In Tuba City, Arizona, where Emma Robbins grew up, the toilets flushed. Water ran from the tap inside homes, and electricity was available to bring more water into the town—which, with a population of about 8,000 people, is the largest community within the Navajo Nation.
Occasionally, Robbins’s grandparents, who lived 30 miles away, would visit to haul water. Others would come and take showers. “Everybody on the rez has families where they don’t have running water,” Robbins says. “It’s not really a big deal—not a big deal, meaning you don’t notice it as a kid.”
It wasn’t until she was older—and after watching her family members get ill or even pass away from uranium-contaminated water—that Robbins realized this shouldn’t be the norm. “I always say, ‘You can’t be Native and not care about water,'” she says. “Nobody can live without water.”
More than two million people in the United States don’t have running water, according to a 2019 report by nonprofit DigDeep and the US Water Alliance. Native Americans are the most affected, with Native households being 19 times more likely to go without indoor plumbing. Across the Navajo Nation, about 30 percent of residents don’t have running water or toilets in their homes.
Global crises like the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change make a bad problem worse. Last year, amid the outbreak of the virus, the Navajo Nation suffered from the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per capita in the United States. Rural areas lacked sufficient access to water to wash hands, and many residents, forced to congregate in stores or watering sources, were unable to quarantine for long periods of time. (The Navajo Nation has since flattened the curve, and more than 70 percent of its population is fully vaccinated.)
Robbins, a Diné artist and organizer, now works as the executive director of the Navajo Water Project, an Indigenous-led branch of DigDeep. NWP has installed nearly 300 home water systems and upward of 1,400 water storage tanks across the Navajo Nation since its inception in 2014. And though the pandemic made it impossible to safely install water systems inside clients’ homes, the organization shifted to installing what they call the “suitcase” system, a compact version of home water systems that are instead installed outside. By the end of this year, more than 100 suitcases will have been installed.
“There’s a lot of love that goes into [this work],” Robbins says. “Everything works differently on reservations. It moves a lot slower. So it’s been phenomenal to see how quickly and how successfully and efficiently we’ve been able to do this work.”
Ahead, Robbins talks further with BAZAAR.com about the mental toll of finding safe water, the broken treaties that created the water crisis, and the potentially life-changing funding from President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill.
You grew up on the Navajo Nation. In what ways did the issue of water inequity affect you personally?
I’m from Tuba City, Arizona, which is the largest community on the reservation. My family is from Cameron, Arizona, which is about 30 miles away. That’s where my dad grew up and where my grandparents and the majority of my aunts and uncles lived. So growing up in the largest community on the rez meant there was infrastructure. I personally had running water in my home. I had a flush toilet. I had electricity. And that was a big difference when I would go and stay with my grandparents, which was pretty frequently, at least once a week. It wasn’t until I got older that I started to realize the differences.
And being from the western side [of the Navajo Nation], there are a lot of uranium mines that haven’t been cleaned up and that affect the air and the water. Having many family members get sick and pass from uranium contamination was really what did it for me in terms of starting to realize the importance of having access to safe, clean water that’s coming out of a tap in your home. And as Indigenous people, a part of our culture is to care for the environment. Nobody can live without water. It’s something that is providing nourishment to ourselves and to our animals.
When I got older, I was working in the art world, but I realized that I wanted to be able to work back home in my community and help get running water to people like my grandparents, who are elders, to be able to take care of them, because in that way, it’s also preserving our culture and our language.
Can you illustrate what it’s like for someone who doesn’t have running tap water in their own home? What kind of things would they have to think about or plan for?
If we think about waking up in the morning, the first thing that I do is take vitamins. I’ll make sure that my pets have water. These really basic things. Oftentimes, we jump to, “You can’t wash your hands, or you can’t use cooking water or drinking water.” But not having running water affects every single part of your day.
You have to acquire that water to have stored in your home. That means going to a public watering point, and sometimes, you have to wait in line for a while. You have to have clean receptacles, whether those are barrels or larger tanks. You need to have a truck to be able to do that. You have to have money for gas to get to those places, because people can live very far away from water sources. So there’s the time, and there are the resources.
All of this is really important to factor in, because you have to have that water present to be able to do things like ration it to wash your hands, or ration it to cook with, or ration it to take somewhat of a shower—you know, washing your hair in a bowl or bathing your kid. It’s something that is constantly on your mind. It’s not just like, “Oh, this week I have to pay my utility bill,” and that’s it.
When you’re spending so much time and so much mental space thinking about where you’re going to get water, that’s time and space that isn’t going into other things. I constantly think about how people shouldn’t have to fight to survive. We should be able to thrive as people.
