The Native American/Alaskan Native Employment Program continues its series celebrating Native American culture with an inside look into the spiritual role of water. The committee selected the Crow Tribe’s relationship with water as the focus of their third piece illuminating rituals, spiritual teachings and the connection to earth. Through the perspective of the Apsáalooke, also known as the Crow Tribe, water is both a critical resource in human survival and Native American spiritual traditions.
The Crow Reservation in south central Montana is home to the tribe originally called “Apsáalooke,” meaning “children of the large beaked bird,” which was later misinterpreted by early settlers as Crow. Within the Crow community water has always been held in high respect among tribal members, and river and spring waters are still used in many ceremonies. Tribal elders recall using these rivers for recreation and collecting river water for domestic use until indoor plumbing was installed in rural districts in the 1960s. Additionally, local riparian ecosystems are home to important medicinal plants, five species of berry shrubs, deer, and other species vital to food security and cultural identity. As well, water birch, sandbar willow, cottonwood, chokecherry, ash and other riparian tree species continue to be collected for traditional practices and ceremonies.
The sacredness of water however has cultural significance to the Apsáalooke tribe and extends beyond consumption and bathing to a central element in many of their spiritual practices including the Sweat Lodge, Sun Dance and Native American Church ceremonies. For Apsáalooke people, water is imbued with a spiritual power – a living force with its own energy. The Apsáalooke would pray over water then give it to comfort those in mourning or those feeling ill to make them better.
Although water maintains cultural and spiritual significance in the Apsáalooke community, local surface water sources have deteriorated over time. The resulting changes have caused many tribal members to experience water insecurity. As river water quality has worsened, access to safe, clean, free water for basic household needs has been lost. While water insecurity is distressing for any community, there are added dimensions of water insecurity that make it more complex for the Apsáalooke.
First and foremost, there is the deeper spiritual relationship with water that is embedded within Apsáalooke cultural practices. Second, water insecurity is impacted by lack of financial resources and inadequate community capacity to address plumbing and water resource management issues. Finally, there are the complex tribal jurisdictional issues that make mitigating water contamination issues difficult.
The consumption and use of water in the cultural and ceremonial sense is compromised by water insecurity, according to a 2021 International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health magazine article that published the findings of a research team consisting of members from the Crow Tribe, Little Big Horn College, Montana State University, Northern Arizona University, the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council and MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology. In the article titled Our Relationship to Water and Experience of Water Insecurity among Apsáalooke (Crow Indian) People, the researchers stated contaminants common in Apsáalooke groundwater such as arsenic, uranium and nitrate may be colorless and odorless, yet may still be harmful, and these contaminants contribute to risks for chronic conditions including diabetes and cancer. Additionally, community-based homeowner education regarding water quality has been compromised with the recent COVID-19 outbreak, halting in-person communication which has largely been the most effective way to share water quality information among the Apsáalooke tribe. Consequently, community members, particularly homeowners, have not been readily able to learn how to take care of their wells, cisterns, septic tanks or indoor plumbing. The research article stated these challenges are further complicated by scant public oversight of well and septic system planning, installation and maintenance. Often septic systems are installed less than 100 feet from home wells exposing water systems to risks of waste spillage. Another seemingly insurmountable barrier is the mixed jurisdiction issue. The tribe has no control over sources of water contamination from non-tribal agricultural operations, such as fertilizer, pesticides and manure. As agricultural activities have intensified over the years, the river water quality has declined accordingly, further robbing the community of water as a cultural and spiritual resource, researchers concluded.
Water security is an enduring effort by communities and scientists. Focused efforts in well stewardship, community education and continuous water testing by health organizations are current mitigation strategies being used to ease water insecurity. The Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee has worked since 2004 to address material challenges including providing water testing, education and water coolers. Capital investments in septic tank pumping trucks, installing cisterns, harvesting rainwater and educating local health providers about the health effects associated with water contamination highlight current efforts to improve water security. The holistic mitigation effort is not limited to capital investment but includes local youth education about water quality science, cultural significance of local water sources and Apsáalooke values respecting rivers and springs. Scientific research and community action must continue to sustain water as a vital resource in sustaining the cultural and ceremonial contribution by the Crow tribe to the larger society.
Editor’s Note: The National American Indian Heritage Month observance has its roots in Public Law 99-471. Over several years the observance was moved to different months but in 1990 Public Law 101-343 set the monthlong observance in November. Please note that the title of this observance varies between agencies. The Department of Defense’s Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute uses the title set forth in the Public Laws, and that title is used at the beginning of this article to signify the DOD-wide observance. By Presidential Proclamation, the month is also observed as National Native American Heritage Month. In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act extending citizenship to all U.S.-born American Indians not already covered by treaty or other federal agreements that granted such status. The act was later amended to include Alaska Natives, and as such, the month is also recognized as Native American/Alaskan Native Heritage Month.