Accessing and Protecting Nature’s Most Precious Resource: Water

Several recent articles and a recent conversation with friends about Standing Rock brought back the horrors endured by the Water Protectors who protested the Dakota pipeline build. The excessive use of police force, water cannons, chemical sprays and lockups on peaceful protesters whose actions were rooted in prayer was astonishing. Several Haskell Indian Nations University students sacrificed an entire semester to travel to Standing Rock and maintain solidarity for the protest.

Even as No-DAPL protesters continue fighting for the protection of clean water in the Dakotas, another water crisis is brewing in the drought-ridden Southwest. As one PWNA Board member noted, “water is the next battlefront” for Tribal communities.

The Bureau of Land Reclamation, under the direction of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, must contend with serious and encroaching water issues. Drought is creating adverse consequences not only for people in the Southwest but also for livestock and other animals. If there isn’t enough water for animals, there soon will not be enough water for people.

Water concerns cut across jurisdictions, federal agencies and administrations, and Tribal communities that PWNA serves are no strangers to contaminated drinking water. Yet, several iterations of the Clean Water Act, as well as court appeals and regulatory challenges, are bogging down the implementation of any substantive solutions and it is clear that the water issues will not be resolved anytime soon. However, this could change going forward, as some water campaigns and policy commitments have been well received. Many constituents praised New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham for her 30×30 campaign that seeks to protect 30% of New Mexico’s land and water by 2030. This puts New Mexico at the forefront of creating a water policy or roadmap that others can build on, including neighboring states.

In Arizona, the federal government declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River, resulting in mandatory cutbacks to water allotments. This presents inevitable challenges and adverse impacts to farmers, animals and growing residential communities. These reductions are part of the 2019 Drought Contingency Plan and are likely to compound at a faster rate in the future.

This is where the juxtaposition of water protection and water availability strikes me. There is a clear apex of policy and resources and yet it seems the issues are pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand, Native Americans are fighting to keep their water sources clean. On the other, they are fighting to have any water at all.

Instead of building pipelines to carry tar sands across the country, maybe we should build them to transport water. This is an oversimplified solution, but our elected national and local leaders have a responsibility to make decisions, develop policies and identify solutions that are permanent, sustainable and responsible and to ensure proper stewardship and equitable distribution of this precious resource.

After all, the Lakota phrase that inspired the Standing Rock protesters is as true today as it was five years ago – Water is Life (“Mni Wiconi”).

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Searching for MMIWG Relatives and Racial Justice for Tribes

Recently, major networks highlighted two cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG): Arden Pepion, a 3-year-old from the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana (still missing), and Carla Yellow Bird from the Spirit Lake Tribe in North Dakota (found, murdered).

Native American families and tribal communities are left feeling isolated in their search for loved ones, particularly when they go missing outside of tribal lands. These horrific and frequent cases are not new to Indigenous communities but rather a result of colonization and the complex web of jurisdictional governance between tribes, states and federal officials.

Federally recognized tribes have a nation-to-nation relationship with the U.S. government. The National Congress of American Indians describes this as “the obligation of the federal government to protect tribal self-governance, lands, assets, resources and treaty rights, and to carry out the directions of federal statutes and court cases.” States are also part of the equation – and this three-pronged approach to justice often collides, leaves gaps or overlaps, generating a convoluted maze for Native families to negotiate during a crisis.

The Department of Justice and more recently the Department of the Interior have finally created special groups to help address missing and murdered Indian persons (MMIP).

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland  created the Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) in April this year. “The new MMU unit will provide the resources and leadership to prioritize [MMIP] cases and coordinate resources to hold people accountable, keep our communities safe, and provide closure for families,” Secretary Haaland said.

Operation Lady Justice launched in 2019 established seven teams to review MMIP cold cases in collaboration with tribal, federal, state and local entities. Also affirming the U.S. government’s failure to guide funding and resources toward these efforts, President Biden said, “Our treaty and trust responsibilities require our best efforts, and our concern for the well-being of these fellow citizens require us to act with urgency.”

