Case studies

Water Solutions

Case 9: First Nations’ Struggle for Water: The Cases of Black Mesa and St’át’imc Peoples


First Nations/Aboriginal cultures worldwide face multiple challenges in the struggle to develop their own plans for water management. Often conflicting conceptions and systems of “development” are at issue, and settler states neglect or overrule indigenous cultures’ rights and autonomy. ********* Two examples from Turtle Island (or North America, to settlers) illustrate well the attempt of First Nations/Aboriginal Peoples to take control of water management in the face of state and corporate exploitation of water. Within the U.S. state of California, Navajo and Hopi First Nations have waged a struggle to stop Peabody Energy Corporation from abusing water resources by using them in coal operations in their homeland of Black Mesa. At issue are unsustainable withdrawals, from principal aquifers dating back to the Ice Age, which amounted to 3.3 million litres per day by Peabody from 1970 to 2005. In addition, ill-advised engineering decisions undertaken by state authorities led to the draining and dumping of uranium-laced water from one aquifer into another main aquifer used for drinking water. Though withdrawals from the company were halted in 2005, the company has repeatedly attempted to gain authority to restart its operations, and while the Black Mesa Trust – an organization representing the interests of First Nations and ecological sustainability – continues its work, it is under continual threat ofa return to the previous status quo. To those active in the Trust, the right of First Nations to control their own water is seen as a sacred trust of their people and culture. Protestors. Photo credit: Tanya LeeIn St’át’imc land within the Canadian province of British Columbia, meanwhile, the chiefs’ council is working towards the implementation of a broad-based land and water management plan based on ecological sustainability. The nation’s principal way of doing this is by declaring all of their territory a “cultural protection zone.” Using a blend of Western science and indigenous knowledge and traditions, the St’át’imc people are attempting to develop an integrated system of ecosystem protection that values the full diversity of life and the land, looking at key “indicator species” in the grizzly bear, ungulates and fish, with the intention of protecting vital watersheds and rivers. The government of British Columbia, however, has continually refused to sit with the St’át’imc and honour their plans for management of the land and water, due to its fear of further dampening growth of an embattled forestry sector. Currently, it is not necessary to get permission from the community to build (read: exploit water and forests) on Aboriginal land. Therefore, water and land use licences continue to be “snapped up” by private interests, often without even the condition of a provincial environmental impact assessment. This situation mirrors the problems facing First Nations in Alberta who seek to challenge and resist unrestrained growth in the tar sands oil projects, which pose grave risks due to massive exploitation of water and river basins in northern Alberta (one unit of oil produced in this way requires three units of water).


  • Given the imbalance of power, how might multi-sectoral and international solidarity reinforce the quest for real self-governance and self-determination for indigenous communities?
  • Should we incorporate a fundamental concern for other forms of life into local alternatives for water? If so, how?

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