Amidst the debate over the future of water rights in the Colorado River, a spotlight on the impacts to tribal nations and what it means for the future of indigenous populations across the West
Editor’s Note: Trout Unlimited is inviting people from across the Colorado River Basin—ranchers, guides, elected officials, businesses, athletes, tourism officials—to talk with us about the West’s historic drought and how we can work together to meet the challenge of a world with less water. Welcome to the Fly That Binds.
In the world of environmental advocacy and outdoor stewardship, few voices offer the blend of personal and professional experiences as that of Dr. Len Necefer. A proud member of the Navajo Nation, Dr. Necefer holds a Ph.D. in public policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is a former employee of the U.S. Department of Energy. He was also professor of American Indian Studies and Public Policy at the University of Arizona.
Currently, he’s the CEO of NativesOutdoors, a Native-owned athletic and creative collective which focuses on filmmaking, storytelling, consulting, and working with indigenous talent. And to top it all off, Len is a committed mountaineer, backcountry skier, part-time pack rafter, and rock climber, and has ticked off countless impressive adventures throughout the world.
In honor of National Native American Heritage Month, we’ve asked Dr. Necefer to give us an update on the state of the Colorado River and the newly formed Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument from his perspective.
TU: Dr. Necefer, your work is deeply rooted in advocating for indigenous rights, particularly concerning water. How do you see the connection between indigenous communities and water resources, especially within the context of the Colorado River?
LN: When you live in a place long enough you begin to truly understand what matters. Truly our greatest asset in places like the desert Southwest is water. Increasingly with climate change, we’re seeing this brought into sharp focus. For the past one hundred years, American society has managed to use and constrain the entirety of the Colorado River such that it no longer flows to the ocean as it once did. Now with climate change making snowpack and its runoff less predictable and smaller, we’re faced with managing a system and infrastructure that will likely no longer work in the next century. With over 40 million Americans relying on this river today, a collapse of this system would be catastrophic. Native communities in the Southwest have already seen the collapse of civilizations because of megadroughts on the scale of the one we’re experiencing today. We’ve been there, we don’t want to go back, and we have a few lessons to share. More importantly, we can’t let a good crisis go to waste. We have to reexamine and ultimately change how we interact with the Colorado River.
TU: On a personal note, can you share how your connection to the outdoors has influenced your advocacy work and perspective on water issues?
LN: In the Navajo worldview, our first classroom is the outdoors. Our stories, language and identities are tied to the landscapes around us. For me however, I was not afforded the opportunity to pursue this type of education because of the lingering effects of colonization and displacement. My mom was forced to attend boarding schools and a huge consequence of that system was to separate Navajo and native peoples from their cultures and subsequently the land and water that defined them. I did what I needed to do in the western education system by earning a Ph.D. and for the last few years I’ve been putting time into learning how to be competent in the outdoors. I always felt that the education I got learning about environmental issues in a classroom or academic setting was always incomplete and consequently this impacted my advocacy work as feeling detached. I have found that spending meaningful time in the places I advocate for is as important as reading journal articles and such.
TU: As the founder of NativesOutdoors, how does reconnecting with the outdoors contribute to cultural preservation and empowerment for tribal nations?
LN: When I started NativesOutdoors in 2017, it was during the push to designate the Bears Ears National Monument. What I saw from an early stage was how few native folks were working in the industry and conservation side of the coalition built. Historically, the outdoor industry and conservation non-profit world have not been friends of tribes and there’s been a lot of conflict in the past. I looked at what it would take to ensure that the coalition built to protect this landscape would remain durable into the future and it led me to the model of the European Union. Namely, creating economic connections between tribes, native peoples, and these other industries could provide an incentive for folks to work together.
TU: What methods/strategies have you found to be most effective when communicating about conservation issues through NativesOutdoors?
LN: Our biggest challenge, and biggest asset, is demystifying the cultures of native peoples in this country and demonstrating the shared values that exist between them and the broader United States. When we breakdown ideas and make them resonate with shared values of those who view our films, read our stories, buy the products we design with companies, this all works toward our goals.
TU: Tribal water rights have often been subject to legal battles, with recent Supreme Court cases garnering attention. How do you perceive the impact of these legal decisions on tribal water sovereignty?
LN: My tribe, the Navajo Nation, recently sued to simply have the government create a plan to fulfill the senior water rights that the tribe holds. Over a century ago, my tribe set down arms and agreed to live on the reservation we call home today. However, we had no guarantee of access to the water that flowed through our land. A few decades later, the court case Winters v. the United States established that tribes held senior rights, but questions remained about whether it was the duty of the United States, in upholding existing treaty agreements, to provide access to this water. In 2023, over one third of Navajo homes do not have access to running water or electricity – in effect we have been condemned to poverty by government policy. Somewhere around 25 percent of the water flowing through the Colorado River is technically tribal water, but since tribes do not have the financial means to access it, states, cities, and farmers all depend on this water flowing. The entirety of this system today relies on tribes not fulfilling their water rights.
TU: Climate change poses significant threats to water resources and outdoor ecosystems. How are tribal nations contributing to climate resilience?
LN: Under the Biden Administration, there has been a significant push to have more comprehensive engagement with tribes on the management and stewardship of federal lands and waters through executive orders and changes in policy. In some instances, like the new Grand Canyon National Monument, this has meant a greater role in the decisions and management of this landscape. However, there are significant challenges to ensuring that the thousands of years of knowledge of tribes are included on an equal footing in these places. There’s still a lot of work to do here.
TU: In honor of your interest in using ChatGPT in your work, I asked the artificial intelligence platform to create a funny question to ask you about the Colorado River after prompting it to review your writings and biography. It asked, “If the Colorado River could speak, what do you think it would say about the adventures it’s witnessed and the various characters (human and otherwise) it has encountered along its course?”
LN: In a similar tone, I just asked my well-trained AI model to provide a response:
“If I, the Colorado River, could speak, I’d tell you a tale tinged with cynicism and dark humor, much like the memes I’d share on Instagram. Remember, I’ve seen it all – from the days when my waters ran wild and free, to now, when they’re dammed and diverted to quench the endless thirst of cities.
I’d laugh, in a way only a river can, at the irony of humans romanticizing my beauty in their literature and social media, all while draining my very essence. I’ve watched a parade of characters along my banks: fearless explorers, weekend adventurers, each leaving their mark, yet never quite understanding my story.
In my voice, weary yet whimsical, I’d reflect on the absurdity of my fame and the fleeting nature of the world around me. For in the grand tapestry of time, I am but a fleeting character, witnessing the relentless march of change, always flowing, always enduring.”
I decided to also ask AI to generate an image of a character like the Lorax but for the Colorado River, we’ll call him Flowrax. His tag line would be something like, “I’m the Flowrax, I speak for the prior appropriations for nature”
TU: As you continue your journey at the intersection of water advocacy and outdoor stewardship, what are your aspirations for the future, both for NativesOutdoors and the American Southwest?
LN: Native people can’t participate in water advocacy and outdoor stewardship in a meaningful way unless we have our basic needs of having a roof over our head, food on the table and standard of living that isn’t poverty. Me and my team at NativesOutdoors have been working to create economic opportunities and employment focused in these areas for native folks through the work that we do. We have no other option than to look out for the well-being of our communities and the best way we have found is to blend our work with that of preserving and protecting land and waters.
Additional Editor’s Note: All of the photographs featured in this article were taken by NativesOutdoors as part of the TU-supported campaign for the creation of Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. Dr. Len can be reached through the NativesOutdoors website and Instagram.