While we often have no control over whether the water that comes out of our faucet is contaminated or not, we do have control over what we do with clean water when we do have access to it. It’s time to stop contaminating our drinking water with substances like sugar, artificial flavors, chemicals, and alcohol, and to start drinking clean water while we have the chance.
Over the past two years, the Lakota phrase “mni wiconi,” translated as “water is life,” became heavily used across Indian country and beyond. All tribes have always had a special reverence for water, and we collectively focused on this as the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock played out.
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There truly are an inordinate number of indigenous communities whose water sources, like Standing Rock’s, are being threatened by corporate projects and repressive governments, which is why the phrase “water is life” really resonated with so many people. Why should Natives have to put up with unclean drinking water while the rest of the world gets to benefit from our oppression?
When our water sources are threatened, our health is threatened. Contamination from oil and other toxic substances sacrifices the integrity of drinking water. This poses the risk of serious consequences, such as cancer and birth defects. Doctors say that children in Flint, Michigan, for example, whose water is contaminated by lead, are at risk for brain damage, developmental delays, and behavioral issues — all problems which are irreversible and will not go away as they age.
The manifestation of health consequences from toxins like oil and lead is often slow, undetectable at first, and invisible. Often, contaminated water sources out of the faucet look clear, taste fine, and do not smell funny. It’s not as if thick black oil will pour out of the faucets, or as if the tainted water will surely cause immediate headaches or diarrhea. The contamination will be sneaky, which makes it scary and ever more difficult to control.
While we may not always be able to control what is coming out of our faucet, and the injustice of that situation should never be undermined, it is important to remember that we do have control over other things that we drink which can impact our health in very similar ways. Now is the time to make a stand to reject other forms of contaminated water that we often choose to drink: soda, sugary juices, sugary milks, artificially flavored sports drinks, overly caffeinated energy drinks, and alcohol.
It might seem like a stretch, but really, it’s not. If you think about it, substances like sugar and artificial flavors impact our health in slow and steady, sneaky ways over long periods of time, much like slow contamination from oil and toxins in the environment.
Take soda for example. While one pop might not leave you sick enough to run to the ER, it will immediately impact your energy levels, attention span, and ability to function properly in school or work due to the sudden spike then drop in sugar in your bloodstream. Additionally, drinking soda every day over the course of many years will likely lead to obesity and other ailments that come along with it, like heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer. The same goes for all other forms of artificially flavored, artificially processed beverages. Worse yet: it is seriously addictive.
Alcohol is even worse. In addition to all of the same impacts of sugary drinks (alcohol is very high in sugar and addictive), alcohol causes diseases of the liver which can be fatal, and impacts the spirit and mental health in immeasurable yet significantly damaging ways. There’s a reason our people never drank it recreationally pre-colonization.
Here’s some drink for thought; some numbers to put it all into perspective.
A 2013 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 22-percent of Americans drink the recommended two liters (approximately eight glasses) of water per day. The rest fell short of this number, and 7-percent said that they don’t drink any water at all.
So, if not water, what are people drinking to quench their thirst?
According to a 2016 CDC study, one in three Americans drink soda or other sugary drinks every day, and for young adults, the numbers are even more staggering. Nearly half of all 18- to 24-year-olds drink sugary drinks daily.
If these numbers reflect America at large, it’s safe to say that statistics in Indian country mirror this.
Too often, we arrive at events like conferences, powwows, social gatherings, family gatherings, and other gatherings that are meant to impact our health and communities in positive ways. Even though the subject matter or celebration might be geared toward something good, we are serving drinks that damage our health.
What can we do to stop this? Take a stand in your community: if you have any say in planning a gathering or conference, advocate for water and nothing else. If your only choice is bottled water, be sure to make a point about the impact of bottled water on the environment, and encourage participants to always finish drinking their water and never throwing any out.
At home, you can make the biggest difference. Lead by example: drink natural drinks only, like water or tea, and let those be the only options for your children. It’s a matter of life or death; disease or no disease; happiness or heartache. Water truly is life, so drink it.
Chelsey Luger is Anishinaabe and Lakota from North Dakota. She hopes to be a strong link in a long chain of ancestors and descendants by spreading ideas for health and wellness. Follow her on Twitter @CPLuger. Ideas for articles? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.