, the Ganges and the Yamuna River have legal personhood, as does the Amazon River in Colombia.   The purpose is to allow the river to flow freely, as was intended in nature.  Any interference with the river as a whole, including construction of dams, takes away from its essential being.

In 2018, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe of Minnesota adopted the Rights of Manoomim to protect wild rice and the freshwater sources it needs to survive. They have interpreted legal personhood as a framework for dealing with problems like pollution, drought and climate change.

Wild Rice is the first plant species to have the same rights as humans – with an inherent right to pure and freshwater habitat, the right to a healthy environment.

The movement of rights of nature is more than a growing trend – we can no longer view the world as mere warehouse of commodities for humans to exploit, but as an equal to whom we owe responsibilities.

It is not only Indigenous and Tribal Governments doing this.

In 2019 the citizens of Toledo, Ohio approved a referendum to grant personhood to Lake Erie. This is currently being challenged.  Another challenge was in 2017, when Coloradans attempted to grant the Colorado River rights to personhood; stay tuned for that challenge to continue.

A recognition ceremony held for Tribal members who supported DWR’s work in implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Photo by Florence Low / DWR

Closer to home, in September of this year, the Yurok Tribe granted personhood to the first known river in North America, the Klamath River. The Klamath River will have the same rights as a human, at least under Tribal Law.  The Yurok Tribe felt that due to water management policies of the State of California and climate change which led to lower rates of water flow which in turn affected the Klamath River and led to fewer salmon – one of their main food sources – required this action.

Continuing the respect of nature and decolonizing language – we must understand the deep traumatic history that created the nation state – California’s state government is founded upon violent language that is commonly used to this day.

I am going to share some terms with you, and ask that you be very honest within yourself and your community… are you using these terms… have you ever used them?

Locked and loaded – instead of prepared and ready

They went on a war path instead of they are dedicated to this

They went off the reservation instead of they are acting on their own

Lowest man or woman on the totem pole instead of lowest rung on the ladder

Circle the Wagons instead of let’s get ahead of this

Let’s have a powwow instead of let’s meet

Do a rain dance instead of hope and pray for rain

The Gold Standard – invoking this historical trauma of colonization, missionization and statehood of enslavement associated with violence from California’s gold mining history

Stakeholder –   to stake a claim to a river banks and the flow of water – enabling those who control the water to control the wealth of its minerals to purchase power within society – resulting in enslavement of Native Americans.

Silver Bullet – is very much overused, and also comes from a violent past;  why do we resort to terms of violence to solve societal issues; what does this practice say about our human values?  Why not use terms such as communities of interest? Interested parties?

Skin in the game – denotes the genocide and enslavement practices of scalping that was a formal policy of early California government during our statehood process

This is my spirit animal – this is my inspiration

This is My Tribe

It my hope that by even speaking some of these terms, you felt a reaction and you can agree that these terms are disparaging and offensive in many circles.

From the 49th annual Native American Day at the state capitol.  Photo by John Chacon / DWR

Finally, the disadvantaged… the underrepresented…. We are all seeking to define what is the very concept of achieving inclusivity for these communities and those discussions are ongoing.

We are a community in the management of water, and successful management is achieved through successful communication.  Some language can make people disengage… and the effect of that language…. the Unconscious language… our unintentional bias, generational bias, oftentimes contain implicit violent language…. A language that invokes historical trauma to the Native American community.

We are all swimming in the sea of an adopted language and we are learning this process together. The water, land and air are not inseparable, they are our very existence.

We are in a relationship with water. Water has a spirit and it has life.  It is life giving. Water is Sacred.

Ahe’ hee, thank you.


Anecita Agustinez, Tribal Policy Advisor
Executive Division
Department of Water Resources
1416 Ninth Street,  Room 1148-2
Sacramento CA 94236-0001
Office 916.653.8726

Tribal flags are displayed during Native American Day, Sept 22, 2017. Photo by Florence Low / DWR


Daily emailsSign up for daily email service and you’ll never miss a post!

Sign up for daily emails and get all the Notebook’s aggregated and original water news content delivered to your email box by 9AM. Breaking news alerts, too. Sign me up!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email