Water does not reach all Americans with equity

Mar 20, 2023 | Native Hope with Trisha Burke

Mni Wiconi translates to “Water is Life.” When called upon to think about something as essential yet basic as water, most don’t give its existence a second thought. Many people associate this life-sustaining substance with abundance, purity, and permanence.

Images of vibrant rivers flowing, sparkling lakes, and powerful waterfalls come to mind. However, this is not the full picture. Although we take for granted the rain and direct access to flowing water, by way of our taps and faucets, water is precious and scarce in many communities across the world, throughout the country, and within numerous tribal nations.

Native American households are 19 times more likely to lack complete plumbing than white households.

Finding Common Ground

When I taught literature, creating understanding for time and place was essential. I enjoyed this journey with my students, especially when it led to greater empathy for one another. One such discussion prior to reading Thoreau’s On Walden Pond was about accessibility to the comforts of everyday life—clean drinking water, indoor toilets, electricity, personal space, hot showers, etc.

In this particular classroom, three of the twelve students were Native American. (I mention this because race bears weight on what unfolded in our discussion.) The discussion started as nothing amazing. They couldn’t live without phones, computers, and games. They mentioned the need for showers and toilets. They joked about outhouses and corn cobs for toilet paper.

Needless to say, things were heading South when a new student who had recently moved to Chamberlain from Pine Ridge interjected, “I have a working toilet for the first time in my life.”

The sixteen and seventeen-year-old students clammed up. I jumped in. “Can you tell us more?”

The previously quiet girl continued, “None of you know how good you have it. I lived in a 12’ X 20’ shack in the middle of the rez. We didn’t have any running water.”

It was the conversation after this admission that brought us together. The kids and I asked several questions about Pine Ridge. “Is that common?” “Where did you live?” “How has your life changed?” As this continued, another Native student added, “My mom usually can’t afford our electricity bill, so we don’t have hot water.”

The Stark Realities

In that classroom, on that day, we exposed the racial inequity to things a majority of Americans take for granted—the accessibility to clean water and adequate sanitary waste disposal. In fact, “race is the variable most strongly associated with access to complete plumbing” according to the Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States – A National Action Plan.

For many, the Lakota phrase “Mni Wiconi” (water is life) resonates as the call to protect the Missouri River from the Dakota Access Pipeline [DAPL]; however, for the Lakota of Lower Brule, Rosebud and Pine Ridge it represents another broken promise. “The Mni Wiconi Project Act of 1988 authorized the construction of the Mni Wiconi Rural Water Supply Project which provides drinking water for residents of three tribal water systems and one non-tribal system where previous water supplies were insufficient or of poor quality.” 

Water Supply Falls Short

Water MapBy 2008, after spending $490 million and surviving many setbacks, water started flowing through the pipeline from the Missouri River to Pine Ridge and the other reservations. The Mni Wiconi Project came to a halt in 2013 at the sunset of its funding. Ninety-five percent of Pine Ridge has water, but 5 percent - 2,000 residents - are still without running water. Many still use the creeks nearby to fill buckets of water to flush their toilets or to haul drinking/bathing water from town.

With federal funding limited, Pine Ridge and other tribal nations across America are forced to solve their water issues on their own. Most of the existing systems are in need of repair or replacement, something these impoverished communities do not have the means to accomplish.

World water day

On March 22, World Water Day, we must remember that there are 2 million Americans without access to safe drinking water and sanitation, many of whom are America’s first water protectors.


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