Excerpted From: Heather Tanana, Voices of the River: The Rise of Indigenous Women Leaders in the Colorado River Basin, 34 Colorado Environmental Law Journal 265 (Spring, 2023) (237 Footnotes) (Full Document)

HeatherTanana.jpegMany tribes in the Colorado River Basin ("Basin") are matrilineal. In these communities, women historically played a significant role in holding and dispensing traditional knowledge. Women also held positions of leadership, shared in decision-making, and helped direct the future of their tribal communities. For example, women in the Ute society "participated in councils, were active in warfare, and provided leadership and power in spiritual matters." However, due to colonization, the traditional role of women was disrupted and displaced, in part through the patriarchal social structure imposed by the United States. It is only more recently, beginning at the end of the twentieth century and continuing to present day, that Indigenous women have begun to reclaim their decision-making authority to improve the well-being of their people. As tribal communities continue to heal and restore kinship traditions, more women are serving in leadership roles and having an impact on important issues, including climate change.

Tribal communities are experiencing the first and worst consequences of climate change. As stewards of this land since time immemorial, tribes have a deep understanding of the environment. Referred to as Traditional Ecological Knowledge, or Indigenous science, tribes possess local knowledge of the natural environment that provides a holistic view of the ecosystem and insight into relationships between people, plants, animals, and the broader landscape. Endowed with such knowledge, tribes are poised to lead the way in responding to a changing climate. "[I]ndigenous peoples interpret and react to the impacts of climate change in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find solutions which may help society at large to cope with impending changes." Indeed, several tribes have established climate change adaptation and mitigation plans that incorporate traditional knowledge.

Tribes within the Basin are not exempt from the effects of climate change. Prolonged droughts are compounding water scarcity in the Basin, which in turn has significant health and cultural impacts to tribal communities. Although each of the thirty tribal nations within the Basin are unique and independent, many of the tribes view water as sacred and have a special relationship with the Colorado River. "As climate change threatens to dramatically change the environment, culture and tradition that is tied to environmental occurrences is threatened." The Law of the River (i.e., the collective rules, regulations, laws, and agreements governing the Colorado River) and its history adds another layer of complication. Beginning with the Colorado River Compact of 1922, tribes were generally excluded from decisions made regarding river management. And yet, tribes have significant rights to the River. As the gap between water supply and demand expands--in part due to a warming climate--Colorado River stakeholders and policymakers increasingly recognize that tribes need to be a part of the decision-making process and that they can contribute to creative solutions. Indigenous women are stepping forward in a variety of leadership roles to ensure tribal representation and inform tribal responses to climate change. While addressing current threats to their community, Indigenous women are simultaneously healing from the past and restoring traditional roles.

This article highlights the rise of Indigenous female leadership in the Basin. It begins by providing a background of the important role that women historically played in many tribal communities until they were displaced by patriarchal colonization. Next, this Article discusses disproportionate tribal impacts of climate change, along with the history of federal policies that have left tribes vulnerable to such impacts. With that context in place, the article then utilizes a storytelling approach to share tribal perspectives on the traditional and cultural values within the Basin and how those values and traditions are threatened by climate change. The article concludes by featuring several distinct Indigenous female voices in the Basin and reflecting upon how these women are restoring matrilineal leadership roles to protect tribal interests generally, and more specifically, within the context of climate change.

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Many tribes, including several within the Basin, are matrilineal. Traditionally, women served an important social and political role in these communities. However, colonization and subsequent federal policies forced Western notions of gender roles onto tribes and Euro-American forms of governance that were male dominated. As a result, Native women were sidelined. The economic, political, and social status of Native American women "suffered immeasurably."

The civil rights, women rights, and Native rights movements all helped move toward a more just society. However, more work is necessary to truly overcome past (and ongoing) racist and discriminatory policies in order to achieve true equality. Climate change and its related impacts have created an opportunity for Native women to reclaim leadership roles in their communities. Tribal communities are particularly vulnerable to climate impacts. Within the Basin, prolonged droughts are further reducing water supply in an already over-allocated system. Historically left out of Colorado River management decisions, tribes are asserting their voice and demanding a seat at the table.

Indigenous women are increasingly engaging in leadership roles in the Basin and are poised to lead the way in protecting their communities against climate change impacts. Indeed, women such as Dr. Tulley-Cordova, Ms. McDowell, Ms. Becker, and Vice-Chairman Cloud are already established leaders and are helping to pave the way for future leaders. These strong women exemplify the diverse ways in which leadership can take place. For many communities, women remain gatekeepers of traditional knowledge, including cultural practices. Indigenous scientists are providing valuable data, building on traditional ecological knowledge, to ensure informed decision-making in a changing world. Native attorneys are navigating complex legal systems to advocate for their homeland and people. Women are also serving in formal tribal leadership roles on tribal council, engaging in government-to-government relations with state and federal partners.

Initiatives, such as the IWLN, can provide a space for established and emerging leaders to connect and support one another. While Native women are increasingly obtaining a higher education, successful leadership requires more than a degree. Mentorship can help connect emerging leaders with strong role models and provide an opportunity for Indigenous women to connect with their culture and traditions. Women must be provided not only with an opportunity to lead, but with the necessary support to succeed.

Heather Tanana is an Assistant Research Professor & Wallace Stegner Fellow at the University of Utah--S.J. Quinney College of Law, Associate Faculty at the Center for Indigenous Health--Johns Hopkins University, and citizen of the Navajo Nation. Professor Tanana is also the coordinator for the Indigenous Women's Leadership Network. There is no official consensus regarding the terminology used to refer to Indigenous peoples in the United States. Federal law often utilizes the terms "American Indian and Alaska Native" or "Indian." In this article, Native and Indigenous are used interchangeably.