A Path Full Cycle

Quechee-Gorge-VermontWelcome to the “Water River Life-Giver” Blog!

In Navajo, we introduce ourselves by clans. My mother is American of Irish and English descent, and my father is Navajo. Through my father, I am born for the Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House clan). My family history has inspired me to pursue Native American Studies. Since I was a child, I loved to hear my family stories, and that passion has carried me to this time in my life. I am currently the Charles Eastman Fellow in Native American Studies at Dartmouth College where I have finished my dissertation to earn my Ph.D. in U.S. History from Arizona State University.

When I moved to Vermont near Dartmouth, I received news of the Gold King Mine Waste Water Spill. I felt shock and had to sit down. I felt helpless. I could not run home, because I lived across the country. I felt so far away and powerless. I was scared. I was worried for my Navajo family, people, and homeland. I was frustrated, as I thought to myself, “What can I do?”

As the days passed and the news escalated about the waste spill, various groups and communities organized fundraisers and events to support Navajos affected by the disaster. I was too far to attend. I could send money through some online donations and efforts, but I wanted to be there in person. I longed for my family, community, and people, and I wanted to stand with them.

One day, as I was walking on the “Big Green,” the spacious grass lawn, of the Dartmouth campus admiring the red brick and white-painted buildings, an idea came to mind after I asked myself again, “What can I do?” “If I cannot go to the Navajo Nation to support my people there, why cannot I support them here at Dartmouth?” I thought to myself. In my introductions to the Dartmouth community, I started to inquire about the possibilities of hosting an event to bring awareness of the waste water spill and advocate for the Diné, “The People” as Navajos call ourselves. I found that others were interested too and I made connections which made this upcoming event, “Water River Life-Giver” a reality. A path opened, and I was in the right place and time to follow it.

I started following Erin Brockovich when she made the news in September 2015 by showing up on the Navajo Nation and meeting with various Navajos affected by the waste water spill. She told the Navajos that she would stand with them. I then decided to begin contacting Navajos involved with the Diné Natural Resources and policies. They sent me more leads for potential guest speakers who could emphasize the Diné perspectives and experiences of the waste water spill.

Photos showed the tó łitso (“yellow water”) flowing in the San Juan River, one of the four sacred rivers and life blood of the Navajo Nation. I know that it was not only the Navajo affected but many peoples and communities in the Four Corners region and beyond. But I also know that Navajos have suffered an ongoing water crisis, as many Navajos have lacked access to clean water and faced horrible exposures to uranium and other toxicants due to human causes. Many of my family have fought and/or fallen to cancer, since they live nearby a uranium mine.

When I posted on Facebook and social media about the Gold King Mine Waste Water Spill, one of my Diné cousins responded by noting that this disaster is nothing new. He stressed that history repeats itself, referring to the Church Rock uranium mill spill of 1979 when “1,000 tons of solid radioactive mill waste and 93 million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution flowed into the Puerco River, and contaminants traveled 80 miles (130 km) downstream to Navajo County, Arizona and onto the Navajo Nation” [1]. The 2015 Gold King Mine Waste Water Spill sounds so familiar, as a spill of “three million US gallons (11 ML) of mine waste water and tailings, including heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, and other toxic elements, such as arsenic, into Cement Creek, a tributary of the Animas River in Colorado” that then flows into the Navajo Nation and other parts [2].

A “spill” undermines the gravity of these catastrophes, reminding me of a “spill” of milk or some other trivial thing, rather than naming the disaster for what it is with terms such as “disaster,” “gorge,” or “monster.” In Navajo oral tradition and history, monsters plagued the earth and the twin heroes had to fight them. Some monsters were spared and continue to burden humankind. A Navajo Times article, “Leetso, the uranium monster still among us” (2010), identifies such toxicants as “monster” in the Diné ways of knowing. The article features Judy Pasternak’s book, Yellow Dirt, which exposed struggles of the Diné with uranium mining and its aftermath [3]. In 2010, we were talking about the “yellow dirt;” now, in 2016, we are talking about the “yellow water.” What remains, the “yellow air”?

