Drought forces some Native Americans to choose which tradition to save

In Santo Domingo Pueblo, tribe opts to give up old irrigation method to preserve culture of farming

Everett Chavez and the SUV he dubs "the Brown Bomber,'' which helps him travel the 300 acres now being watered by a new irrigation system for the Santo Domingo Pueblo farmlands.
Carrie Jung

Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series on how drought affects Native Americans and their communities. Part 1 looked at how drought can hit those communities harder.

SANTO DOMINGO PUEBLO, N.M. — On a brisk winter morning last month, Everett Chavez climbed into the driver’s seat of a dust-covered SUV he calls “the Brown Bomber,” a vehicle that helped him maneuver the dirt roads of the agricultural lands of the Santo Domingo Pueblo, affording a closer look at the tribe’s new pipe-based irrigation system.

Chavez, whose official title is tribal affairs liaison, pointed to several fields being prepped for the start of the growing season, which now support crops from green chili to corn to alfalfa, all thanks to the new system. But things in this valley haven’t always been this fertile.

“Up until we did this here, there was fallow land,” he said.

One of the old irrigation ditches on the farmlands of the Santo Domingo Pueblo, now dry as the tribe irrigates a new way.
Carrie Jung

Thanks to the region’s prolonged drought, many of the tribe’s farmers had opted out of planting because it was either too labor-intensive to irrigate properly or there simply wasn’t enough water to go around. And according to forecasters, conditions aren’t expected to improve anytime soon.

“Climate change has truly affected us in terms of the past when we’ve had less drought,” Chavez lamented. “We just don’t have the water available to us that we used to.”

Farming is an important tradition for the people of the Santo Domingo tribe, whose lands are located in central New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. While it’s not an economic driver, the food grown here goes to family and friends and often supports the tribe’s cultural events. So rather than risk the complete loss of this important practice, tribal leaders made the tough decision to give up one cultural practice — irrigation in the way their elders did it — to save another tradition, farming.

In doing so, they joined a growing movement in Indian Country by taking a pre-emptive approach to the problem. 

With traditional foods and ways of life at stake across Native America, more and more North American tribes are beginning to face the impacts of climate change head on. By developing climate adaptation plans, many tribal leaders are working to predict and adjust to the coming ecological fluctuations, keeping their communities ahead of the climate change curve.

One of the pipes used in the new irrigation system for the Santo Domingo Pueblo.
Carrie Jung

For Santo Domingo tribal officials, the answer to their diminishing surface water supply was an upgrade to their irrigation system. The new pipe-based structure was installed in about 10 percent of the tribe’s fields. The system wasn’t cheap, costing about $250,000, but with some grant money and assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Reclamation, they’ve now successfully completed phase one of this irrigation transition.

The new system allows farmers to do more with less water, especially when compared with their traditional earthen-ditch-based method. A field that used to take more than two days to irrigate can now be properly watered in about four hours. Issues with evaporation have also been significantly mitigated, and farmers lose much less water to downstream flow.

Chavez said that while straying from their traditional irrigation methods was not an easy decision, as the water flowing through those ditches does carry some cultural properties as well, tribal leaders decided that the practice of farming was more important.

“We’ve been farming since time immemorial,” he explained. “It’s been one of those things that we’ve always done and will always continue to do.”

A valve for the new irrigation system, which allows once fallow fields to bear crops again.
Carrie Jung

But the effects of climate change span much farther than the arid Southwest. It’s an issue that has been affecting indigenous peoples everywhere. That’s according to Sue Wotkyns, program manager for the Institute of Tribal Environmental Professionals, an organization that supports tribes in the management of their environmental resources.

“Alaska is already being impacted quite severely. The temperature increase up there has been greater than the global average, and it’s affecting the permafrost,” she explained. Wotkyns added that the impacts weren’t just confined to the country’s cold climates. “We have colleagues in the Midwest who have voiced concerns over the fact that there’s sort of this rapid shift northward for certain species ranges.”

In the Pacific Northwest, tribes like the Nooksack Indian Tribe have concerns over the health of area salmon populations, while farther east, tribes like the Pointe-au-Chien are grappling with a steady loss of land due to erosion and sea level rise.

Wotkyns added that while climate change affects everyone, Native American communities are particularly vulnerable thanks to their heavy dependence on natural resources and a general lack of funding to support things like emergency response and infrastructure.

But she said, times are changing. In the last few years, she has seen more interest among tribes to actively address the impact of climate change.

Let's put the money in the hands of the people who know how to respond.

Kevin Washburn

Assistant secretary of Indian affairs

The Obama administration is also well aware of this growing interest. As part of the president’s national climate action plan, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, also known as the BIA, has awarded about $625,000 worth of grant money to 19 tribes and tribal consortiums, to support them in addressing the challenges of climate change.

Tribes know best what they’re facing, said Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn.

“Let’s put the money in the hands of the people who know how to respond,” he said.

Washburn acknowledged that the funding was rather humble in comparison with other initiatives, but he believed the money could go a long way in Native America.

“Ordinarily, I think the way we’d like to deal with climate change is to introduce a lot of bold, very expensive new initiatives to try to deal with it,” he said. “But in a fiscal scenario where we have the Murray-Ryan budget caps and a very divided Congress on fiscal issues, and also a very divided Congress on climate change issues, we’ve had to be more modest.”

But modest or not, it was funding that Jeff Hetrick, the director of the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, Alaska, will gladly put to good use.

“The funding is extremely important,” he explained. “It’s not like there’s funding just sitting around.”

The Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, in coordination with its parent company, the Chugach Regional Resources Commission, received about $58,000 from the BIA through the grant system. Hetrick said the commission planned to use this funding as seed money to begin a three-phase project aimed at revealing the vulnerabilities that exist within the Prince William Sound region’s seven Native communities, such as the salmon resources.

“The marine environment is likely to change,” he said. “In fact, we’re seeing these changes already.”

A field of annual summer grass, a cover crop that is restoring organic matter to a once dry field on the Santo Domingo Pueblo farmland.
Carrie Jung

Because these Native communities live among such unforgiving conditions in Alaska, knowing what to expect from climate change and having a good plan in place for when it happens is vital to their well-being, Hetrick said.

Nicholas Reo, an environmental and Native American studies professor at Dartmouth College, added that the rest of the country could learn a lot from how tribes adapt to their fluctuating environment.

“Indigenous peoples have a lot of experience adapting to rapid change, so there’s a certain amount of experience and wisdom there,” he said. “It’s going to be important for communities and could be important to broader society. “

In a recent issue of the peer-reviewed journal Climatic Change, Reo, along with about 50 other Dartmouth researchers, concluded that the traditional knowledge held within tribal communities could ultimately help the rest of the nation adapt to climate change.

At this point, Reo said, there’s no turning back the clock.

A sentiment Chavez said he knows all too well.

“Mother Nature has its own schedule, and we’re at her mercy,” he explained. “We have to be prepared.“

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