Indeed, the utmost urgency drives Native families who are seeking their MMIW relatives. Not a day goes by without a social media alert about MMIPs and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Two Spirits (MMIWG2S). Tribal communities are acutely aware of the immediacy needed after an MMIW call out and that it takes quick action by many to respond to the crisis.

Recently while quickly scrolling through Facebook, I was stopped by a familiar face smiling back at me. A young Native girl, whose parents and grandmother I value as an essential part of my community, was missing. I helped in the local search that day and, as a mother of three grown daughters, my heart was heavy. Fortunately, this case concluded same day with a “she’s been found safe,” but so many more go unresolved and fuel the mourning of a life unlived.

Native families and tribal communities have mobilized throughout this chaos to support one another in finding their MMIW relatives, even as they await justice and recognition by state and federal governments of the catastrophic failures in protecting their citizens. To learn more about how you can help in your community, please visit

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Food and Water: A Basic Human Right But Not An Equal Opportunity

Access to food and water is a basic human right. Unfortunately, 1 in 9 people are food insecure in the U.S. More specifically, 1 in 4 Native Americans are food insecure. In fact, 60% of counties with a majority Native population have a high rate of food insecurity, despite comprising less than 1% of all U.S. counties.

The many issues that overlap with food insecurity, including housing, social isolation, chronic or acute health problems with limited healthcare access, and low wages or unemployment, only exasperate the difficulty. And with COVID-19, many Native Americans were left in crowded homes and vulnerable to the virus. Many lives were lost – proportionately more than for any other ethnic group in the U.S. – and many tribal communities continue to face a COVID-19 burden.

This complexity of challenges makes our work with tribal partners even more dire. Low food security and water supply is an everyday issue on  remote reservations. Nutritious food that is affordable is even harder to come by. And while many food banks operate across our service area, a recent study by America’s Second Harvest shows that most food banks lack an adequate supply of food to meet the demand, which is higher than ever.

The U.S. establishment of the reservation system forced many tribes to relocate and rebuild in often barren lands and unfamiliar ecosystems that were less conducive to harvesting. Simultaneously, their traditional food supply was replaced by unhealthy foods, such as large rations of sugar and flour. The effects of these government initiatives are still impacting Native Americans, now two times more likely to have diabetes than other Americans.

Through our Northern Plains Reservation Aid and Southwest Reservation Aid programs, our goal is to address the immediate needs of families who often worry about where their next meal may come from. We provide staple foods to Elderly Nutrition programs, food boxes to food pantries, emergency food boxes, food and water when disasters strike, and community meals to help our tribal partners boost engagement during the holidays.

PWNA is committed to giving hope through food for generations to come but can only do so with your generous support.

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Indigenous History and Its Effect on Education Equity in South Dakota

I’ve been following the recent proposed changes to the social studies standards by the South Dakota Department of Education (DOE). These revisions are conducted every five to seven years by a group of educators representing districts across the entire state. While the most recent review resulted in some changes, these revisions have caused some discourse, especially since the South Dakota DOE edited the revisions before releasing the revised standards to public for comment.

Unfortunately, the teaching of South Dakota’s history has never been particularly thorough when it comes to Indigenous studies and the new proposed standards maintain – and even further diminish – those standards. These social studies revisions have placed the state at the center of a debate that brings into question whether education equity is factored into these discussions and decisions.

Education equity implies giving every single student the necessary support to succeed, regardless of race, gender or economic status. However, the revised proposal, titled “South Dakota Social Studies Content Standards: Preparing students to be college, career, and life ready citizens,” feels contradictory in nature. How can we prepare students for college, career and life if we’re omitting basic truths of history? Particularly, the history of many Native students’ ancestors.

