A Sacred Drop

PHOTOGRAPH BY TESSA TRAEGER / TRUNK ARCHIVE

 

Water is what connects all life on Earth. And yet, this sacred ingredient is facing a scarcity crisis—one that may define our lifetimes if we don’t act now.

PHOTOGRAPH BY TESSA TRAEGER / TRUNK ARCHIVE
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“Water is Life.”

 

That simple yet incredibly powerful slogan rose to international prominence during the fight to stop the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock in 2016. A rough translation of the Lakota phrase “Mni wiconi,” it means exactly what it says without water, there would be no life on planet Earth.

 

Water is ideal for supporting life. It’s the only natural substance on Ina Maka (Mother Earth) that exists in all three states: solid (ice), liquid, and gas (steam). It has a high specific heat index, so it can readily absorb a lot of heat. Water has a neutral pH. It is a universal solvent and can dissolve more substances than any other liquid. The high surface tension of water creates capillary action that allows water and other nutrients to move through our body’s capillaries.

 

The human body needs water to transport waste, complete digestion, and control our body temperature, so it’s no wonder that we are mostly water. The blood plasma in our veins is 90% water. The human brain is 70% water. As a whole, the human body is about 60-80% water.

 

Plants are about 90% water. They require it to perform photosynthesis. When exposed to sunlight, plants are able to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen, releasing clean air for us to breathe in the process, and creating energy that other organisms can eat.

 

The surface of Earth itself is also mostly water. 71% of it is covered in water, making it appear blue from space. It’s been here for hundreds of millions of years since the dinosaurs reigned.

 

There is no doubt that water is our most valuable natural resource, and the water we can use is finite. Most of the water on Earth is actually saltwater. While sea creatures thrive in it, humans can only utilize clean, freshwater—and of all the water on the globe, a mere 2.5% meets that qualification. Nearly half of that 2.5% is essentially inaccessible to us as well, frozen in glaciers and arctic ice, or just present as soil moisture. This means that only 0.007% of water is available for consumption by the almost 8 billion people on Earth.

 

We truly have none to spare. Water scarcity can mean reduced availability due to a physical shortage, or scarcity that comes from diminished access that is caused by the failure of governments and institutions to ensure an adequate, consistent supply that stems from an overall lack of necessary infrastructure. Water scarcity is already a problem around much of the world. In the past 100 years, humanity has outpaced water use at twice the rate of population increase, according to the United Nations. In just four years, approximately 1.8 billion people will live in areas overcome by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed areas, in part due to the climate crisis.

 

Just this year, Vice President Kamala Harris warned that we are entering a period where there will be wars waged over water access. “For years there were wars fought over oil; in a short time there will be wars fought over water,” she said in California, where there is already a severe drought of historic proportions is underway. The American Jobs Plan, Harris suggested, would provide more than $111 billion in investment monies to help build the country’s water infrastructure and prevent inequities to clean water availability.

 

In spite of the knowledge that we lack available freshwater, as well as an increase in demand, waters are still being polluted with garbage and chemicals, and governments continue to jeopardize what little there is by continuing to promote and support big oil while refusing to move toward green energy. Fossil fuel extraction not only drives climate change, but it also wastes water and pollutes it by leaking toxins into it.

Water, the Earth, and the Universe will go on without us. It is we who cannot live without a molecule comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing,” is the process of using pressurized fluids to fracture rock layers in order to release natural gas or petroleum. It uses millions of gallons of fresh water per well and contaminates drinking water. Fracking mixes water with a number of dangerous chemical compounds to create fracking fluid. This fluid combines with heavy metals and radioactive elements that exist naturally in the rock. This toxic soup overflows into rivers and streams on the surface. Underground water is contaminated by hydraulic fracturing, too. Finally, it releases methane, a “greenhouse gas” that causes climate change.

 

Pipelines, which always leak with time, have long been fought by Indigenous peoples because we understand the danger they present to our freshwater. Even now, the Dakota Access pipeline that so many sacrificed their time, energy, safety, livelihoods and even freedom to stop, is still being fought through the courts as it continues to operate on Lakota treaty land in violation of federal law.

 

We stand firm, however, and know that victory will be ours.

 

Here is proof. Two weeks ago, TC Energy, formerly Transcanada, announced that they are pulling the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline. The Biden administration revoked its permit in January, but there was a chance it could be revived by other government officials. Now that the corporation itself has put an end to it, we know it’s finally over. The Lakota people and their allies have been fighting to stop the Keystone XL pipeline for over a decade.

 

One of the first anti-Keystone XL pipeline camps was through the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, but many others would join along the way, from Fort Peck to the Cheyenne River Sioux. The pipeline would have run from Canada’s poisonous tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico, where the final product was to be exported. Keystone XL would have crossed straight through Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) territory and through our sources of freshwater, without our consent.

 

We were keenly aware of the danger it presented. In 2017, the first Keystone pipeline spilled half a million gallons next to the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Tribe. It contaminated the groundwater.

 

The Oceti Sakowin have a distinct reverence for water that we observe daily and in ceremony. During Wiwang Waci, also known as Sundance, adherents go without food or water for four days. They dance around the tree of life from sunrise to sundown. They are pierced in their chests, arms, and backs, and offer pieces of their flesh. They don’t just go without, either. When the heyoka (sacred clowns) appear, they will often bring cold, fresh water with them to tempt the dancers. No one appreciates the significance of water more than a sundancer, especially on the fourth day.

 

When I say we will be victorious, it is because there is no other option. If we do not conserve the clean water we have, we will die. Water, the Earth, and the Universe will go on without us. It is we who cannot live without a molecule comprised of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.

 

I am a plains NDN. I’ve only swum in the ocean once in my life. But anyone who’s experienced its vast majesty gains a greater perspective as to our place in the cosmos. We are so small and insignificant in comparison, yet we are a portion of the whole. We are all a part of the great sacred hoop of life, from subatomic particles to exploding supernovas.

 

We are eternally linked to the Earth through water. With time, we will answer the question as to whether we feel as though future generations of humanity deserve to exist beyond our lifetimes by our actions now. Water will be the most vital resource of the 21st century and its conservation and protection must be at the forefront. What are you prepared to do to save it?

 

As Tecumseh said: “A single twig breaks, but a bundle of twigs is strong.”

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