The Newton Free Library hosted a webinar on Tuesday night regarding water protection rights and spirituality in honor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, which occurred on Oct. 10.
“As the guardians of this land, we live amongst the winged fish, the animals, the insects—we live within them. We don’t control them,” said Hiawatha Brown, a Narragansett elder and one of the panelists. “And in the mainstream view of things, people are perceived to be the kings and queens, for lack of better terms.”
During the event, the panelists—Kasike Jorge Estevez, Liz Santana-Kisere, Robert Quesada, and Brown, all members of local Indigenous communities—spoke about their cultural connections to water and the environment.
The panelists emphasized how water pollution and issues pertaining to Indigenous land acknowledgment have negatively impacted their groups, both spiritually and economically.
After a brief introduction from Ellen Meyers, director of programs and communications at the library, Quesada opened the event with a traditional Danza and prayer ritual. He wore traditional Coyokiztil attire, which includes a handmade headpiece from coyote pelts in addition to face paint and decorative jewelry. The Indigenous prayer combined drum rhythms with intricate dance moves and specific phrases and movements directed at the altars placed around the room.
Estevez, chief of the Taino people and former program coordinator at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, spoke about the customs and traditions of the Taino, highlighting their location and connection to water. Estevez began his part of the panel by describing his upbringing in San Juan de la Maguana in the Dominican Republic.
Maguana is located in the middle of the island, isolated and secluded, which is part of why many Taino traditions have survived in the region—it’s difficult for outsiders to access.
In the Taino culture, if one does not have children, it is their responsibility to pass down the knowledge from their parents to three new people, according to Estevez. These three people will pass it on to another three and another three, preserving culture across generations.
Estevez ended his presentation with a troubling image of various beaches in the Dominican Republic, showcasing the pollution and litter that has changed the landscape from beautiful and bright to dark and dreary.
“This is what Western progress has done to our waters, and those are just the beaches in the Caribbean today,” Estevez said. Similarly, Santana-Kisere, the current tribal historical preservation officer for the Nipmuc Indians, pointed out the progression of pollution and destruction of local ecosystems.
Santana-Kisere explained a recent study her grandson conducted at Haskell Indian Nations University in which he concluded that regional bodies of water have reached hazardous levels of harmful bacteria and algae bloom. Instead of the freshwater fish that once thrived in the New England waters, zebra mussels, asian clams, and algae populations have taken over, reproducing at a rapid rate.
Santana-Kisere encouraged the general public to take action sooner than later.
“When you talk about water, that’s how we survive, and only we—as the people and as stewards of this land—can change the damage that’s being done today,” Santana-Kisere said.
Brown was the final speaker of the night. He explained the nuances of indigenous claims to land versus how those claims translate into ownership under federal law.
He explained that while federal reservation land is under the guardianship of individual tribes, the land itself is owned by the U.S. Department of the Interior, making the indigenous preservation of their land contingent on federal approval. This tension is one of many examples of the ways different peoples interact with the land they live on, according to Brown.
“There’s a major difference between the European understanding of property and how they attain it or retain it as opposed to how indigenous people live on this Earth,” Brown said.
The panelists closed out the session by encouraging the audience to educate themselves and get involved in issues pertaining to local indigenous communities.
“Come to our events, come to our ceremonies,” Quesada said. “As Bruce Lee said, come with your cup empty and fill it with our stories—with our heroes, with our knowledge, with our traumas. Fill it with the knowledge of what we have gone through for 500 years. And not only that, but the years before that when we were flourishing.”