Restoring our relationship to water is an important part of the decolonial project, a collaborator in knowing who we are. Rosemary Georgeson (Sahtu Dene and Coast Salish) articulates this beautifully in the paper, We Have Stories–Five generations of Indigenous women in water:
I am more connected now to Sar-Augh-Ta-Naogh and Tlahoholt. The white side of my family, Scotty’s side, does not exist like it used to. Being descended from these women has settled in my body in a different way. It is different now knowing and saying who I am and where I am from. There was always a part that was at odds within me over it. It felt like history had been denied. I can say with confidence who I am and what I am, and that has come through this work that we have been doing. We were forcibly disconnected from knowing who we were. Knowing has been a decolonizing process. We have given them a voice and brought them back. They are not lost in history anymore. When we know the stories and the place we know how to take care of it. Without the water we still come together, we are just learning different ways to do it.”
As I floated in the swimming area at Forest Lake reservoir on a 95 degree day, surrounded by masses of green trees and hardly a speedboat going by in the middle of the week, a sad thought came through that it’s too bad these waters are dead. While following rivers on my journey I’ve often been led to dams and their adjacent reservoirs. I booked camping near Forest Lake not knowing it wasn’t a naturally occurring lake. It is the same for many of the lakes in Osage County, Oklahoma, and many in California. I’ve never enjoyed spending much time in and around reservoirs, but they are so common and I only recently started thinking about their impact on the environment while on this trip.
I went in search of Big Creek, the river that was dammed in the 1950s to create the Forest Lake reservoir. If indeed I had found it, the creek itself was dry though there had been recent rains, and its banks were filled with poison ivy.
The U.S. has the most dams of any country, but there are rarely new ones being built. The projects were pursued enthusiastically in the mid 1900s representing “modernity and progress” and power over the “whims” of rivers. The strategy is an extension of settler-colonialism as the projects extract the resource of water, harness energy, and create recreation opportunities without regenerating the ecosystem.
There are growing movements to remove dams and also to recognize the sovereignty of water. In 2017, New Zealand became the first country to grant a specific river legal rights the same as those of humans. In 2021, 57 dams were removed in the U.S. according to the organization American Rivers.
Not having a background in science and only just learning about the issue, it’s hard for me to articulate why a river should be able to flow freely and how there are alternatives to water storage in reservoirs. The best way I know how to explain is to share this image of the rivers and waters in the U.S. They look like the veins of the Earth. Rivers do what our own veins do, circulating and bringing nutrients to all the parts of ourselves, and there are ways we can either keep our blood clean and flowing free, or we can harm ourselves and do the opposite. If the Earth as a whole is a living thing, with ecosystems that work together on small and large scales, what harm might it do to stop the flow of the veins of the Earth, to pollute its waters and dry up its rivers?
I was able to end my trip to sacred sites at the Missouri and Mississippi rivers convergence. For some reason finding a good spot to view it was not easy, and once I was there it felt like respite at the end of a long journey. It is powerful to witness a space where two great bodies of water join together, listen to the sound of it, look around at all the medicine plants along its banks. Present were dogbane, boneset, wild grape, and cottonwoods. I offered the water my thanks for guiding and protecting me these two weeks. It answered my question about what to do next saying, “Go.” It feels like just a beginning to my understanding and work in relationship to the water.