As a citizen of the Cheyenne River Lakota Nation and graduate of the South Dakota education system, I have experienced the state’s teachings first-hand. During my time in the public school system, I felt as though we didn’t substantially cover Indigenous peoples’ history, nor was the history being taught accurate. It took countless family discussions and, ultimately, leaving my home state to seek out an education on these topics on my own to feel well-versed on the subject. This shouldn’t be acceptable, particularly in a state that’s home to nine Indian reservations and rich in Indigenous culture. In fact, my high school has the highest percentage of Native American students of any off-reservation secondary school in the state.

Education equity is meant to create a level playing field for students with fewer resources and yet, we continue to see the same low graduation rates. In South Dakota, Native American students consistently lack the resources to attain a quality education, and the erasure of Indigenous history further contributes to the continuous failures of the state’s public school system. The state reported that 54% of Native American students graduated on-time in 2019, compared with 85% of non-Native students. Where is the equity in these graduation outcomes?

The same is true for Indigenous communities across the country. Earlier this year, the ACLU of Montana filed a lawsuit against the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Board of Public Education on behalf of five Montana Indian Tribes, challenging the state to uphold its responsibilities under the Indian Education For All Act of 1999. In North Dakota, legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill requiring all elementary and secondary public and non-public schools in the state to include curriculum on Native American history.

Do they leave it to the courts to decide what it means to provide a fair and inclusive education for students of all backgrounds, or will they get there on their own? The question remains for South Dakota.

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PWNA’s Annual Backpack Drive: You Can Make All The Difference

August is National Back-to-School Month and families are preparing their shopping lists with all they need for the new school year. However, many families who reside in reservation communities do not have the means to purchase even basic supplies, such as paper and pencils.

PWNA’s annual Backpack Drive helps ensure students in the tribal communities they serve have backpacks, pencils, notebooks and other items for their first day in the classroom. The drive is hosted by the American Indian Education Fund, a PWNA program that focuses on improving education opportunities and retention, from kindergarten to college.

School supplies are essential to a student’s learning and success, but with nearly two-thirds of Native American children living in impoverished or low-income households, it’s no surprise these items are inaccessible for parents whose budgets are already stretched incredibly thin. In addition, barely half of the students who attend schools led by the Bureau of Indian Education graduate from high school, compared to the national 88% graduation rate, so every advantage counts. 

The Backpack Drive is running through Sept. 30 and our hope is to equip more than 15,000 K-12 students with backpacks and essentials as they head back to school this year, many in person for the first time since school closed last spring. The backpacks will be distributed to students at 65 schools across our service area. The distributions will be coordinated by our school partners to coincide with registration and fall enrollment.

For more on how PWNA is helping to break the cycle of poverty through education, or to donate, visit Your support is much needed and appreciated!

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Scorching Summer Pose Threats to Lives and More on the Reservations

The season for fun in the sun is here, with cookouts, hiking, swimming and more. In the Southwest, however, summers also bring record-breaking heatwaves, droughts and wildfires, posing an increased risk to inhabitants. The U.S. Forest Service has already restricted access to some public lands this summer to reduce fire threat.

Akin to last year’s record, some 20 wildfires have burned throughout Arizona, five in New Mexico and more than 30 across California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado –scorching tens of thousands of acres of land and impacting far more than the physical landscape.

Rafael Tapia, Jr. - PWNA VP of Programs

In addition to devastating the land itself, wildfires threaten animal life, natural water systems, economic and social norms, environment and cultural resources. They also impact living communities, recreational areas and revenue streams, and often displace both the people who reside in those areas and the livestock on which they depend.

For Tribal communities, harsh summer conditions only make pre-existing challenges more acutely felt, such as inadequate access to food and housing, limited job opportunities and over-stressed budgets. Equally concerning is the lasting disruption to lands that are both sacred sites and ancestral food sources for Native Americans. Take, for example, two previous wildfires that still impact the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona.

The 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire was the ninth largest wildfire in U.S. history. The flames burned through more than 462,600 acres throughout north-central Arizona, including 280,000 acres of Tribal land. It damaged, and in some cases destroyed, ecosystem resources and disrupted the water cycle within the ponderosa pine forests.

