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Indigenous Water Protectors Come Together At Las Cruces Symposium

Mallory Falk
As part of a two-day symposium, indigenous artists created a water protector mural on the corner of University and Solano.

New Mexico State University recently held a symposium bringing together Indigenous leaders who are fighting to protect water resources. These water protectors shared stories about their work on the frontlines.

It’s a warm November afternoon. Spray can artists gather on the corner of University and Solano to work on a mural.


“What we’re trying to do is promote the importance of water,” says Saba, a local artist. “So we do it through public, live art. This piece depicts the cycle of water from the clouds to the mountains to the streams all the way down to the oceans.”


Saba is Navajo and Jemez Pueblo from Northern New Mexico. He calls his art form Arrowsoul.


“We use Aerosol paint for our medium and also we use arrows in our letters,” he says. “We use arrows to hunt. We use arrows to defend ourselves. So Arrowsoul art is what we call it.”


Saba says the mural shows how humans both depend on and damage water sources. A child swims in a clear pool of water, which then gets trapped behind a dam. It later spews out of a pipe and has turned electric, contaminated green. There’s a big billboard that says Water Is Life in the distinct white Coca Cola font.


Guadalupe Vargas also works on the mural. “Water is life has become a movement but there’s a lot people that seem to be marketing it and making money off it and maybe not helping out the movement,” Vargas says. “So that’s what the billboard in the rainforest represents.”


Vargas came from Amarillo to help out with the mural.


“I mean people traveled to North Dakota to go fight, so seven hours is nothing for me to come here to do my part,” he says.


He’s referring to the water protectors who travelled to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, which, they claimed, would destroy the reservation’s clean drinking supply and damage sacred sites.


Vargas sees this mural as an extension of that work. He hopes it wakes people up and changes how they think about water. “If we pollute it or waste it, we’re gonna die,” he says.


Vargas and Saba aren’t creating this mural in a vacuum. They’re here for an Indigenous Water Protectors symposium, hosted by New Mexico State University. The two-day event brings water protectors together from across the U.S. and from Guatemala to share stories and examples of their work. There’s a water ceremony, panel discussion, and an evening celebration - featuring three-time Native American Music Award winner Artson.


The symposium is held in November to celebrate Native American Heritage Month.


Claudia Montesinos is with the Frontera Water Protection Alliance, in El Paso. She she’s Quechua from the Southern Andes of Peru.


“I was born here but raised bi-culturally and with a really deep and strong connection to my ancestral homeland,” she says.


Like Guadalupe Vargas, Montesinos hopes to - as she puts it - shake people’s consciousness.


“We are asleep in so many ways, and we are so comfortable,” she says. “And we haven’t run out of water yet, you know. The tap still turns on.”


But, she says, there are many threats to local water sources. Right now, she’s most concerned about a method of oil and gas extraction.


“The fracking that is coming, that is knocking on our door,” she says. “That subterranean extraction that is extremely violent, extremely dangerous and toxic to our water.”


Montesinos says fracking has taken off in other parts of Texas, and she fears it’s coming to this corner of the state.


Kim Smith also worries about extractive industries. She’s a member of the Diné Nation and lives in New Mexico.


“Right now our tribe is heavily dependent on coal,” Smith says. “We have coal fire power plants, we have coal mines, our tribe is heavily invested in these industries. And basically the work that we’re trying to do is empower our communities to understand what coal brings.”


Especially the health impacts. She says she’s working to create health impact studies, to show both the community and state legislature the harm these industries are causing. 


Smith directs the Just Transition Campaign for New Energy and founded an online magazine called Indigenous Goddess Gang. She wants to see a transition to renewable energy.


“As Indigenous people, we live sustainably,” she says. “Some may call it permaculture now, that’s like the sexy term for it, but really it’s just how indigenous people have been living for time immemorial.”


Smith says if more people lived this way - creating their own heat and hauling water - they would better appreciate natural resources and only use what they need.


“The hope is that we’re all in this together,” Smith says. “It’s not just an Indigenous issue anymore. It’s us, as humans.”


Because, Smith says, everyone depends on water.

Mallory Falk currently serves as a reporter for Texas public radio stations and her work continues to be heard on KRWG. She was based here from June, 2018 through June, 2019 as a Report for America corps member. She covers a wide range of issues in the region, including immigration, education, healthcare, economic development, and the environment. Mallory previously served as education reporter at WWNO, New Orleans Public Radio, where her coverage won multiple awards. Her stories have aired on regional and national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now, and Texas Standard.