In January of 2016, the stories of Flint, Michigan and contamination of water spread and continue to flood conversations and the media. When Bernie Sanders designated Tara Houska, an Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation and tribal attorney and environmental activist, as a Native American Affairs advisor, she was featured discussing “the other water crisis” [4]. She stated that 30% of the Navajo Nation do not have access to clean water, but these ongoing water issues have often been overlooked and ignored.

I began to connect the dots. Understanding Erin Brockovich helped me to make these connections, when I stumbled upon her again in the New Hampshire Union Leader’s article in March 2016. She has been working on water contamination investigations and issues with Weitz & Luxenberg (a law firm) in Merrimack, New Hampshire and other parts including New York and Vermont relatively close to the Upper Valley region of Dartmouth College where I now reside.

The New Hampshire Union Leader quotes Brockovich, “Almost every week a new community learns its drinking water is no longer safe. We have to put an end to this crisis, step up our investment into vital infrastructure and see a greater enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act” [5]. A few days later, I noticed the New York Times article, “Tainted-Water Worries Spread to Vermont Village,” featuring the water contamination issues in Bennington, Vermont [6]. I had just passed through Bennington, Vermont on a road trip the day before the article came out.

I had followed one full cycle: Upper Valley to Navajo Nation to Flint to Bennington. The water contamination issues hit my homeland and then my present “backyard” in the Northeast. My path became clear to connect the various communities that all shared a common cause—water is an issue for everyone and everything.

Navajos have campaigned, “Water is Life.” In Diné bizaad (the Navajo language), Tó éí Iiná át’é. Tó bei nihi Dziil. The ideas for this upcoming event at Dartmouth on April 29 came together as “Water River Life-Giver,” a conversation to connect different peoples and communities through the knowledge and acknowledgment that Water gives life, Water supports life, Water fosters all life, and Water is Life. Like a river, this event links and interweaves various parts. The river exemplifies the path that appeared to me, when I asked “What can I do?”

Please join the conversation and movement of Water is Life by sharing your thoughts and perspectives on this blog. I am thankful for water, and I pray and hope that I can care for the waters that have supported my life and all that I love. Ahéhee’! Thank you!

Bilagáanaa niliigo’ dóó Kinyaa’áaniiyásh’chíín. Bilagáanaa dabicheii dóó Tsinaajinii dabinálí. Ákót’éego diné asdzá̹á̹ nilí̹. Farina King is “Bilagáanaa” (Euro-American), born for “Kinyaa’áanii” (the Towering House Clan) of the Diné (Navajo). Her maternal grandfather was Euro-American, and her paternal grandfather was “Tsinaajinii” (Black-streaked Woods People Clan) of the Diné. She defended her dissertation in February 2016 and will have her U.S. History Ph.D. conferred at Arizona State University in May 2016. She is the 2015-2016 Charles Eastman Dissertation Fellow at Dartmouth College.

1. “Church Rock uranium mill spill,” Wikipedia.org, accessed March 20, 2016.
2. “2015 Gold King Mine waste water spill,” Wikipedia.org, accessed March 20, 2016.
3. Erin Thomasson, “Leetso, the uranium monster still among us,” Navajo Times, October 11, 2010, accessed March 20, 2016.
4. “America’s Other Water Crisis” interview with Tara Houska, Honor the Earth, YouTube.com, February 4, 2016, accessed March 20, 2016. “Tara Houska, Honor the Earth, joins Thom Hartmann to discuss the ongoing environmental justice issues in Indian country, the invisibility of Native Americans in the U.S., and the need for solidarity among people of color.”
5. Kimberly Houghton, “Environmentalist Erin Brockovich expands water contamination investigation in Merrimack,” New Hampshire Union Leader, March 9, 2016, accessed March 20, 2016.
6. Vivian Yee, “Tainted-Water Worries Spread to Vermont Village,” New York Times, March 14, 2016, accessed March 20, 2016.

About the author: Farina King

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