How Portland’s mutual aid supports local Indigenous communities

In a time of crisis, communities come together to engineer their own response.

 

Jason Umtuch carries supplies during a mutual aid drop-off to the Warm Springs community.
Lukwaiya (Mitchell Lira)

Since the pandemic started, Jason Umtuch, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs Indians, has been hauling truckloads of water and supplies to his tribe’s community. But he isn’t putting in these eight-to-12-hour days just because he wants to. Umtuch has to.  

COVID-19 hit the Warm Springs community hard; out of the 3,400 members living on the reservation, at least 330 tested positive. To further complicate matters,  in June, a pipe burst in the community’s water system, leaving 60% of residents without water for almost two months. A temporary fix restored water for most, but during those weeks without it, many tribal members faced an increased risk for spreading the coronavirus disease. This dire situation was repeated throughout Indian Country, including on the Navajo Nation.

Umtuch began hauling about 1,000 gallons of water, plus hundreds  of dollars’ worth of personal protection equipment and emergency supplies, from Portland, Oregon, to the Warm Springs Reservation. His weekly trip was made possible through the unique partnerships he formed with several mutual aid groups in Portland, most notably a Black-led human rights nonprofit called Don’t Shoot Portland.

“The environment is (that) our first needs are not being met.” 

The Warm Springs Tribe is not just facing the social, health and economic inequalities most Indigenous communities do, as shown by the pandemic; there’s also a distressing water crisis. And for many tribal communities, mutual aid networks like Umtuch and Don’t Shoot PDX’s are one of the few viable options to fill in the gaps left by state and federal governments. These new alliances in Oregon have now expanded to include wildfire relief as well as aid to additional tribal nations, such as the Yakama Nation and the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota.  

“The environment is (that) our first needs are not being met,” Umtuch said. “Otherwise, why would we be doing his work?” 

Barak Goodman, a volunteer for Don’t Shoot PDX, and Umtuch met at Portland’s anti-Indepence Day rally, which celebrated the shared histories of Indigenous and Black movements for justice. “Everyone is coming together and realizing how important this solidarity is,” Goodman said.

Once Umtuch told Goodman that the Warm Springs Tribe was in immediate need of 1,000 gallons of water, Don’t Shoot PDX put out a call to raise $1,500. Within four days, the group had raised over $16,000. The extra money allowed Goodman and Umtuch to rent a 26-foot-long moving truck and buy a new forklift for the tribe to help satisfy its water needs. The two men filled the U-Haul with water and personal protection equipment and embarked on their first delivery together. But their work, while extraordinary, is only a temporary solution.   

The tribe’s water system, built in the mid-1900s, was set up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to support the reservation’s boarding school with the understanding that the BIA would maintain it. However, the fragile infrastructure has received little maintenance since its completion; its pipes periodically burst and leak, forcing citizens to either boil their water or collect it from a distribution center. 

Federal aid allowed portable showers and bathrooms to be set up near the reservation’s population center. But coming up with the $200 million it would take to replace the overdue water infrastructure will be much harder. 

“We gave up a lot of acreage, 10 million acres, for these obligations of the feds to live up to and one of (those) is good, clean drinking water.”  

Under the federal Indian trust responsibility, the U.S. government is obligated to protect treaty rights, lands, assets and resources for Indigenous communities. “We're keeping the Bureau of Indian Affairs always on the hook,” Louie Pitt said, director of government affairs and planning for the tribe. “We gave up a lot of acreage, 10 million acres, for these obligations of the feds to live up to and one of (those) is good, clean drinking water.”

“It's always been a struggle to try to get (the BIA) to go and be more aggressive with the funding that we need,” Pitt said.  As a result, the state stepped in to provide funding to the tribe for a short-term fix. In July, the Oregon Legislature’s Emergency Board approved a $3.58 million package for repairing a pressure release valve that pumps water to residential areas. By the end of August, the Environmental Protection Agency had approved the system's water quality, and most of the reservation had safe drinking water again. Still, 10% to 12% of residents remained without it.

Goodman and Umtuch have expanded their network; they now provide emergency aid to the Yakama Nation, the Klamath Tribes in Oregon, and the Colville tribes in Washington, and they’ve set up donation sites at local businesses throughout Portland. Now, as wildfires ravage the Western U.S., Umtuch and Goodman are making several supply runs a week to the Indigenous communities affected by the fires up and down the I-5 corridor.

“Mutual aid is all about encouraging people to help each other and doing exactly that,” Goodman said. If they can engineer a community response, those most in need no longer have to wait for the state or federal government to respond. “We protect us, we protect each other.”

Jessica Douglas is an intern at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...