A Sacred River’s Sovereignty

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A Tigua Pueblo woman honors traditional knowledge for the restoration of the Rio Grande

by Andrea Everett

When I was a child, picnic tables lined the banks of the Rio Grande, as well as many willow trees that towered above me. The water flowed readily and quickly. I didn’t know how to swim then, nor did anyone in my family. My fear kept me from getting too close to the river, but when I’d sit and listen to the water and the sounds of the landscape, I’d feel calm. I was captivated by the eddies, how the water  would make small spirals. What was in that water? It seemed so alive. With my fear came respect for the river’s wildness.

Andrea Everett

I now realize what I was respecting was the river’s sovereignty. I, too, am sovereign and have always had something to say. I, too, followed my own path. I now see the river’s sovereignty in my children, and I respect them for that.  

I am Tigua, from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a federally recognized Native American tribe and sovereign nation. Our original homelands are in Quarai Pueblo (now Salinas National Monument) in east central New Mexico. Prior to 1680, Salinas was home to three pueblos: Abo, Quarai, and Gran Quivera.

After a megadrought in the 1670s rendered Quarai uninhabitable, the Tigua sought refuge at Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico. During the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, some 400 Tigua were later captured by the Spanish and forced to walk nearly 400 miles south. In 1682, the Tigua settled and established the Pueblo of Ysleta del Sur (YDSP) and built the canal system that sustained a thriving agricultural community supported by the Rio Grande river system. Over time, ongoing colonization and cultural erasure continued to eat away our tribal land.

Today,  about two thirds of enrolled tribal members continue to live in the Paso del Norte region, but our access to natural systems and important cultural sites such as Hueco Tanks and the Rio Grande that once sustained us is now limited. Our reservation lands comprise two housing communities, Ia Kitu (Corn Village) and P’a Kitu (Pumpkin Village), several tracts near the Ysleta Mission an adjacent property to Hueco Tanks, and Chilicote Ranch near Valentine, Texas at the southern end of the forgotten reach of the Rio Grande.

Conflicting dualities

In Pueblo culture, rivers are thought to have both feminine and masculine characteristics. There is a beautiful duality in the river’s existence. For this reason, I use the pronoun “they” to refer to them.

When I think and dream about the river, I see the foundation of their strength and what they have provided for our people for centuries. How they cared for us when we arrived here in the Paso del Norte region in 1680. How our ancestors went to their banks and asked for help and permission to make this land their new home.

I do the same today. When I visit the river and other sacred places, I ask the land and relatives for permission to enter. This is how I show respect and care just like my ancestors did. But in recent years, I have felt a lot of pain both in our river, which we call “Pehla usla” for “Big River,” and in the veins of my people. Both are struggling to regain full sovereignty.

Ysleta del Sur Pueblo with Acequia Madre running through. Photo courtesy of the author.

There is also an unfortunate duality in the river’s existence at present—one that the river never wanted. The river’s early freedom has been replaced with “management” and “control.” The river’s banks are no longer respected, and the plants they nourish are cut down by agencies for “efficiency,” irrigation, and other economic uses. Their rights and their ability to exist are imperiled, their banks now lined with barbed wire.

The river’s flow is restricted to what’s called the “river season,” when water is released from the Elephant Butte Dam and is allowed to flow south. When river season happens depends on winter snow pack at the Rio Grande headwaters. On a good year “river season” runs March to September, but most years, it runs April to August. On very dry years, the water only comes from May to early August.

“River season” is a term I despise. It regulates the river to a brief moment of time. But we know from Indigenous observations from time immerorial and western science, that systems diminishing the river to “a season” will eventually fail. The Pehla usla will always aspire to return to its natural way. Dams regulating the flow were built to ensure safety for humans, so now, urban areas benefit from these limits and regulations. But our plant and our animal relatives do not. And our ability as Tigua people to retain our kinship with the river and the land is also curtailed.

The river, left to roam freely, is a regenerative system. Rivers and riparian forests serve as filtration systems benefitting nearby lands , streams, and other waterways. These forests act as buffers and offer rich soils that house our plant and animal relations. But extractive industries have disrupted these systems, diverting water for agriculture and oil and gas production.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, militarization of the US-Mexico border has transformed our river into a war zone and place of oppression for migrants traveling north, as federal and state government agencies limit our access to the river even more. A bosque and riparian landscape has been turned into a desolate river bank layered with barbed wire.

These restraints and allotments restrict what the river can nourish and restrict our ceremonies, limiting the number of men who can participate and the amount of time they can spend there. While my people have been fulfilling ceremonies in this place since we came here, we must now pay for the water we need to complete our ceremonies.

The river has been forced to conform to settler colonial systems, just like our communities have. Settler colonialism takes away our land and relations (both plant and animal), our access to water, and our ability to sustain ourselves, and then “breadcrumbs” us with limited access and expects us to be grateful.

In order to be in relationship with the river, we travel north to New Mexico. There, we can more freely honor the river’s existence and the life, energy, and nourishment they provide for us. We offer white shells, turquoise, and corn meal and ask the river to care for us, protect us, and continue to nurture us.

