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The Roots of Jacklyn Velasquez’s Work on Tribal Rights and Environmental Justice

Feb 22, 2018

Where Jacklyn Velasquez grew up, petroglyphs mark rocks throughout the Owens Valley showing the long history of her tribe’s existence. Like many Tribes in the United States, the health of the natural resources of California’s Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley today is greatly influenced by decisions made generations ago.

Her Tribe’s water rights issues are a stark example.

“In 1913 when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, at least 223 miles of infrastructure diverted water away from the Lower Owens River and its terminal point of Owens Lake, instead sending it to Los Angeles. This depletion of water resources caused the Owens Lake to dry in five years and has continued to have negative impacts throughout the sixty-mile valley, our traditional homelands,” said Jackie.

“Over the years, our communities watched our ancient Paiute irrigation canals dried up as water extraction practices from the Owens Valley continued to increase through ground water pumping,” said Jackie. “I saw the impacts of this water engineering decision firsthand when I returned home from earing my Bachelors only to find places I’d remembered walking through as a child looking different. Walking to school like most kids on the reservation, I’d take a shortcut to school through a small parcel of land now known as the Bartell Parcel. I remembered that area as often having a few animals grazing on the green wet prairie but now it was an arid and lifeless land. My curiosity and anger surrounding the drastic attack on this land was confirmed when comparing old maps with aerial photos, we could see what changed.”

Always one to question “why,” Jackie channeled her curiosity about that parcel of land, its cultural resources, and who had the power to make decisions on Tribal water. She became an Environmental Mission Scholar, determined to work in environmental advocacy with Tribes on cultural resource protection. She went to Vermont Law School and brought her knowledge back to Big Pine with work on industrial scale solar research and clean air monitoring projects.

Today, Midwest Environmental Advocates is proud to host Jackie as an Equal Justice Works Fellow, sponsored by William H. Lynch and Lynde Uhlein. Her mission in the two-year fellowship is to engage Tribes to hold Wisconsin accountable to the federal Clean Water Act by legally and technically assisting collaboration with Tribal governments to assess and address their risks from Wisconsin State regulatory failures.

Jackie is already hard at work building rapport and deepening her understanding of Tribal positions on consultation with the state and federal governments, particularly on environmental and ceded territory rights.

“I get to see Wisconsin through the eyes of Indian Country and it’s been an absolute privilege," said Jackie. "The Tribal communities here are warm, welcoming and deeply connected to their lands. I appreciate this opportunity and all those who have supported the project.

“My work may be inspired by one small parcel of land near my childhood school, but everyone benefits from understanding how property law, Tribal rights and environmental justice intersect. Native leaders must be a part of decision making on natural resource protection. Our cultural resources and the clean water, air and land we share depend on it.”

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