Water for life: not guaranteed for the indigenous people of the Navajo Nation
The 2nd reflection of the Seven Weeks for Water 2021 of the WCC Ecumenical Water Network is written by Annika Harley.* In the following reflection, Harley highlights the challenges of mining and fracking in the Navajo Nation based on her conversation with Bitahnii Wayne Wilson, who not only challenges these unsustainable practices, but also provides small-scale solutions to indigenous communities in the time of COVID-19.
Isaiah 1:17 (Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed)
Throughout my time with Creation Justice Ministries, I have had the privilege of learning from water activists across the United States who seek to protect God’s sacred gift of water. One of those advocates I spoke with recently is Bitahnii Wayne Wilson, a member of the Navajo Nation who provides humanitarian mutual aid relief across the Navajo Nation and beyond. Wilson’s work serves those who have been denied access to potable water in the Pueblo, Leguna, Navajo, and Hopi Nations as well as others across the Southwestern United States.
The Navajo Nation has become infamous around the globe for having suffered the worst level of COVID-19 in the United States because of the paucity of clean water on their reservation, which makes the precaution of frequent handwashing impossible. Some of their water scarcity is due to lack of infrastructure to provide water across the vast reservation. Some water scarcity is the result of dangerous levels of groundwater pollution caused by uranium mining and fracking. But whatever the cause, lack of clean water in the age of COVID-19 is deadly.
Wilson has been a champion of clean water since he was young. He grew up on the Navajo reservation during the height of uranium mining in the area. The mining had contaminated the springs and the arroyos and washes in which Wilson played as a little boy. At one point, the contaminated soils of those arroyos near Gallup, New Mexico caused painful sores on his feet. After the hospital failed to be able to cure him, a local healer stepped in and was eventually able to cure his sores.
While uranium mining has ceased in his area for decades, some mines have been reclaimed and some haven’t. These mines, together with fracking (fracturing oil & gas formations with explosives and water laced with chemicals) operations in the area leach toxic chemicals into local springs that are used for drinking water. So contamination of groundwater and springs on Navajo land continues to this day. Wilson and the indigenous peoples throughout this region continue to resist additional mining and fracking, which deprive them of the clean water that most Americans enjoy and expect.
Just two short years ago, Wilson was trained in community management after a natural or human-induced disaster. Shortly after this training, COVID-19 hit, dramatically increasing the need for water for proper hygiene. The scarcity of clean water was literally killing an enormous number of Navajo, particularly elders. Wilson then used his disaster training to create a plan for water and mutual aid distribution in his area — and that sparked a project that now delivers water, food, and personal protective equipment on reservations across the Southwest where there is not ready access to water.
In describing his work, Wilson told me: “The water has a spirit and when you start mixing chemicals in it, it kills that spirit.” In Navajo tradition, water records your prayers, but only when it is living water with its spirit still present, not after being polluted with chemicals. So water pollution is not just an environmental crisis but also a spiritual one.
The work that Wilson and his team does is incredible. But we should not live in a world where groups of people are systematically denied access to clean water, God’s life-giving miracle. The story of lack of clean, accessible water on Navajo land is not unique. From the mountaintops of Appalachia to the city of Flint, Michigan, people and communities of color struggle for access to clean water.
Water is sacred and must be cherished. If you, like me, have had the privilege of access to clean water, then be grateful for it. But don’t stop there; support mutual aid providers like Wilson, and advocate for equitable access to clean water. If you would object to contamination of your own local water source, then those who seek to follow Jesus must take the Christ-like step of working to assure that everyone has clean water, that no one is excluded for God’s life-giving gift of water, that no one is left behind.
- How does your faith inform your relationship with water?
- How can you and your faith community be water justice advocates?
- Can you imagine having no access to clean water in time of COVID-19? What can you do to ensure the vulnerable have access to water?
- Get your water tested and find out the source of your water.
- Do you know which watershed you live in? Find out and learn about the threats to the health of the watershed.
- Advocate against unsustainable practices such as fracking.
K’he Native Action Covid Relief Campaign Learn more about Bitahnii Wayne Wilson’s work and find ways to get involved yourself!
Water, Holy Water– A Creation Justice Ministries Educational Resource
* Annika Harley is the Program & Policy associate with Creation Justice Ministries where she works on issues such as access to clean drinkable water, Just Transition, and young adult leadership. Harley lives in the Anacostia Watershed in Washington, DC.