When the water is released from Elephant Butte Dam in the spring, we talk to friends and relatives up north and get word about how fast the river is traveling so we can be ready to greet them. As the river moves southward, the water serpent leads the way, traveling from the water to the clouds and back again, slithering along the riverbed.

We stand in the dry sand waiting for the water to reach our bare feet. As the river meanders, pockets of foam float up to the surface. The foam contains minerals that embed themselves at the bottom of the riverbank, laying dormant until the river returns each spring. When the river reaches us, we scoop up the foam and rub it on our bodies, praying for protection and abundance for our fields, our families, and the world. We thank the river for all they provide, and as they cleanse us, we feel lighter and less burdened returning to our homes, families, and community.

The Rio Grande in 2014, after ceremonial sites were desecrated. Photo courtesy of the author.

Knowledge is power

In 2014, failed communication among international agencies had tragic consequences for one of our sacred sites along the Rio Grande. Although we believe the entire river is sacred, this was a site where we had carried out ceremonies since the late 1600s. In the name of “efficiency,” authorities began to cut back sacred trees and plants so that water can flow faster and so migrants crossing from Mexico cannot hide. Our site was desecrated.

My relationship with the river grew stronger after that. The desecration motivated a clear vision for my graduate studies.

My research looked at natural and human-made changes to what is commonly called the “forgotten stretch” of the Rio Grande and how those changes are impacting my community’s ability to sustain our cultural identity and continuity.  For instance, we have long gathered Goodding’s willow and Coyote willow for use in our traditional ceremonies. I researched the links between these plants and our ability to access to the riparian ecosystem along the Rio Grande. If we can’t continue accessing this ecosystem, if this plant can’t thrive, our survival as a Pueblo is threatened.

In my research, I recognized that while Western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge have completely different value systems, bridging them is necessary to ensure the continuity of Indigenous people and culture. Local, state, and national science and management within and around cultural landscapes cannot ignore Indigenous knowledge, practices, and relationships with such landscapes.

I spent a lot of time along the river during my research. I was allowed access to our ceremonial sites. I would wait at the bridge, as Border Patrol would open a gate in the 27-foot-high border wall so I could cross through. In those moments, I recognized how settler colonialism still perpetuates our lives and our capacity to survive.

Given this, I took extra care to say my prayers and make my offerings. To sit at the dry riverbed, mourn the river, and pray for them to return. I made promises to the river and the spirits and deities who live within the waters and on the banks, and asked them for their protection and knowledge. The relationship I developed with them during this time fueled me, kept me dedicated, and helped me to push through when the graduate work seemed overwhelming.

The river in 2016 with Councilman Rafael Gomez, the author’s uncle. Photo courtesy of the author.

Finding liberation

The Rio Grande is part of a cultural landscape and one of our creator’s greatest gifts to the desert people of the Southwest. But the river is barely surviving due to the continuation of colonial systems that do not revere or respect this living entity.

The liberation of the Rio Grande is directly related to the liberation of all oppressed people worldwide. The liberation of the Rio Grande releases us from colonial mindsets forced on us.

To liberate our sacred river is to care about the life and well-being of another before ourselves. If we were all able to put the needs of our relatives and the lifeblood of our Pueblo first, this would allow us to participate in community healing. This healing would not just be for ourselves as individuals, but reciprocal, connecting our spirits and bodies to the land, and the land to our spirits and bodies.

Life forces exist within the river, water, and banks. The river water should be seen as an embryonic fluid that gives life to so many species and nourishes us. My people will always honor the connections we have formed by following the river.  

When the water flows down from the north, we are reminded of the presence of the water serpent or “Culebra.” The Culebra is a diety of rain and lightening from the river and other water sources. Undulating down the river bed, the Culebra brings the offerings and blessings of our northern Pueblo relatives, nourishing the land and our people.   

Pehla usla historically brought us blessings of water and sustenance. The river was once protected by the riparian bosque. These plants sustain us culturally and spiritually. My ancestors prayed at the river, and now my people and I pray for the lives of our plant relatives that are threatened, just as we are as a people and for the continuance of our way of life.


Andrea “Andie” Everett is an enrolled citizen of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo (Tribal nation) and learned about traditional values and the gifts of the land from tribal elders. She holds a master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Texas at El Paso. An FAA certified drone pilot, she is the founder and owner of MatriARC PROJECTion, LLC, which provides geographic information services (GIS), drone, environmental, and community development services to non-profits, tribes, and other organizations working to protect the natural environment of the Southwest.

2 thoughts on “A Sacred River’s Sovereignty”

  1. This article was fantastic and hit all of the angles. Thank you for being so thorough and allowing us to expand our awareness through your writing.

  2. This was so lovingly and brilliantly written. The author teaches us to drop a colonized mindset and turn to our hearts as a source of truth. I loved hearing that the river is a They! Andie, I thank you for your work. I thank you for talking truth about how we should honor all relations.


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