Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Collapsed lava tube, El Malpais National Monument. View over a collapsed lava tube in the El Calderon area of El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico, USA. A lava tube is a natural passage formed by flowing lava as it moves beneath the hardened surface of a lava flow.

Five serious droughts struck New Mexico between 150 and 950 A.D. Each time this happened, ancestral Puebloans in the El Malpais National Monument region survived by lighting ice blocks found in lava tubes on fire to collect drinking water, according to research published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Native communities have resided in the El Malpais area for more than 10,000 years according to the National Park Service. The Zuni-Acoma Trail, a more than 1,000-year-old highway in the area, cuts through the lava flows of El Malpais.

Researchers extracted an ice core from a frigid lava tube buried almost 50 feet underground for the research study. As climate change threatens the Southwest, the ancient ice block studied by the team in 2017 has already shrunk from around 35,000 cubic feet to less than 1,800 cubic feet.

“This study demonstrates the ingenuity of Indigenous people who used the area,” Barbara Mills, an anthropological archaeologist at the University of Arizona. “It also shows how knowledge about the trails, caves and harvesting practices was passed down over many centuries, even millennia.”

Tribal and Pueblo communities in the Rio Grande basin hold rights to about a quarter of the river’s flow; however, they are often excluded from negotiations about how the river’s water is used.

Pueblo and Tribal communities in New Mexico are increasingly insisting on a greater role in decision making about developments and projects that affect the lands and waterways they rely on. They are seeking to incorporate Indigenous Science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge that has been passed down through thousands of years and many generations into responses to climate change.

The Paper. recently spoke with Tony Dorame from Tesuque Pueblo, an Agriscience Teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School about the water issues and challenges the Pueblo and Tribal communities face.

“Water is obviously a very, very delicate subject. We’ve existed in this landscape prior to any colonization, any foreign, occupation, any foreign government because we have strong governance and a strong society,” Dorame said.

He explained their original set of instructions of how they should live as a people came from their origin story about their creation and their purpose on Earth. “Those original instructions are what we abide by, what we live by, and what we teach our children,” Dorame said.

At the core of those instructions are things like respect, stewardship, cooperation, nurturing and supporting those fundamental concepts that are embedded within their origin stories. The original set of instructions also told them how to treat water.

“Water must be given reverence and protection because our original instructions show us the river, the lake and everything within them are alive. We see a living entity,” Dorame explained.

“Now colonization, new governments, new rules and new laws dictate how water, land and resources should be managed. These directly contradict our original instructions as stewards and respectful caretakers for the good of all the people that live upon the land, including the animals, the fish and the birds.”

He said the adjudication of water and water rights have created significant issues and obstacles for Pueblo people. “We have water rights cases that have been ongoing for over 40 years.”

Now in the final stages of the adjudication process, Dorame said they are seeing a lack of water within their reservation. “We are abiding by our original instructions and see wells being placed near the river by communities higher in our watershed. We see homes being built. We have to ask the question of how is that going to affect our water and water rights and water indemnification downstream of what is now a dry riverbed? We don’t have the water that we have rights to in the surface flow.”

Dorame strives to educate students about the importance of water from many different perspectives and the reverence for water in the original instructions that they were given.

“It helps them to put water in modern times into perspective and it often muddies the water and makes issues more complex. I strive to show students the importance of not only water but rivers, lakes, ecologically, biologically, culturally.”

As Pueblo people, they look at the landscape of the entire northern New Mexico as home and homelands to be cared for, respected and used when necessary.

“By being active stewards, on all levels, with various nonprofits, federal organizations and private organizations and local communities, we were able to expand and have our voices heard in a larger arena. We’re able to stand up for what exists far beyond our reservations which are equally as important. All this comes from our original instruction,” Dorame concluded.

Julia Fay Bernal, a member of the Sandia Pueblo and the Director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, recently spoke at the University of Colorado Boulder  Environmental Futures #WATERBACK.  Bernal said as she grew up, her Pueblo’s watershed was inundated by dams and diversions. Now an activist, she advocates for Indigenous rights and the rights of water that sustains their lives.

“We have our cultural and original instructions that have guided us in order to maintain a healthy watershed. We must advocate for the spiritual and natural laws of water being that she is a living entity. Since pre-colonial times we have been adapting to changing climate and this is something that has been passed down through oral tradition, through the realms of time we have cultivated traditional ecological knowledge,” Bernal said.

Indigenous people, particularly women, must have a seat at the water table when management solutions and policies are being discussed, Bernal advocates. Indigenous perspectives and values in land and water management strategies must be implemented to design different types of re-imagined water systems that will benefit everybody.

“Water spaces are [occupied by] predominantly white, older men. There needs to be more Indigenous women in water spaces,” Bernal said. “Something has to change.”  

Bernal said solutions from Indigenous perspectives aren’t just for them. “We understand that Indigenous people are not the only ones that are living in the Southwest, but our ideas and values could definitely benefit a lot of our downstream water users.

“Our policy has been formulated by Western thought and ideology; therefore, it does not encompass the values that Pueblo people, that all Indigenous people have across the world. We are facing ongoing colonialism as our cultural resources are being exploited for capitalist gain,” she said.

Bernal said we can’t continue the status quo because it’s put us in a state of crisis. “We have to think a bit more beyond ourselves and that’s an Indigenous perspective as well. It’s not just about me, it’s not just about you, it’s about everybody and how can we come up with solutions that benefit the majority, rather than just the few.”