May Blog: A Meeting of Sacred Waters and Indigenous-led systems change

Three years ago, Red Star International, Inc. (Red Star) invited a delegation of tribal leaders representing four tribal communities in Arizona to meet the Māori Peoples in Aotearoa/New Zealand. This cross-cultural exchange took place along Te Awa Tupua (Whanganui River), the first river recognized by law asa living entity by the New Zealand government. The exchange offered an opportunity to share knowledge about their ancestral relationship with the Whanganui River and how Indigenous law and values informed the river’s legal recognition. Conversely, after a three-year hiatus due to a global pandemic, a Māori delegation from Whanganui made a reciprocal visit to Arizona. The delegation toured the Colorado River Basin, visited six tribal communities, and reconnected at a global gathering at theHeard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona on February 16, 2023.

The facilitated tours offered a unique opportunity to learn about how tribes are wrestling with the systemic bias that exists in current water legislation that doesn’t steward collaboration, but rather dictates water apportionments, often pitting tribes against each other. According to the Arizona Department of Water Resources, the annual hydrology reports indicate Arizona has been in a continual state of drought for nearly thirty years. This, in combination with climate change and its impacts, has long been sounding alarms as tribal leaders have asked for a seat at the table with other state agencies to discuss the future of Colorado River water.

Reconnecting at A Meeting of Sacred Waters in Phoenix as an international community created a space to dialogue about the health and healing of the Colorado River Basin, and all of our ancestral waters across the world. We shared practical examples of Indigenous-led systemic change occurring globally through law, policy, economics, and management practices. Bringing people together at Sacred Waters allowed us to align around common water issues, and explore pathways forward that respect sovereignty, treaty rights, and Indigenous knowledge systems.

Creating Indigenous-led systems change means re-centering our systems–people, relationships, resources, and policies–from a colonial model to one that aligns with Indigenous values, knowledge and worldview to positively affect wellbeing. At Red Star, we believe Indigenous communities know the way forward and can contribute to sustainable and equitable solutions to complex social, economic, and environmental challenges. This was evident at Sacred Waters which invited diverse perspectives from Arizona tribal leaders and other Indigenous leaders from across the Pacific to talk about what water means to their community, their traditional life ways, and their connection to their ancestral lands.

This type of change we are desiring involves working collaboratively to identify the root causes of systemic problems and develop innovative solutions that align with our cultural values, traditions, and aspirations. This includes developing Indigenous-led policies and programs, building capacity within Indigenous organizations, and creating partnerships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous organizations to drive change at the systemic level.

An important step to Indigenous-led systems change also involves recognizing and addressing historical and ongoing systemic injustices that have impacted Indigenous communities, such as colonization, land dispossession, and forced assimilation. Our work requires a commitment to supporting Indigenous self-determination, decolonization, and the revitalization and reclamation of Indigenous languages, cultures, and knowledge systems.

Overall, creating Indigenous-led systems change means recognizing and respecting the unique knowledge and perspectives of indigenous communities and working in partnership with them to create sustainable and equitable solutions to systemic challenges. We look to our customary ways, as inherited from our ancestors–the values and principles that govern our personal and collective relationships–to solve contemporary challenges. At Red Star, we are deeply committed to improving the wellbeing of humanity and the environment and have a willingness to challenge and transform existing systems and structures that perpetuate inequality and marginalization.