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Know the West

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.

[RELATED:https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-covid19-the-navajo-nation-and-white-mountain-apache-tribe-chase-down-a-virus]

“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.