Gobbling up water in the desert and the cries to protect it

(Photo by Austin Fast)

Navajo Nation Poet Laureate Laura Tohe uses her poetry about water to highlight how quickly Phoenix is consuming water resources * This story has been corrected

Austin Fast
ASU Cronkite

BLACK CANYON CITY, Ariz. — As a small girl growing up on the Navajo homeland in western New Mexico, Laura Tohe learned to meet the spirit of water.

Reach your hand into a river or lake to touch its spirit, her grandmother would advise. That way the water will come to know you and choose not to harm you.

With another monsoon season drawing to a close, some Arizonans have seen firsthand the destruction that water can inflict through flooding and storms. As poet laureate of the Navajo Nation since 2015, Tohe performed some of her poetry recognizing both the dangerous and life-sustaining nature of rain last month at Black Canyon City’s Masonic Lodge.

Dozens of people gathered to hear Tohe’s work as well as Native perspectives on water use from Albert Nelson, the culture and museum department coordinator for the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation. Both implored the audience to think more consciously about their water use and recognize how critical this limited resource is to life in the desert.

“Male rain. He comes riding a dark horse: Angry. Malevolent. Cold,” Tohe intoned in English and the Navajo language. Her son whaled on an electric guitar as she shook a rattle and rainstick. “Bringing floods and heavy winds. Warrior rain … rides away leaving his enemy behind.”

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(Photo by Austin Fast)

Tohe’s own surname fittingly means “heart of water.” Between poems, she described how many traditional Navajo ceremonies and stories center around water. Tohe also expressed concern about how quickly Phoenix is growing and gobbling up water resources, sometimes at the expense of Native people.

“You see golf courses and manmade lakes and all these things that seem to be a waste of water from the perspective of someone like myself, or my grandmother's perspective. Using water to water grass so that somebody can hit a ball on it – it just really doesn't make sense,” Tohe said.

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Census data show Arizona’s population has ballooned to include 2 million new residents since 2000, and all of those people need water to drink, bathe and wash clothes. Complicating matters, the Arizona Department of Water Resources claims the state has been in some stage of drought since 1994. Although Arizona regulations require water be “used for beneficial purposes,” Nelson said he believes the state should more actively regulate access to surface water and groundwater sources.

“There's not enough laws protecting the rivers, so a lot of communities that pop up along water sources are allowed to drill for water,” Nelson said. “Water is life. You can't exist without water in this world, so our people believe that we should take every measure to protect the water that we have in our rivers and our wells.”

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Sometimes those measures include protecting the Yavapai homeland from the United States government itself. Nelson shared how the tribe caught wind of federal plans to dam the Salt and Verde rivers just northeast of Phoenix and flood out the Fort McDowell Yavapai Reservation in the 1970s. 

Nelson's elders and relatives marched three days to the state Capitol in protest, gathering supporters and prayer from churches along the way. Nelson called the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation a “forerunner” among Native Americans, unafraid to voice their opinions with local, state and federal governments.

“My grandfather, John Williams, coined a saying: ‘If you put land in one hand and money in the other, which one's going to last longer?’ My people always always try to take care of the land because we know if we take care of it, it'll take care of us,” Nelson said.

“Meeting the Spirit of Water: A Navajo and Yavapai Perspective” was the sixth in a series of water-focused events leading up to the Dec. 14 arrival of Water/Ways, a free traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian Institution that will set up shop for six weeks at Cañon Elementary School in Black Canyon City. Barbara Chatzkel, co-chair for the committee that organized these events, hopes to raise awareness on how essential water is to preserving natural habitats and to humanity’s survival, particularly for Arizona, which she said has an enormous amount of publicly owned land.

“Without the place for wildlife to mate and have young, we're going to lose a lot. It's really making sure that the ecological cycle stays in place,” Chatzkel said, noting that scientists estimate only 5 percent of Arizona’s original riparian, or wetland, ecosystems remain today. “Rivers dry up and streams dry up as people build and move into it.”

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(Photo by Austin Fast)

At least 50 people have attended each of the water presentations in Black Canyon City this year, which Chatzkel sees as encouraging proof the community is interested in conserving water and protecting Arizona’s environment. Not only that, Tohe said their participation helped raise awareness of Native issues in a culture that can forget its own history.

“Sometimes people perceive us as having gone away or no longer existing, and so I think that with this group here, I think we are visible with our language, with our music, with our poetry, with our history,” Tohe said.

The next time monsoon clouds darken the skies over Black Canyon City, those who heard Tohe’s “Male Rain” will surely flash back to her grandmother’s advice on meeting the spirit of water. They just might remember to get that leaky kitchen faucet fixed to preserve Arizona’s precious resources, too.

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Austin Fast is a student at Arizona State University.

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