Less than a decade later, the 2011 Wallow Fire became the largest wildfire in Arizona’s history, burning more than 538,000 acres and once again disrupting life for the Tribe residing in the region. The increased risk of fires resulted in the near closure of the Fort Apache Timber Company and a loss of more than 200 jobs. The long-lasting impact is reflected in today’s unemployment and poverty rates in the community.

Our reservation partners in the Southwest often request emergency relief provisions from PWNA in the summer months. We also provide summer care packages to Native Elders proactively, knowing the risk and outages they face not only from wildfires, but unbearable heat, drought and thunderstorms.

Unfortunately, negligence has resulted in many human-caused wildfires that had major consequences. If you’re headed outdoors this summer, please remember to take precaution and follow safety guidelines in remote or recreational areas. The more we protect the land, the better we can preserve the history and memories of those who cherished it long before us.

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Partner Q&A: Caring for Navajo and Zuni Elders in Gallup, New Mexico

Year-round, PWNA partners with hundreds of Tribal programs in the Southwest and Northern Plains to support their program goals and address the unique needs of their communities. This month, we’re spotlighting program partner Lillie Begay who coordinates the Sunny Day Assisted Living program in Gallup, New Mexico.   

PWNA: What is the primary focus of your program?

Lillie B:  Sunny Day is a senior residential facility serving Elders from the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni who need to be in a group setting. We assist with activities such as transporting residents to medical appointments, getting prescriptions filled, supporting Activities of Daily Living (ADL), providing meals and providing education in memory, personal care and related topics. Our main goal is to keep residents safe and happy by providing a welcoming and cozy environment.

PWNA: How did you first hear about PWNA and how long have you been a partner?

Lillie B: Sunny Day has had a partnership with PWNA since 2017, which was before I started. Since I’ve been here (about three years), we have collaborated several times and I enjoy the continued partnership.

PWNA: How has PWNA supported your program over the years?

Lillie B: PWNA assists Sunny Day primarily through the Residential service offered by their Southwest Indian Relief Council (SWIRC) program; they’ve helped us improve our overall programming, resources and results. PWNA delivers essential supplies to us on a regular basis, personal items such as toothbrushes, deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo and conditioner, bodywash, socks and toilet paper for the residents. Used as incentives, they help us keep Elders engaged during activities and arm them with everyday items some cannot afford on their own. In addition, this saves Elders money, so they have more freedom to buy the things they typically don’t purchase or haven’t had in a while. This boosts their morale and mental and emotional well-being. Most importantly, the supplies from PWNA make our residents feel loved and aware that they are not alone.

The facility also saves money with PWNA deliveries of PPE (face masks, gloves sanitizers), cleaning supplies, bottled water, bedding, detergent and paper products (paper towels, paper plates, disposable cups), and craft products.  We also participated in PWNA’s Holiday service last year, a welcome end to a year of pandemic.

(Lillie also noted Sunny Day has a garden that PWNA provided seeds for, and after learning about our community investment garden projects, she’s interested in learning more.)

PWNA: What do you want others to know about your community?

Lillie B: Gallup was hit particularly hard with COVID-19. It became everyone’s responsibility to keep each other safe. The community pulled together and the donations we received from PWNA in PPE supplies made a difference. We’re thankful PWNA was willing to assist us, even during the pandemic, which cast many challenges upon the Elders. We had to separate everyone and ban visitors from entering the building. It was painful to watch the Elders go without social interaction for so long. They were unable to eat together as they normally do in the common area; nor could they participate in their routine activities such as cake walks, puzzles, adult coloring or simply watching TV together. I could tell it was lonely for them and another impossible challenge was grieving and fear from the physical loss of friends and family members due to the virus. Finally, with vaccinations, our facility is slowly lifting restrictions. Visitors are allowed, but masks, temperature checks, social distancing, and pandemic questionnaires are still required. I am thankful to work in a place that makes a difference in the lives of others and that we were able to weather through the storm together.

