Nora McDowell

Nora McDowell is a member of the Fort Mojave Tribe in Mojave Valley, Arizona and was the chairperson of the tribe for more than 25 years. She’s a part of the leadership team for the Water and Tribes Initiative and is passionate about protecting all natural and cultural resources along the Colorado River.

“The water, especially…We have to care for it. We have to speak for it.”

Nora McDowell interview

“[These are] our traditional homelands of the Mojave people. I was born and raised here in Needles, CA and we’re in what we call the tristate. It’s where all the states of California, Arizona and Nevada meet and it’s at the tip of Nevada right along the Colorado River. And our people have been here since time immemorial. We were created and placed here. Our creation story dates way, way back and it’s oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation.

My father was from here and my mother is of Hopi and Tewa, a Native American tribe up in Northern Arizona and New Mexico, but my father is Mojave and so that’s where I was born and raised out here.

I always wondered how the heck they ever got together, but a relocation back in the early 50s, 60s and 70s, where they took families or different tribes and created reservations, such as the Colorado River Indian tribes.

So that’s how my mother family got down in Parker, AZ. My dad was on military leave and ended up meeting my mother there. So that’s how I was born. Here we are today, 65 years later.

This has always been home to our people, and this has been an area that was given to us and our primary responsibility is to live and take care of the land that we were given and to protect the water, where all life comes from.

It’s a great responsibility for us. This is our home and we had extended areas that went all the way up to Utah all the way over to Santa Barbara to the West Coast, to the ocean there. And then South to Mexico before that was there and then to the east almost as far as the other side of Flagstaff was our territory that we had back in the day. Until we were reduced down to what we are now, what we call the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation, which is located in three states, California, Arizona and Nevada. We have land and water rights for those three.

[We have] 48,000 acres of land, 24,000 of that being in Arizona. And in Arizona it’s checkerboarded, so every other section is tribal and non-tribal land. And that was because of the Railroad Act that they had given so much to schools and for the railroad to to come through our territory when they colonized the area and people were moving West.

And so that’s why we had the checkerboard on the Arizona side.

Our traditional name is Pipa Aha Macav and that means the people of the river. And I’ve heard our elders describe it also as different meanings, because our language is really descriptive, and so it also could mean like carrying or swaddling, like you would hold a baby.

And when they talk about the river, that’s who we are and where we come from. Everybody is born into water. We lived in harmony with what was given to us and our creator placed us here and put us right along the river in the mountains. Everything that exists out there is like a big medicine cabinet to us, because all of the natural things that were out there, he taught us what to use for medicine, for protection. The water and the clay itself is where we were formed from, and that’s where we come from.

And so we’ve existed here, and we continue to have that relationship and tie to the land.

We will never leave this area or this place, because it’s everything that was given to us, we have to be here to protect it for our future generations to come.

historic earthworks site

What they put into the river is of concern to us and any potential threat such as putting in a low level radioactive waste repository 18 miles from the city of Needles was a big project.

That was going to be in line trenches, in the dirt with no kind of protection. These hazardous wastes that were going to be put there had a life of thousands of years before it would even begin to disappear. Fields and fields of spent fuel rods and booties and all kinds of stuff that they use for medicine and whatnot, but it definitely had a direct pathway back to the Colorado River, which is our home. This is our place and we worked with the other environmentalists and others that came from California that worked with us also. So we were able to get that stopped even though it had already been approved.

We always are looking out for potential threats that could harm and contaminate our river, our home areas, and so we’re vigilant about making sure that nothing like that will come about.

Like the Topock project I work on. It was a natural gas corridor that runs right through that area and for years they had these cooling towers that used the water to cool the gas before it was shipped to California. [It was] almost like a swamp cooler and they would use this Hexavalent chromium 6 as a corrosion inhibitor and they would spray the panels. But it would always have this debris that would come off a bit after the water would go through it and it cooled, and so they would scrape it off. Then they just pushed it into a wash that was right adjacent to the gas facility there. Probably in the late 60s, 70s and 80s. They just dumped it in the wash and so over the years it just percolated and got down and into the soil there and then eventually got into the water table, and when it hit the water table and then it just spread and so there is this big plume of contamination. Hexavalent chromium 6 exists underneath the river.

It’s not in the river, but it’s under the river.

Topock [is] a sacred site area to our tribe, and the place where we enter into the next world.

It was very important for us to make sure that it didn’t get in there. The downstream tribes from here banded together and our tribe actually filed a lawsuit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company Metropolitan Water District and the state of California Department of Toxic Substance Control. And the Bureau of Land Management had a trust responsibility to our tribe to inform us what was going on there, but I guess this had been going on where they had found that it existed there since 1996 but we weren’t informed of that threat to our resources until 2004.

And so we asked them, “Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you inform us? Why are we just finding out now what’s been going on and what you guys have been doing out there, especially in our cultural site?”

It could impact our journey into the next world, and others have told us also that when our people go, they were not to ever speak of them again. We have to let them go so they can have a good journey and that they will be in the next world. But they’ve had visits from those spirits throughout. Dreams that come to us and they tell us, “Can you help me? Can you help take me home? I can’t find by my way home.”

So we know that there exists that spiritual disturbance for their complete journey to go to the next world. We have to speak for the land. 

We have to speak for the animals that also are dependent on the water. There’s bighorn sheep that exist out there and around the area here, and the desert tortoises.

Our elders always told us that land without water is nothing and then you have to make sure that you protect that and that you have that. Our tribe didn’t have a whole lot back in the

60s and 70s. I remember growing up and we eventually had to have food commodities provided to us. Just to live and to exist and we didn’t have any kind of health care. 1978 is the first time that we were able to get a minimal amount of care. A doctor would come one to two days out of the month and treat our people. Later on in the 80s we had to drive over 120 miles just to be able to go get care. In Parker, Arizona, there was an Indian health facility there that provided our care for us, and so every every month our people would have to travel all the way down there if they needed care. 

