A new Water Is Life gathering in the Southwest uses music and art to build relationships and resistance on behalf of land, water, and Indigenous sovereignty
Interview by Kimi Eisele
Public art and music festivals can connect people from different cultures, economic backgrounds, and ideologies. Honor the Earth, an organization founded in 1993 by Winona LaDuke and Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, supports Indigenous communities through policy, research, grantmaking, and arts and culture initiatives. Based on the success of its music and art festivals in the Midwest, the organization now brings a celebration of Indigenous art, music, culture and resistance to the U.S. Southwest, featuring a coalition of Native artists, allies, activists, and speakers for a one-day event in March 2023 in Tucson.
BorderLore spoke with festival organizers David Huckfelt, Honor the Earth artistic director and a singer-songwriter, activist, international touring folk musician, and PennElys Droz, a Tucson-based sustainable designer and program officer for NDN Collective, about the role of art, music, activism, and relationships in strengthening cultural and ecological sovereignty for Indigenous people in the Southwest.
Tell me a little bit about yourselves and how you came to the cultural work of planning an art and music festival?
David Huckfelt: I am a songwriter, touring musician, and recording artist based in the Midwest. I toured all over the country and internationally with my band, The Pines, and during that time, I had the good fortune of meeting John Trudell, American Indian Movement leader, activist, poet, and he helped shape my worldview in very substantial ways and opened the door for me to begin working with Indigenous artists, songwriters, and musicians. Since then, I’ve put out three solo records that are a little more politically active. I also partnered up with Winona LaDuke and Honor the Earth to help with festival and event planning. We did a concert in the Mississippi River on a pontoon boat with the Indigo Girls a couple years back and then I became artistic director for the Water Is Life festival in Duluth. I used to live in Tucson. I have just a great deal of love for the community there, so I had this crazy idea to try this down there.
PennElys Droz: I am Anishinaabe descendant. I was born and raised in northern California. When I was a young adult, we had the big salmon kill. We had the dams on the Klamath River and, you know, a big environmental movement going on up north. I got into sustainable development pretty early because if we’re going to ask our tribal leaders to say no to destructive developments and to mining companies, logging companies, and oil companies, and to the other sorts of predatory capitalists that try to take advantage of native territories, we were going to have to create positive, proactive solutions that support our nationhood and our power. I started an organization called Sustainable Nations that did culturally based training, consulting, project development in renewable energy, natural building, ecological wastewater treatment. I intersected with Winona La Duke and Honor the Earth when I was 18 and have been intersected with parallel visions and parallel work over the years. Now, I am the power building and curriculum coordinator for NDN collective, doing similar work supporting folks to determine their own futures based on their spiritual responsibilities with their homelands and each other. I married a Tucsonan. We split our time between Ojibwe country in Wisconsin in the summer, where I can touch those lands and people and be around those people, and in Tucson the rest of the year.
Can you talk about Honor the Earth, an organization that feels like less than an organization and more like a movement?
PennElys: I think what you just said is right on. Honor the Earth is more of a movement than a nonprofit. We all know that the revelation is not going to come at the hands of nonprofits, right? But nonprofits are sometimes convenient ways to channel resources and build networks with movements. Honor the Earth pulls down resources and resources movements. They’re a small grant maker, they’re also a networker. They bring people together. They can bring attention to places that need attention. They build big narrative that communities can get behind.
David: Very well put. This is coming up on the 30th anniversary of the founding of Honor the Earth by Winona, and Amy Ray and Emily Saliers of the Indigo Girls, and that story in and of itself paints a pretty good picture of what it’s about. Going back, musically speaking everybody from Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, John Trudell, Floyd Westerman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young, had this support. A funny thing about music is, there’s a false narrative of celebrity. When I see Honor the Earth, I see my friends on the front lines, in the Line 3 battle at Standing Rock, now in Line 5. As a musician, if you’re around this business long enough, you really start to question your own self-importance. You want to be connected.
