Native water protectors show the way to care for houseless community members and the environment. Can non-natives follow?
Editor’s note: Avory Wyatt is Wašiw and Numu, and grew up on the Hungry Valley Reservation in Sparks. He’s a land defender, water protector, and social justice activist who has worked closely with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Jarrette Werk is A’aniiih and Nakoda from Fort Belknap, Montana, and has been living in Northern Nevada since 2014. He’s an independent journalist and photographer who focuses on rewriting the narrative of Indigenous Peoples within the media. Wyatt and Werk are assistant producers for KNPR’s Native Nevada podcast.
RENO/SPARKS— Autumn Harry, of Pyramid Lake, asked us to join her at the Sparks Marina on February 4 to celebrate the birthday of her mother, Beverly Harry. Beverly wanted to celebrate by giving back to our unsheltered relatives along the Truckee River.
Beverly, Autumn, and 15 community members and volunteers, including us, came together to make Beverly’s wish come true. That morning, we prepared and distributed 120 burritos, dog and cat food, propane, firewood, trash bags, and other supplies to the encampments along the river.
“We organized a small roundup with trash bags, food, burritos, and different supplies that we would need to pick up trash. But we’re mainly just concentrating on reconnaissance, trying to figure out what these individuals on the river needed, and how we could be better companions to them,” says Beverly, who is Diné and serves as the native community organizer for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “We were trying to address this as a relationship-building event, and then also not to be critical of the way that they lived, (and learn) how we could bring better understanding to what was happening on the river with the issues that they were facing.”
What began as a birthday wish to provide food and supplies to the most vulnerable populations living along the Truckee River blossomed into an Indigenous-led movement to establish collective justice for all the communities that rely on the Truckee River system.
Autumn, who is Numu and Diné, grew up on the rural Pyramid Lake Reservation with her mother and late father, Norm Harry, and didn’t spend a lot of time in the urban settings of Reno or Sparks. Instead, she spent most of her time with her parents exploring the sagebrush-covered mountains or the turquoise waters of Pyramid Lake.
While distributing food and supplies to the houseless camps along the river, she got to know some of the people living there. She also saw how much trash had accumulated.
“That was a big eye-opener for us who do live at Pyramid lake, because we’re concerned about the water quality and what’s coming down the river because of our fish species,” says Autumn, who works as the campaign strategist for Great Basin Water Network. “Because there is a disconnection between the reservation and the cities of Reno and Sparks, I think a lot of our people aren’t seeing those impacts directly.”
It is striking to see firsthand. While we were distributing supplies to the camps, we noticed large amounts of trash near the water’s edge, human feces in containers, and used needles littering the dirt and bushes.
The experience sparked something in our group. We came together to make a change and help the river. Within a few days, River Justice was born. The first cleanup, titled Protect River, Protect Life, attracted almost 90 volunteers. Beverly coined the term “River Otters” for team members. She describes the overall focus of River Justice as providing a voice for the river and addressing the injustices on the river that begin with the behavior, mindset, ideas, and systems brought by white society. We all wanted to educate and remind non-Indigenous volunteers that the Truckee River is still an Indigenous river, and Indigenous people are still here to take care of it.
“Our ancestors have been caring for these lands for thousands of years,” Autumn says, “and there’s been a lot of work and a lot of love that has been put into taking care of the land, the water, and especially the watershed.”
Most watersheds drain into an ocean, but the Truckee River watershed starts in a lake and ends in a lake. Its unique flow is north to east — the opposite of most watersheds west of the Continental Divide.
The watershed is made up of a series of streams, creeks, and reservoirs that empty into the 121-mile-long Truckee River, which is also the sole outlet of Lake Tahoe. The watershed drains 3,120 square miles of land in Truckee, Reno, Sparks, and out into the desert, finally connecting Lake Tahoe to Pyramid Lake.
Autumn and Beverly dedicated the first cleanup to Chief Truckee, who was Numu, reminding people that the Truckee River is named after him. They also showed the river’s connection to the watershed and Reno-Sparks, as well as the connection that Indigenous peoples — specifically Washoe and Northern Paiute people — still have to these areas.
“We’re all from different tribes or reservations, but we’re all working together to take care of these lands that our ancestors have always cared for,” Autumn says.
Similar to Indigenous peoples in the United States, houseless individuals have been displaced by colonialism and colonization. This helps explain why we use the term “houseless” in place of “homeless.” To say someone is “homeless” means they inherently do not belong to the place where they reside.
Throughout February and March, the River Protectors continued to perform periodic weekend cleanups along the Truckee River. As she got to know the community, Autumn educated herself on the term “homeless,” and came to understand the negative impacts of using it.