How does the Navajo Water Project work with different communities?
It’s not like we’re coming in as an outside source and saying, “This is what’s going to work for you. We’re bringing in XYZ technology, and you have to use it, and these solutions are copy-and-paste from other areas.” We’ll partner with someone who’s on the ground, research with them, talk to homeowners, talk to elders, and make sure that what we’re doing is a correct solution for that geographical area. And then, we’ll survey and make sure that this is going to be a sustainable long-term project.
I think a lot of people with a surface-level understanding of U.S. history might think of treaties between U.S. colonizers and Indigenous communities as something that happened in the past that’s over and done with now. But that’s not necessarily true, since broken treaties have ongoing implications and consequences today. Can you talk about the historical factors that created this water disparity across the Navajo Nation?
I’m so glad you’re bringing this up. I’m also an artist, and a big part of what I do is making work about treaties. Actually, I just had this piece in D.C. that was released [about treaties]; it’s an augmented reality piece by Museum of American History. What people don’t understand is that these treaties aren’t relics of the past, just like Native people aren’t relics of the past. We’re here, we’re present. There are Natives among all of us. With that said, treaties were signed from the late 1700s until the 1900s, and there isn’t a single treaty that wasn’t broken. This is a problem, because the federal government promised things like infrastructure, which includes water, and those treaties weren’t upheld.
It’s not by accident that we’re so far spread out too. When people have that much distance between them, it’s a lot harder to set things up like infrastructure or price water or Internet connectivity or electricity.
On the flip side, what happened in 2021 when the vaccines were released—that’s what it looks like when the federal government upholds sovereignty and treaties. It was successful on the Navajo Nation [where 70 percent of the population is fully vaccinated]. They said, “We are going to allow you all to identify and form plans and execute these plans to get people vaccinated.” The federal government provided what they said they would, which were vaccinations.
I often think if that were to happen with water—if the federal government said, “Here are the tools to install water lines. We are going to allow the Navajo Nation to implement this”—something could happen similarly to what happened with vaccinations. You know, the last Navajo treaty was signed in 1868. That’s something that we need to take very seriously. When we honor treaties, it means that our people get what they need, and those are basic human rights, like water.
Why do you think this crisis has been able to go on for so long?
There’s so much dehumanization of Native people that, oftentimes, Natives are pushed to the back burner. There’s this lack of interest, or this lack of visibility. People don’t know about the water crisis. There are people in Arizona who live, I don’t know, a hundred miles, tens of miles away from the Navajo Nation, and they don’t know that this is a problem, right? Like people in Flagstaff who are 75 miles from the Navajo reservation—they have running water, they have electricity, and they don’t know that that’s happening, because there’s no visibility. Dehumanization is still a thing. But it’s not just Native peoples, right? There are 2.2 million Americans in the United States without running water. So it’s a rampant problem.
I also think water isn’t often seen as a priority when it comes to federal or state spending. Another big problem is people don’t really know how to deal with reservations, because we’re sovereign nations, but then, we’re also within three states, at least the Navajo Nation is. So there’s all these jurisdiction issues as well. We work in the community on Navajo Mountain, and they’re on the Navajo Nation, but part of it is on the Arizona side, and part of it is on the Utah side. That becomes very complicated. Like, where does the funding go when you’re in two states?
Last week, President Joe Biden signed a $1 trillion infrastructure bill. From that deal, $11 billion will be allocated toward Native American communities. What are some solutions that might be able to materialize from that funding?
There are over $6 billion overall that are going to water and sanitation funding for tribal nations. Obviously, that’s not just the Navajo Nation, it’s for many reservations, and it’s going to help out with water lines and toilets and septic. This funding includes $250 million for decentralized wastewater needs, which is really important, because if you’re not living in a bigger city or a town, everything’s decentralized.
The new funding sounds like it’s a lot of money, but these dollars have been needed for a really long time. So we’re going to have to work with communities and federal agencies to shape how those funds are used. It is promising that there will be new infrastructure on reservations.
What hopes do you have for the future?
When we start to make these projects led by the community, that’s when they’re going to succeed. As an Indigenous woman myself, it’s been amazing to see people come together and say, “We’re going to take care of our elders, because our elders are our culture. They’re the holders of our language, the keepers of our traditions. It’s up to us to come forward and to make sure that we’re able to thrive in years to come.”
I have a six-month-old daughter, and becoming a parent has made me realize how important this work is, because it’s not just our elders that we have to think about. It’s about future generations. I want my family to have those same opportunities that other people living in the United States have. My hope is that people can start to move away from survival and come into another world of thriving and being restful—and not just constantly having to fight for basic human rights.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io