Then at that time, just not having the proper health care and obviously exposure to the different types of food that we weren’t used to became health issues for us. Diabetes and high blood pressure and just basically malnutrition was another bigger part of of what we live with. 

I would say our tribe, being this very small tribe, we’ve always stood up and fought for what was legally ours. I remember the first water battle, Arizona versus California, and that’s when we’re trying to get our water rights secured for the lands that we eventually were given.

When they gave us the land, they didn’t give us the rights to the water to the land, and so later on the federal government and the Department of Interior and Bureau of Indian Affairs—as our trustee—we went to them to say, “We need water for our land. If we don’t have the water, 

how can we survive?” And so in 1983 we have our allocation of 132,000 acre feet of water for our reservation lands in the three states, California, Arizona and Nevada.

And so we’re very concerned about what’s going on now, especially with the drought being declared on the river. We have a first priority right to the water. So we have access to that water before anybody else, but if we’re not using it, we lose that. We don’t get any kind of credit back for it or anything. And it’s just how they’ve carved out these entitlements to our tribe.

Other states get credit back for the water that they don’t use and they’re able to bank it or lease it within their state boundaries, but our tribe isn’t allowed to do that.

I think [there is] a reawakening now of who we are as people. Even though a lot was taken from us, we always managed to survive and to be able to rebuild. We’ve had ethnographers and other people come, trying to tell us about who we are, and we’re like, “No.”

We can write. I’ll tell you who we are. 

At Fort Mojave, north of our reservation here in Arizona, they took our children when they were five and six years old and they put him in that school. They changed the fort to a school and they rounded up all the kids and they took them from their families and put him in that boarding school. No speaking the language. They cut their hair. They forbid them to speak their their native tongue. They made them little soldiers. And they trained them to be cooks and farmers and do baking and cleaning, ironing all those things. And I know some of the younger girls were taken and after they became 13 or 14 years old then they took him to California and they were maids in these homes and that’s where they stayed until they got old enough and then they came back home.

I know our very first woman chairwoman, she had gone to that school. My vice chairman,

he also went to those schools. He ran away from the fort school and he made it all the way back home. They came right after [him]. But the elders hid him away, so that way they wouldn’t be able to take him. And then he grew up with all those scars.

They didn’t want that to happen to us. And so they wouldn’t teach us the language or anything.

So that way we could blend in with the rest of society. Assimilation into that other world.

But it never took away from us who we are as our people. We still had that oral history of what happened to our people. 

Some of the traditional practices, beadwork and cradleboard making, they’re still there and they’re part of who we are. But yet the healing part of of that, it took a long time, and we’ve seen a lot of our people go through the alcohol abuse. To be truthful, we see the impacts. They’re just different forms these days, through the drugs and alcohol abuse, prescription drugs, you name it. It’s just another way to cover up what happened to our people.

We see the different forms and the types of abuses that came out of that. Domestic violence and smoking and drinking. We saw the impacts of that and it reduced a lot of our people healthwise and not having access to health care and all that was another form of just surviving in general. But I’d say today it’s a lot different, and the focus of our Council now is

for wellness. Right across the street here as you go out, they just built a new wellness center and it’s state of the art and then the other thing was our health clinic. We didn’t get that till the late 90s, that we were able to finally get our own facility here on our reservation.

We continue to learn from what happened to us, from our paths and not repeating it.

And the thing about it is that we’re still connected to our history and to our culture and to things that still matter to us, like the protection of these areas or sacred site places.

This is where we were created at. This is where we’re placed on and this is where we’re going to leave this world. And so what we have, we have to take care of it.

And we have to make sure that it’s a healthy environment to honor and earn respect [of] our ancestors. For what they taught us and for what they went through and what they sacrificed so that we could have what we have today. That’s the greater part of who we are as our people is that we love and we take care of each other and we’re responsible for the upbringing of our children. We want them to know and so it’s getting our pride back as who we are as a people that’s been the focus of this newer generation for us also.

My mother used to always tell us, “Never forget who you are and where you come from.”

And I always wondered about that for the longest time. And finally, when I had my first son,

I understood. Because we are born from water, we come from water and the world is surrounded by water and we are one part of that. Being on this earth, all the different people, we’re equally responsible for them too.

And so when you find that peace within yourself, you’re able to share that, and you know to care about other people, not only yourself, but everything that’s out there that has a right to exist also. The animals, the fish, the plants, the trees, the air we breathe, and the sun that shines. Everything is all connected, and so we have to care for that.

And we have to be the ones to share that information, that knowledge, what we’ve learned from being here all these years, living with and in harmony with the river.

Even though it’s changed and altered, it’s still a big part of why we’re still here today, and so we have to speak for it to to make sure that it’s cared for. 

Caring for it.

Praying for it.

The earth, the people and the land.

The water especially.

We have to care for it.

We have to speak for it.

Discussion questions:

-What is your connection to the land?

-How did you come to live where you are?

-Do you know the history of the land where you live?

-What is your obligation to protect the land?

-Have you had to fight for your basic rights?

-Have you been taught to honor your heritage or to assimilate with the surrounding culture?

-What are the parts of your heritage that you are most proud of?

-Have you always had access to clean water? To good healthcare?

-Nora doesn’t say the words “environmental justice” but many of her stories speak of it. Can you think of other examples of environmental injustices in the world? In your community?

-What are the tools available to correct environmental injustices?

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