'Different hats': Indigenous women play a growing role in managing the Colorado River

LAS VEGAS — While water managers from two countries, 30 tribes, seven states and countless other federal, state and local water managers discussed how to address the Colorado River’s structural deficit this week, Indigenous women were working to grow the next generation of water policy leaders.

Some of those women were honored Wednesday at the annual Tribes and Water Luncheon during the Colorado River Water Users Association meeting. The Indigenous Women's Leadership Network was formed to connect emerging Native women working in environmental and natural resources fields to established women leaders, according to Daryl Vigil, co-chair of the Tribes and Water Initiative. The leadership network is part of the tribal water initiative.

But to the women in the program, it's not just about networking, learning leadership skills or scholarships. It's a way to restore women's rightful place in tribal societies, as leaders, culture holders and bearers, and nurturers.

Lorelei Cloud, the acting Southern Ute Indian Tribe Chairwoman, is the network's current co-chair. The leadership positions change hands over time to give other women leadership opportunities, Cloud said.

Other current co-chairs could be part of a Native Who's Who: former Fort Mojave Indian Tribe Chairperson and environmental and cultural activist Nora McDowell; Gwendena Lee-Gatewood, the first woman chairperson of the White Mountain Apache Tribe who now serves as a policy manager for the American Indian Cancer Foundation; and Fort Yuma-Quechan Tribal Councilmember Darnella J. Melancon, who's also a noted crisis intervention specialist.

"We wear different hats — mother, daughter, office staff, hydrologists and attorneys," Cloud said. "But those roles don't end when we get home."

River leaders meet: Who must give up Colorado River water? As conservation talks start, tensions rise

Helping each other 'break through those ceilings'

Before European contact, many tribal communities were matriarchal societies. Women were regarded as leaders in their own right, managing lands and waters, growing food, caring for children and elders and passing on cultural knowledge to new generations of people.

Colonization caused oftentimes catastrophic upheavals in social systems that had sustained communities and allowed them to thrive for millennia. Native women have labored to restore these systems ever since.

Native women tend to be overlooked in a patriarchal mainstream society, Cloud said. But for more Indigenous women to enter leadership roles in tribal governments, environmental and water programs and the legal profession, women have a duty to help each other, she said.

"We're helping each other break through those ceilings."

Young women who are participating in the network all said they have gained invaluable experience from networking and educational events.

Cocopah tribal Vice Chairperson Rosa Long spoke about water management during the Colorado River Water Users Association gathering in Las Vegas, Dec. 15, 2023.
Cocopah tribal Vice Chairperson Rosa Long spoke about water management during the Colorado River Water Users Association gathering in Las Vegas, Dec. 15, 2023.

"I grew up with many women in my home," said Autumn Powell, a member of the Navajo Nation, where the matriarchy was once an integral part of tribal culture.

Powell said her mother and aunts loomed larger than the men in the family. But when she left the nation to attend college, she learned that not everybody thinks having women in leadership roles is a good thing.

"The patriarchy is misdirected," said Powell, a geography major at the University of Maryland at Baltimore County who studies how place has value from the human perspective. She also learned that Native people on the East Coast have suffered greatly from colonial erasure. "'They don't live here,'" she recounted people saying about local Natives. "I said they were literally right here."

A voice at the table: Tribes take a greater role in managing the Colorado River, still seek water rights

Gaining influence and visibility in water management

Valerisa Gaddy, also a Navajo, said she came to the network because she considers herself a minority.

"I have a Ph.D., I'm female and I'm Native," she said. She wants to use her doctorate in environmental microbiology to help her own tribe and other tribes. But, Gaddy said, there aren't role models like the Indigenous women's network in academia.

Brooke Laughter said she joined the network because of a scholarship.

"It's important women should be much more involved in water and in other areas because we've been so suppressed," she said. Laughter, who's majoring in environmental science at Fort Lewis College, said it's important to learn from women leaders, because "who else is going to take their positions when they're not there any longer?"

She's hoping the network will help her and other young Native women to gain the expertise and confidence they need.

Karletta Chief, who like Gaddy earned her doctorate at the University of Arizona, said she felt all alone at the university and was glad to learn of the leadership organization.

"The coming together of Indigenous women is inspiring," said Chief, a Navajo. The environmental sciences are a great career for Native women. "Many of our communities are matriarchal societies," Chief said. "Our world view on mothers is that of being nurturing, being stewards of Mother Earth and Father Sky."

Native women are also taking their places as water leaders. Cloud is the first-ever tribal member of the Colorado Water Conservation Board. Rosa Long, vice chair of the Cocopah Tribe, is the current chairwoman of the Ten Tribes Partnership, an association of all the tribes with lands touching the Colorado River. Long said she sees her role as another step in tribes taking their paces at the negotiating table to becoming partners in the stewardship of the river, "on equal footing as the basin states, NGOs and the Bureau of Reclamation."

Special report: Their pleas for water were long ignored. Now tribes are gaining a voice on the Colorado River

'The river is our identity'

One of the basin's strongest voices for tribal water rights spoke Friday at the conference's conclusion. Colorado River Indian Tribes Chairwoman Amelia Flores used plain, forceful language to make her points.

"The river is our identity," said Flores, a Mojave who is the tribe's first female chairwoman. "We have the most senior water rights on the Colorado River." CRIT's farms supply food, fiber and forage to the region, she said.

But while basin tribes hold rights to at least 25% of the river, Flores said that they had been totally excluded from negotiations in 1922 when the Colorado River Compact was enacted. Tribes were also left out of the room where the 2007 river management guidelines were developed.

"It's time to right that historical wrong," Flores said. And, she said, putting tribes at the negotiating table as the new management protocols are developed for implementation when the current ones expire at the end of 2026, is a good start.

"We've heard all the arguments why it's not feasible to have tribes at the post-2026 negotiations," Flores said. "I'm not buying that."

Reclamation Commissioner Camille Calimlim Touton said tribes have told her they have solutions to the river's challenges and they have to have a seat to discuss those solutions. Touton has made several visits to tribal communities to learn about their concerns and opportunities, including CRIT, where she and Flores walked beside the river that's at the heart of CRIT's heritage and identity, and which Flores and other CRIT leaders seek to save.

"It is us together who will work through these challenges," said Touton, whose work to incorporate tribes into water management was praised by many tribal leaders.

Still, even with these and other women with strong voices and the positions to have those voices heard, Cloud said, "We need more women in these leadership roles."

Powell said, "It takes a whole nation to fix a nation."

Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at debra.krol@azcentral.com. Follow her on X, formerly Twitter @debkrol.

Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.

My articles are free to read, but your subscriptions support more such great reporting. Please consider subscribing today.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How Indigenous women work to grow new leaders in water management