Water is life, relationality, and tribal sovereignty: An interview with Melanie K. Yazzie
This spring, you gave a talk about Indigenous politics and what you called the “social life of water.” A main premise of your talk was that the water is life movement is, at heart, about a radical politics of relationality. Can you say more about what you mean by that?
I came up with the term “radical politics of relationality” as part of my dissertation research, which focused on resource extraction and nationhood in the Navajo Nation during the 20th century. My interest in water began in 2012 during a public uprising over a water settlement on a tributary in the Lower Colorado River Basin. At the time, the phrase “water is life” had become increasingly popular in political discourse and social movements. I wanted to understand where the phrase came from because I knew it wasn't out of nowhere – it arose because of certain political, historical, and social dynamics.
Building off my research, as well as my involvement in and analysis of native social movements, I noticed that with water is life, the word life in particular was about countering the politics and reality of death that resource extraction has brought to native communities, including my own. Resource extraction has meant elimination and disappearance. It has meant the dispossession and expropriation of land and rights, and also exploitation of resources – land, water, and labor – for the accumulation of capital and power in the hands of those who continue to occupy our lands and extract actual life. In my dissertation, I call these “relations of extraction” – one-way relationships where resources are extracted from native lands with no benefit to native peoples.
For example, the Colorado River is sacred to my people and many other tribes. But, its water now feeds coal and uranium production, which gets transformed into the energy that supports metropolitan areas like Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and Phoenix. These resources are literally extracted from the earth, while also extracting power and livelihood from Navajo people, to feed the accumulation and concentration of power in metropolitan centers. The one-way street that underwrites these relations of extraction has meant one thing for native peoples, and that is death. Water is life recognizes that a different paradigm is possible.
Based on your research and experience, how did these relations of extraction become such a dominant paradigm?
It got started in the 1960s when there was a boom in the American West and places like Denver and Phoenix were becoming the huge cities we know today. It was only with the investment of capital that resources like uranium and coal that often underlie tribal lands were opened up and aggressively pursued by corporations that then worked with developers to build these enormous metropolitan areas. These cities didn't, and still couldn't, exist without the extraction of resources, including massive amounts of water.
Around that same time, in 1968, the Navajo Nation was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the signing of our treaty with the United States, which established the lands that we live in today. As part of this centennial celebration, there was a lot of rhetoric about the promise and prosperity that resource extraction would bring. As a consequence, the whole idea of the Navajo Nation and the discourses around tribal sovereignty and nationalism have for 50 years been tied to resource extraction.
Fast forward to the 2000s when the phrase “water is life” was starting to emerge as a counter to that paradigm. Now, in 2017, it has come into a full-blown political formation.
What does that political formation around the water is life movement look like today? What do you see as the potential at this point in history?
I see water is life as a politics and a framework that contests and undermines these one-way relations where our entire concept of tribal sovereignty and nationalism is about extraction. It's an extraction that does not benefit our people in any way, shape, or form despite the fact that it continues to be sold to us as such.
Water is life allows us to focus on life instead of death. It makes a lot of sense that water is life came from these ground-up social movements that indigenous people are spearheading, whether it's within the Navajo context or the multi-tribal effort at Standing Rock, because it's about trying to shift this extraction-based paradigm that dictates all of our terms of life as indigenous people in North America. Water is life is about rising up to say “no more.”
We are literally fighting for our lives. This whole epic of extraction is killing us. It's killing the water. It's making it so that we can't live anymore in rightful relations with the earth that we call home. Something must change, and the only way it's going to change is if people push it to change. It's a power to the people movement for native people to claim water as a relative.
That leads us into this radical politics of relationality based on indigenous understanding of kinship, of relatives, of being in good relations of reciprocity. Those kinds of relations are much more about protection – that's why they call themselves “water protectors” at Standing Rock – about compassion and equality, about a power dynamic that isn't based on extraction and exploitation. It is about mutual respect and simply being a good relative.
When we enact and enforce this life-giving paradigm of relationality, we are both contesting and undoing extraction-based relationality. That's what I mean when I talk about the social life of water. It's a big picture way of looking at where we've come from, why we are in this predicament, and where we need to go as indigenous people – and also as human beings in an era of climate change – if we even want to have a future.
Melanie K. Yazzie is a Diné feminist with an unwavering commitment to defending and liberating Native people from the violence of colonialism. She is a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. She specializes in Diné studies, Indigenous feminist and queer studies, American Indian history, social and political theory, critical environmental studies, and US social movements. She has held numerous research fellowships and awards, including a UC President's Postdoctoral Fellowship, an Andrew W. Mellon Dissertation Fellowship, and a Ford Foundation Diversity Predoctoral Fellowship.
She is a past board member of Navajo Studies Conference, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to the development of Navajo Studies, and an organizer with The Red Nation, an activist coalition advocating the liberation of Native people from colonialism and capitalism. She has published articles and book reviews in Wicazo Sa Review, Studies in American Indian Literature, American Indian Quarterly, Social Text, and American Quarterly. With Nick Estes, she recently guest edited a special issue of Wicazo Sa Review (June 2016) on the legacy of Dakota scholar Elizabeth Cook-Lynn to the field of Native studies. She is also co-editing a special issue of Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society with Dr. Cutcha Risling-Baldy on North American Indigenous water politics. Her first book project is based on her dissertation. It offers a critical feminist and materialist history of postwar Navajo political formations.