If you look at the lineup for these concerts, musically speaking, none of these folks would likely be at the same festival if it weren’t for this coalescing around the issues that Honor the Earth elevates: clean water, land back issues, sovereignty issues. It’s messy work. But these musical events or activism events tend to remove the ego, and everybody just throws into a great event with a wide reach, which is something a music festival can do as good or better than anything else I can think of. We had a band called The Hippocampus that came and played the festival in Duluth. This is a huge band with young people, and they probably brought in about 3500 fans just themselves—most of them had no idea where they were or what was going on. I remember telling Winona, “Right before they play would be a good time for you to talk.” So, it’s about spreading that consciousness.
As I’m listening to you both, I’m thinking about the way we define “folklife” as the things that people make, say, and do in shared groups. What you’re talking about is this. There’s something about the shared group aspect of a concert. We all know that feeling when you’re all watching the same thing. It’s like you’re all watching the campfire burn. There’s something that happens in that moment, in those moments, I’m sure, culturally, on a cellular level.
David: I like that definition. When there’s an event like this, it’s almost like two festivals simultaneously. We program speakers and representatives to speak in between band changeovers. We throw a lot of information and passion out at once.
PennElys: This is a heavily Indigenous festival. Our artists and vendors are all native, and a lot of our performers are native. But we’re bringing together diverse people from different movement spaces to celebrate each other around music, around art, to build joy. At the same time, we’re celebrating each other’s power, the continued resistance to inhumanity, and the desecration of land and water. Under the surface of this is going to be networking. Under the surface of this is going to be relationship-building, both within Indigenous communities, within movement communities, and also broadening out to everybody. So, these arts events, these music events are like beautiful, powerful little seeds for inspiration that can keep people going, that can remind us that we can celebrate together and lift each other up.
What are some of the key issues in the Southwest that you’re gathering behind?
PennElys: Overdevelopment and overuse of desert water, the ease and willingness of our contemporary government and systems to allow energy companies and the Border Patrol and mining companies to have access to our water for development. There are Apache folks coming from Oak Flat to address those mining issues there.
And then, the injustices happening at the border. Originally, we’re talking about climate and the impact of climate shifts and exploitive economics on people’s ability to thrive in their home communities. What Indigenous folks want for the most part is to be able to thrive in their own communities. And a huge number of folks migrating out of their communities down south are migrating out because they are not able to support their families. There is also violence. Their lands have been exploited or they’ve been kicked off their lands due to greed or climate shifts. So, it’s all linked. It’s all connected.
David: We’re hoping to make this an annual event because we see the potential. If you’re working really hard on some initiative on your tribal land, it feels good to come into a big event where there’s a lot of people who not only want to help you, but who really can help you. That’s something that happens at these events. Most folks that were on the frontlines [in Standing Rock], they got a day off, and that was invaluable. They’ve been sleeping on the ground next to the Mississippi River for four months, and they got to come in, smile and laugh and hear music.
PennElys: It’s not only resistance. It’s about what we’re going to build, right? You also have to build the alternatives. I don’t even know if folks in Tucson understand the power of the model of San Xavier Co-op Farm. If we talk about the Land Back movement, there’s a few different ways that you can get land back. There’s getting land physically back. There’s getting governance and care—being able to extend your governance and care to lands that cannot be given back. There’s a massive land back issue within tribally held lands here because of the 1887 Dawes Act [General Allotment Act], which was an attempt to dissolve communal land ownership, because that was seen as anti-progress. Every single male head of household, which alone was a real culturally weird thing for many tribes, was allotted 160 acres. So now we have this issue of fractionated lands in a lot of reservation communities, where land was divided up, and then the extra land was given away to settlers. We have mixed ownership. Nowadays, there can be like 300, 400 people having legal title to the same piece of land, and so nobody can utilize it.
San Xavier Co-op Farm is a model for bringing the allottees together. As you would imagine, with any community that’s been through some stuff, there’s struggle, there’s healing. So imagine bringing together 300 of your relatives, doing that work to build healing and shared governance together to do something beautiful with your land. It’s big thing. It’s a model. We’re highlighting San Xavier and highlighting the revival of desert agriculture, and highlighting how we can care for our water, our rainwater harvesting and how to care for water here, how to build different economies.
On the Honor the Earth web site, some phrases jumped out at me: “just transition” and “just relationship.” Can you speak to these two concepts, both of which feels so critical to the ways culture and traditions get passed on?