“I was starting to hear more of a dialogue on why we shouldn’t use the term ‘homeless,’” she says, “because, when we say that you’re homeless, that means you’re without a home.” But for the people she was getting to know along the Truckee River, their tents and shelters were their homes. She saw that using “houseless” could acknowledge that someone didn’t have a house, but was still part of the community.
“I think it’s always important for all of us, no matter who we are, or what background we have, to really understand and check our own privileges,” Autumn says. “And so for me, when I first went into these camps and started talking with more people, you know, I had to understand my own privileges when entering those spaces.”
At the same time, she acknowledges, it’s our traditional ancestral homelands. We feel the responsibility to do what we can to take care of the river and the watershed.
As we all had our own intimate conversations with those living in the encampments along the river, we started developing relationships them. It became apparent they had nowhere to properly dispose of their waste. Different individuals in different camps shared similar experiences, telling us stories of taking trash to designated drop-off locations provided by the city, only to have dump trucks drive past them, refusing to pick up the trash because they knew where it was coming from. This, we believe, is what ultimately leads to the accumulation of trash along the Truckee River.
From our first river cleanup, it was apparent that the task at hand was not going to be easy. It was clear that much of the trash had been sitting and decomposing for years. We’d touch plastics, and they’d disintegrate into microplastics, which are extremely harmful to the environment. What looked to be spiderwebs turned out to be plastics intertwined with plants. In one of several areas that had layers upon layers of garbage, we discovered a milk jug from 2007.
It’s hard to know if that specific jug had been in that location for 14 years, but it does show how long plastics can last, and how long this area has been suffocating. Mother Earth was doing her best — plants were growing in and around the debris — but once it was all removed, it was like this big sigh of relief. She could finally breathe again.
Another thing we learned after our first cleanup was how expensive it is to dispose of waste. On average, each full truckload, around 36 cubic yards of waste, costs $350 per to dispose of in the landfill.
“When we had gone through (the Vista) area, and just walked it and just observed what this land was being used for and how it wasn’t being respected, it made us realize that there was a larger part of this issue,” Beverly says. “This was just an example of what was happening throughout the Truckee Meadows, throughout the state, throughout the nation, and throughout the world.”
We could all see that the issue expanded further than the pollution associated with the houseless community. Couches, mattresses, and other large items were evidence of non-houseless people illegally dumping their waste at locations like Vista, the first area we cleaned up.
“I thought it was two loads, and people were saying three, and it ended up taking seven trips altogether,” Beverly says. “So, we have a huge problem that we didn’t correctly estimate. The problem was larger than we had even expected.”
Looking to the future
Beverly Harry, Autumn Harry, and the rest of the River Justice team have proven that it’s possible to remove a huge amount of waste along the Truckee River without harming communities near the watershed. However, more has to be done to prevent the trash from further accumulating in the future. Indigenous communities are stepping up to tackle the problem, but the weight of the issue should not be put entirely on the shoulders of the original caretakers of this land. The cities of Reno and Sparks must dedicate more resources to keeping the river clean, while minimizing harm to houseless communities.
City officials “need to be on the ground, witnessing and helping to remove the trash themselves, so that they can fully understand the impacts and all of the communities that are impacted by the waste accumulation,” Autumn says.
Our experience showed us that it’s not only local governing bodies, but the settler community as a whole, that needs to step up and take care of the waste in the watershed. Settler colonialism is a driving force of the waste issue along the river, as it perpetuates a mentality of haves and have-nots. Non-Indigenous residents and organizations must dedicate more time and funding to the waste issue to ensure this responsibility doesn’t always fall on Indigenous communities.
Time and time again, we hear settlers speak about how much they care about the land and water, yet their words rarely result in direct action. There are organizations who receive hundreds of thousands of dollars and whose sole purpose is to keep the river “beautiful,” yet, according to Autumn, “They are not doing their jobs.”
As Indigenous people, we face a multitude of challenges resulting from colonization and colonialism, including keeping our waters free from waste and other pollutants. Though we’re passionate about every single challenge, all of our energy can’t be put toward any single issue. “I don’t want to be picking up trash for the rest of my life,” Autumn says. And a majority of Indigenous organizers would agree. We agree.
And when you show up, do so with humility. “One of the things that we advocate for is, if you’re showing up for Indigenous peoples, provide them space, check yourself on how you’re showing up, and make sure that you’re ready to understand what Native people are all about, and not based on assumptions,” Beverly says.
Unless you are a Washoe or Northern Paiute person, you are a guest on these lands, obligated to take care of the land and water just as Indigenous peoples have done since time immemorial. It’s time for non-Indigenous communities to learn about the original peoples’ values and stewardship of the land, to stand up for Native communities in Nevada.