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At water summit, Indigenous youth speak up about the climate future they want

People sit in chairs looking at a little girl standing and speaking into a microphone in a conference room.
Emma VandenEinde
Kii'yaa'nii Ross, 8, speaks about water issues she's passionate about at the One Water Summit in Tucson, Ariz. on Nov. 16, 2023. She's a part of EcoTruths for Indigenous Youth, an Indigenous-led environmental internship which is typically geared toward 14- to 21-year-olds. The organization let Ross join in when she asked to be a part of it, however.

It was the last session at a recent One Water Summit in Tucson, Arizona, and some of the Indigenous youth speakers about to present were not sure if anyone would show up.

The three-day One Water Summit, which takes place annually in different U.S. cities, brought together top leaders from the Environmental Protection Agency, key Colorado River stakeholders, and others discussing recent political actions and highly-debated solutions to water issues like drought, flooding and clean water. Would those important figures be interested in hearing from youth?

It turns out, yes. After youth speakers presented during a session focused on Indigenous-based water solutions, several attendees in the room were in tears. The young panelists’ words were that powerful.

The youths who spoke ranged from 8 to 21 years old and were all members of EcoTruths for Indigenous Youth, a team of Indigenous students in Tucson taught by elders and professors about the Earth so they can critique environmental policy. Last year, for example, the youths produced a critique of Tucson's City Climate Adaptation Plan.

“We treat our youth as reemerging Indigenous intellectual scholars in and of themselves who are trying to figure out what their questions are, but also how to work with the community to come back and share what they've learned,” said Nicholas Wilson, who is Diné and works with EcoTruths. “They’re our future and we want to invest in them.”

EcoTruths, which formed in spring 2022, got started without funding. The group received its first funding grant from the Dietrich Foundation Fund a few weeks ago.

At the Indigenous water solutions session during last week's conference, four youths from EcoTruths were invited to ask what attendees were doing to make sustainable choices as well as request they include Indigenous knowledge in their work. Then, the youths shared what they learned in a roundtable reflection and described their concerns for the environment.

The elders asked attendees to open up their water bottles so the water – which is seen as a familial relative in many Indigenous cultures – could hear what they had to say.

During the session, some youths expressed the need to balance housing development with water conservation. Others advocated to control water runoff with native plants, or do more to protect water for trees and animals.

Eight-year-old Kii’yaa’nii Ross, who is Diné, Yaqui and Purepecha, attended this year's summit after one year with EcoTruths. She had one goal in mind for her generation: water conservation.

“In golf courses, they're wasting a lot of water, like gallons of gallons of water, year after year,” she said. “It’s not natural here, grass does not belong here…They should use dirt instead because, like, come on, we’re in the desert and it makes sense.”

People stand smiling for a group photo.
Emma VandenEinde
Members of EcoTruths pose for a photo on Nov. 16, 2023, after their session at the One Water Summit. The group is intergenerational and relies on professors, elders, parents and students to share ideas and knowledge about environmental policy.

Some EcoTruths youths – like Deshawn Davis, a high-schooler who's a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation – just want Indigenous people to be included in the conversation more.

“People could come in with these visions of trying to help, but then they'll just throw something in there without the roots and … the networking,” Davis said. “These solutions and ideas, sometimes I think people completely forget the lands that they're working with or the water they're working with.”

But the youths felt honored that they were heard at the conference, as the solutions they discussed will impact them the rest of their lives.

Oliver Santa Cruz, 16, is Tohono O’odham and in his first year with EcoTruths. He said he got emotional seeing all of the energy in the room in the presence of those who want to work on solutions. He hopes after their presentation, more leaders will understand the importance of the youth perspective.

“This world has been kind of run by older people that don't really understand,” he said. “Times are changing and it seems like they're kind of out of touch. So hearing from youth and other diverse people is a very good thing.”

The youths will soon take part in a winter retreat to discuss current environmental policies.

This story was supported by The Water Desk, an initiative from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.
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