PWNA: What else do you want others to know about your PWNA partnership and facility?

Lillie B: PWNA has been a good program for our aging Native citizens. I do my best to make them all feel good during their transition to assisted living and make sure they feel welcomed, in part thanks to support from our PWNA partnership. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is hearing stories from the Elders in their Native language. I am also fluent in Navajo and this helps me connect with my Diné residents.

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Caring for Native Elders During Summer Fires, Storms, Heat & Outages

Many Native Americans living in living on remote reservations endure Southwest summers that pose higher risks for severe heat, drought, thunderstorms and fires. With subpar housing that lacks adequate utilities (including running water and air conditioning), the increased temperatures make for a brutal summer season for many. This is especially true for Elders, many of whom are less financially or physically capable and face higher risk for heat exhaustion. About 35-85% of those who live on the reservations we serve are jobless, and while communities do their best to gather the supplies to endure potential summer outages and storms, resources quickly diminish. Many families are struggling to make ends meet, let alone have the added amenities so many of us take for granted, like clean drinking water and a cool, insulated home.

On the Navajo Nation, for example, more than 20% of reservation residents do not have running water in their homes. This, combined with increased droughts in the area, has forced local governments to increase prices and limited the amount of water families can take from water-loading stations maintained by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. Water stations can be accessed by those who have water-station access cards. Typically, customers pay $4.59 for 1,000 gallons of potable water, but currently the NTUA is restricting customers to no more than 500 gallons per week to conserve resources.

Families have no choice but to reduce their water intake as droughts continue to threaten their communities. Not to mention, many Elders don’t have the transportation to travel to these water stations and haul the water back to their homes. Fortunately, PWNA aids Elders by distributing summer care packages that are often sponsored by individual donors. The emergency care packages include supplies such as drinking water, food items, clean socks, toiletries, activity books and more to help Elders when the inevitable fire, storm or extreme heat wave occurs.  

We help deliver these emergency summer care packages through Southwest Reservation Aid (SWRA), a program of PWNA. They help Elders better withstand the drastic summers and outages in the desert. This year has been especially challenging given the continued need for COVID-19 support in some communities, but we hope to distribute nearly 500 summer care packages to the Elders. We’re grateful to those who generously donate for this important care and help us in our mission to improve quality of life for Native Americans. Click here if you’d like to sponsor a summer care package to help an Elder.

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Native Views on Independence Day

More than 200 years ago, state delegates in North America officially called for freedom on July 2, 1776, with Congress adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, or what we now know as Fourth of July. While the date itself is a topic of debate, the bigger question is whether we should celebrate this holiday at all. Today, we look at a viewpoint that’s sometimes forgotten – the Indigenous one. Do Native Americans in the United States celebrate Independence Day?

It’s widely discussed that attempted genocide was committed against the Native population of America as part of the westward expansion. However, every U.S. Tribal citizen has a different viewpoint on the holiday. I can think of a few groups off the top of my head: those who celebrate it for patriotism, those who refuse to celebrate because of our people’s past, and those who observe Fourth of July simply because it is a holiday. These views are complicated to dissect, but I want to try to provide clarity based on my understanding.

Refusing to celebrate: Those who don’t celebrate the holiday have fair reason. The traditions and land lost due to the settlement of immigrated peoples is steep. Many Tribal citizens do not know their cultures because of it, and to this day, we still feel the repercussions of the attempted (and sometimes successful) conversion that ended not too long ago. Celebrating the birth of the country, and by extension the people that caused these crimes, may feel disrespectful to some Native people.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, there have been several instances when the U.S. government infringed on Native American ceremonies and celebrations. For example, in the early 1880’s the Secretary of Interior created the Code of Regulations barring American Indians from celebrating sacred ceremonies that were passed down for decades. It’s understandable why some Native Americans wouldn’t be interested in celebrating a nation that once didn’t give them freedom.