PennElys: In the work that we do, there’s this perpetual question of how are we being good relatives to ourselves? How are we being good relatives to each other? To our ecological relatives, to our Creator? Good relationships require empathy, good relationships require boundaries, good relationships require consent, good relationships require commitment to healing. No matter what culture or ethnicity you are, you have been impacted by violent colonialism, which very, very intentionally disrupted people’s relationships with each other, and with the earth. And so how do we heal these disconnects? It’s just wild. The level of focus on the individual has just harmed people’s hearts and souls so much. The most important part of the movement is the reconnection and the struggling, painful hard relearning of how to have relationships with each other. That’s the hardest thing. How to build relationship and stay in good relationship with one another. That is what has to ground any just transition.
The transition that we’re speaking to is the transition from an exploitive, fossil fuel-based economy to an economy based in the continuance of those things that provide life and an economy that benefits all. There’s a lot of great examples across the world of people doing this in a good way. The just part of just transition is that the transition needs to be led by those that have been most affected and most exploited and most hurt by business as usual. That tends to be Indigenous folks, Black and brown folks, poor folks—those folks need to be the ones to lead the path of change.
David: The lead story on NPR this morning was about how Exxon, Mobil, and BP have posted record profits, even with a war going on. Partially they’re working on alternative energy sources, investing in that, but they’re talking about reinvesting in gas and oil. Of course, we can’t stop the trains today. But that becomes an excuse for these companies to continue what they call collateral damage, to just continue to chew up and throw under the bus anyone on what they perceive to be the margins. We’ve given fossil fuel companies enough time to figure it out. They’ve been lying to themselves and us for 50 years. A fair and legal transition to these alternative energies is coming anyway. We just would like to get out from underneath the heel of these massive companies, while these transitions play out.
PennElys said you can’t just resist; you have to build. In order to build, you have to improvise. That’s where the music comes in. During my set last year at the Water Is Life festival, we had two hoop dancers; Keith Secola showed up on stage; Gary Farmer from Reservation Dogs popped in; Alan Sparhawk from the band Low. We all threw in and played together. At the end of the night the Indigo Girls lead a song with thirty people on stage. The improvisational aspect of music can be an example. What do you do? You can you play harmonica? Get up there! Do you have a tambourine? Jump up! Do you know one verse of the song? Take it. That kind of thing. You literally see it playing out in real time. And it’s inspiring.
I keep thinking of Joni Mitchell’s line about someone heading to the 1969 music festival in Woodstock, New York, which was such a decisive cultural moment: “I feel to be a cog in something turning.” We’re in a different moment now, but I’m wondering, based on what you’ve seen and lived over the last few decades, does it feel like something’s turning, like is there a shift in how we’re thinking about culture and the environment?
PennElys: When I was 14, I got involved in Earth First up in northern California. As a young teen, I was so disheartened by wanting to get into the movement, but there was no ability of the people I was intersecting with to understand me, being from a different cultural community. I didn’t have language for cultural appropriation then, but I would just leave places and spaces in tears and angry and not know why. That continued through my early 20s, until I joined Indigenous Environmental Network and found my people. But there was a huge divide between cultural communities. Of course, those issues are still there, and we have a lot to grow through, but over the last 10 years I have seen an ability of people across cultures and landscapes and even economic class to build power together. We’re all sharing this together. We’re networking together. We’re like building relationships together. That is what’s going to turn tides.
David: I remember sitting with John Trudell and he said, “Everybody’s gonna tell you the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. But that’s not true. From our perspective, it’s alchemy. We do the same thing over and over, we make subtle changes, we build our power and our relationships, and then all sudden, one day everything changes.” I was thinking about the Washington football team [being unwilling to change its name and mascot, the Redskins, and the team’s owner Daniel Snyder] saying, “over my dead body.” Then lo and behold, enough energy gets created, and [change happened]. One by one, we rack up these little victories. As PennElys said, they’re more accessible now because the network is stronger, the reach is wider. That’s what this festival is engineered to do: to grow that in a practical way for those living in the Sonoran Desert.
I think you’re gonna see at the festival a lot of different expressions of what feels like to live and be in the Sonoran Desert. All these acts that we have lined up—they’re all over the map. This festival doesn’t have a genre, it has a purpose.