The Youth Perspective: Inside an Inter-tribal Water Summit

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Written by Trinda Cote, Indigenous Youth Ambassador with Living Lakes Canada. 

Water knows no jurisdictional boundaries. It flows freely through countries, states, and provinces and is the source of life to people and wildlife. The water where I grew up and became very familiar with flows far from my home territory. These waters, while I hold them close to me, also served a purpose to many before I existed. The Ktunaxa and Secwepemc people heavily relied on this river system for food and traveling. I am a descendant of both Nations, but my own Indigenous Bands were not the only people who used this watershed, known today as the Columbia Basin.

This watershed stretches between Canada and the U.S. Its headwaters start in Canal Flats, British Columbia, very close to where I was born and raised. From there, the water travels north to Revelstoke, B.C. where it takes a sharp turn and travels south to the Canadian/U.S. border. There, it flows through Washington state, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and finally, Oregon where it completes its journey to the Pacific Ocean.

On June 28th, I left Canada to meet many people who share these waters with me, hundreds of kilometres away from its source. In order to connect with them, I travelled to North Bend, Oregon for the Changing Currents: Tribal Water Summit hosted by the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest Indians (ATNI).

The Changing Currents Water Summits are inter-tribal gatherings designed to bring together leadership, professionals, and youth (ages 15-24) from U.S. Tribes and Indigenous communities in the Northwest who share a common concern for water. These summits encourage discussion around the importance of water sources and create opportunities for collaboration. 

I attended the 2023 summit for five days from June 28th to July 1st. The experience was nothing short of amazing. I had the opportunity to listen and learn from incredibly knowledgeable speakers and summit attendees who were also invited onto the traditional lands of both the Coquille Indian Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw. On this field trip, we were told many stories and saw firsthand what the Coquille and surrounding tribes were doing to protect their traditional waters. 

It was encouraging to hear of collaborative efforts to restore salmon populations, as shared by Donella Miller, a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and Program Manager for the Yakama Nation Fisheries Resource Management Program. She said that because of temperature change, they’ve found that some of the salmon aren’t even making it back to their spawning grounds.

Trinda Cote during the Inter-tribal Water Summit.

Donelle spoke about how the Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission and its member tribes envision a future where the river’s hydroelectric power system provides clean, reliable, and affordable electricity while simultaneously supporting healthy salmon populations. She shared their vision for the Columbia River, of rebuilding salmon populations through supporting sustainable fisheries and utility planning for renewable energy.

The majority of the speakers were Indigenous and all of them had very impactful presentations. I found there was a large sense of urgency among the speakers, to not only push youth towards jobs and career paths that will allow them to better protect their water and land, but also to advocate for our people and be proud of our Indigenous roots.

A quote from a speaker, Max Oaks from the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, greatly reflects this: “Indigenous knowledge is intuitive and quiet. Our responsibility is to speak for the animals and the water… It was once believed that animals could talk and at some point, they lost the ability to speak to us… It is our responsibility to speak for them.”

This quote resonated with me beyond further explanation.

I didn’t know it until I arrived, but I was the only attendee from Canada at the water summit. Even though I was the only one, I believe I brought a different perspective of the watershed that sparked discussion about impacts that could be solved together. Though only 15% of the Columbia Basin is in Canada, it provides 40% of the average river flows and runoff for the entire Basin. The importance of creating conversation and connections regarding our transboundary water sources are crucial.

All of our water is connected in some way. Political boundaries should not stop collaborative efforts to protect our water. We all need to cherish and respect the water just as the Indigenous People do. Understanding the connections that Indigenous People have to the water both now and historically, can evolve into a much deeper discussion about why connecting efforts on both sides of the border is important.

The Changing Currents: Tribal Water Summit showed me that it is essential to create opportunities for Indigenous People and youth to discuss our shared concerns. We cannot rely on the protection and restoration of only part of the watershed when water so tightly connects us all. I hope that with time, and more events like this one, we can together work as a whole to restore and protect the Columbia River and the water that flows through it.

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