Celebrating for the sake of a holiday: On the other hand, there are those who celebrate for the sake of a holiday because who doesn’t enjoy an excuse for a celebration or gathering? Some Native Americans hold their own tribal gatherings on July 4 that have nothing to do with Independence Day.

Celebrating for patriotism: Lastly, we have the group with which I identify the most – those who celebrate independence because they still feel connection to our country. This can be hard to justify in some cases, but ultimately and despite the past, we are now citizens of the United States. By no means would I want to ignore the crimes that came before, but the ideal values some can see in America still ring strongly. Freedom, the pursuit of happiness, liberty and unity in their most ideal forms are something many want, including me.

While some may not align with this view, others do, I think it’s important we consider and respect the different views we each hold. If I had to say one thing, it would be regardless of whether you celebrate Independence Day, I think we should at least celebrate something that can bring us together. Divides still exist, but the meaning we give and see in something like Independence Day can bring us together and give us pride in something new.

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Native News Pick of the Month: Confronting the painful history of Native American boarding schools

Earlier this year, the remains of more than 215 Native American children were discovered on the grounds of a former boarding school in British Columbia. PWNA president & CEO Joshua Arce shares his reaction to the discovery and weighs in on Deb Haaland’s recent opinion piece: Opinion: Deb Haaland: My grandparents were stolen from their families as children. We must learn about this history via The Washington Post

When news broke of the 215 bodies of Native American children found on the grounds of a former Canadian residential boarding school, my heart sank. It was like an earthquake shifting deep inside and causing a reverberation throughout my entire being. And now, there’s been a second discovery of 751 bodies at a different Canadian school. The historical trauma of the boarding school era hits deep, and while these particular schools were in Canada, boarding schools throughout North America were highly detrimental, generationally damaging and wholly destructive to Native American tribes.

It took me some time to process the news. Even as someone who is somewhat desensitized to this kind of history – having attended and worked at Haskell Indian Nations University where there is a cemetery with 100 graves from the boarding school era – I was speechless.  For some reason, this resonated with me and I think it was because of all the chatter I saw about it. The reality is that few people know of this dark chapter in U.S. history.

When I talked with my mother about the discovery and our own ancestors’ experiences with boarding schools, she wept. She has a 5-year-old granddaughter and her heart absolutely breaks for the families who were impacted by the atrocities of the boarding school system. We talked about my grandmother, Etheleen, and great-grandmother, Lillian, both of whom went to boarding school as children and how this impacted our family.

Like me, my grandmother attended Haskell, which was originally founded as an industrial training school and one of several Indian boarding schools in the Midwest. She wanted to be an accountant but, at the time, the school did not allow women the same educational opportunities as men. Instead, she was relegated to domestic and clerical work. Similarly, my great grandmother attended Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma in the early 1900’s. She passed away when I was 5 and I can only recall a few interactions with her, but what I do know is that both Etheleen and Lillian were fierce advocates for their children, extremely protective of their family and huge proponents of education.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland shared her family’s personal experiences with boarding schools in a recent opinion for the Washington Post. I was glad to see she spoke out, given she oversees Indian education as part of her role within the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). In addition to funding 135 Tribally-controlled schools, the BIE currently operates 57 K-12 schools, several off-reservation boarding schools and two universities – most of which are underfunded, understaffed and underperforming. So, while the original boarding school model no longer exists, Native American students still lack access to a quality education. There is tremendous hope that, with Sec. Haaland’s leadership, we can finally address the previously unmet needs of these schools.

As we continue to educate our peers and colleagues about the history and social inequities of Native Americans, it’s important not to forget the scars of the boarding school era. The damage that was caused by the forced removal and separation of Native American children from their families is unspeakable: abuse, illness, and even death, all to strip young Native Americans of their cultures and languages. We’ll likely never find all the graves connected to more than 350 boarding schools across the U.S., but we can honor the survivors and all whose lives were changed forever.

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