Annie Begay, standing in the Navajo Nation Photo: DIGDEEP

By JUAN CORTES

Age 10

The Navajo Nation is the largest Native American reservation in the United States, sprawled across Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Behind this vast and scenic land, surrounded with beautiful reddish-orange rocks and mountains, and a community with an ancient culture going back thousands of years, an unjust water crisis looms.

Due to the ongoing impact of colonization, many Native Americans experience poverty, environmental destruction of their lands and a lack of access to basic services, especially in rural areas. According to the Indian Health Service, the federal health program for Native Americans, 145,000 American Indian and Alaska Native homes, or 36%, lack adequate sanitation facilities. Of these homes, approximately 26,000, or 6.5%, lack access to a safe water supply and/or waste disposal facilities, compared to less than 1% of homes for the U.S. general population.

However, young leaders like Annie Begay are on a personal mission to fight this crisis. “My grandmother would tell me that one day I might be the person to actually bring water to our Native American people. And right now, that’s exactly what I’m doing,” the 24-year-old activist said

Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation and a volunteer firefighter, was inspired to fix the water crisis because she lost her maternal grandparents due to uranium mining contaminating their water supply. She now also serves as a field coordinator with the nonprofit organization DIGDEEP.

DIGDEEP created a community-managed program called the Navajo Water Project. About 6% of Native American and Alaska Native people live in water poverty because of a lack of proper water supply infrastructure. Within the Navajo community, 40% of residents do not have access to running water, according to the Navajo Water Project. A lack of clean running water can negatively impact the health and well-being of residents of all ages, as water is the basis of life, so Begay is helping to build a new water supply system to make it easier for people to access clean water.

Begay feels motivated to fulfill her grandmother’s dream of bringing water to her people. “It’s where I grew up, so it’s a good feeling knowing that you’re helping where you grew up,” she said during an interview with PBS.

Glossary Terms:

  • Native American: A member of any of the indigenous peoples of North, Central and South Americas. But this term usually refers to those who are living in what is now called the United States.
  • Reservation: When Native Americans were forced off their own lands after colonization, in 1851, the U.S. government moved them to reservations as a way to control them and to break cultural and family ties, knowledge systems as well as ties to their land. At this time, Native Americans weren’t allowed to leave their reservations without permission by the government.
  • Colonization: A process by which a central system of power dominates another land and its people. Christopher Columbus came to the Americas in 1492. Large-scale colonization by Western Europe soon followed. Since then, a great number of the Native American population were killed, pushed off their lands, imprisoned and controlled by the reservation system and other colonial policies such as boarding schools, forcible removal of Native American children from their homes and the Trail of Tears.
  • Uranium: A radioactive metallic element.
  • Water poverty: Lacking an acceptable amount of water to live.