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Crow Tribe Little Bighorn River
Author JoRee LaFrance collects a water sample near the headwaters of the Little Bighorn River. Credit: Talon_Lonebear

Opinion: Restoring our waters is restoring ourselves

Using water quality research to bring healing and sovereignty to the Apsáalooke.

7 min read

It was a cold winter day when my káalixaalia, great-grandmother, sat us down to tell stories.


When the snow sticks to the ground, we, as Biiluuke or Our Side, tell our traditional stories so that they are passed down from generation to generation. One of my favorite stories was about a young boy named Uuwaatisaash, or Big Metal, who was pushed off a cliff by his stepfather after a day of hunting. As his stepfather returned to camp leaving him to die, Uuwaatisaash heard our language in the distance, and they spoke of saving a boy who was stuck in a shrub. The voices he heard were voices of Iisaxpúatahchee Sahpua, the seven sacred Big Horn rams, who saved him and chose to raise him as their own. He grew up into a prominent warrior and was given seven sacred teachings that he would bring back to my people.

When I was 8 years old, a bilingual afterschool program took me on a trip that left memories I still carry. A boat drove us into the deep canyons of Iisaxpúatahcheewilichke, Big Horn Lake. As we cruised by cliffs incised by Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe, the Big Horn River, we witnessed the power that it held: cliff sides looked as if a knife made a clean cut through a cake, except it was through sedimentary, metamorphic and igneous layers of the Earth. I will hold this day with me forever because me, my twin sister and other Apsáalooke/Crow youth saw where Uuwaatisaash was pushed off the cliffs, and where Iisaxpúatahchee Sahpua had saved him.

As Biiluuke people, we revere Iisaxpúatahchee Sahpua and we show our honor and respect for them. One of our Apsáalooke warriors, Bear Crane, taught us that in order to honor and respect the power of Iisaxpúatahchee Sahpua, we need to take care of our mountains and rivers. “To this day the Bighorn and Little Bighorn Rivers carry the memory of the Seven Sacred Rams,” he said, “we were told to never change the names . . . they have retained their ancient names, assuring that the land will always be ours.”

This essay is also available in Spanish

We have known that the water is a reflection of us since time immemorial. However, our rivers and water have been impacted by human activity such as agriculture, sewage waste and abandoned mines. But I and other Apsáalooke researchers are working together to understand the quality of our water systems and how this poses risks to our community members and cultural practices. As Apsáalooke researchers we are testing the water of our neighbors, friends and family — and by leading this research we are contributing to our individual, community, cultural, and tribal autonomy.

Our hope is to provide foundational research that will help our Nation set water quality standards to protect our precious water sources so that we can continue our cultural and ceremonial practices.

The land that raised me

Bighorn Mountains Crow Tribe

​View of the Bighorn Mountains from Story, Wyoming. 

Credit: JoRee LaFrance

I grew up with my twin sister along Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe Aliakaate, the Little Bighorn River, at the foothills of my outside heart Iisaxpúatahchee Isawaxaawúua, or commonly known as the Big Horn Mountains; which sits at the southern end of our 2.2 million acre reservation in southeastern Montana. My reservation is bigger than the state of Rhode Island as it is the largest reservation in Montana, the fifth largest in the United States, and home to my people and three mountain ranges and watersheds.

Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe Aliakaate holds a special place in my heart. It begins in Iisaxpúatahchee Isawaxaawúua and then flows directly onto the reservation with only 16 miles of the river located on Apsáalooke ceded lands in present-day Wyoming. The rest of the river flows north on to Apsáalooke lands and joins the Big Horn River, Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe, just before the reservation ends. Most of the river Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe Aliakaate is in the hands of my people and it is our responsibility to take care of and protect this important body of water.

The Little Bighorn River is used year-round for ceremonial, municipal, agricultural and recreational purposes in my community. Apsáalooke people have a deep connection to its pulse. We have been taught that when the cotton first falls in spring, we must feed the river by preparing our finest meats and offering them to the river to ask for protection and to show respect for buluksée, the water creatures. This is when the river is starting to increase its water flow due to snowmelt and spring rains. With the hot sun in June, we cool off in the river but must be diligent because the river is at its strongest. It is not until we tell stories when the snow sticks to the ground that the river is at its lowest and calmest point.

Taking care of the water is to take care of our wellbeing not only as an individual, but as a people. We use the river and springs for ceremonies like the sweat lodge, Tobacco society, bundle openings, sundance and many others. When the integrity of our waters are compromised it also compromises our ability to safely practice our ceremonies that directly involve water. As an Apsáalooke scientist, I am a product of the land that has raised me, and I know it is my responsibility to care for this land that has always taken care of me.

In my language, this feeling is expressed as immaachikítua – the English language does not fully encapsulate the meaning of this word, but if I were to describe it best, it would be to show a respect for the land, the water, every being, our families, our ancestors and our future generations.

Responsibility as an Apsáalookbia

Crow Tribe tribal water rights

​Overlooking the Big Horn Mountains and Little Bighorn River valley. 

Credit: JoRee LaFrance.

I am a strong believer in the saying, “of us, by us, for us” and the Crow Environmental Health Steering Committee does just that. We are a small group of Apsáalooke people and a research partner who does our own environmental related research on our reservation. Taking ownership of research not only allows us to have a deeper understanding of our community health but it strengthens our sovereignty to protect our waters.

Over the past 20 years, the Committee has improved the quality of our waters and my tribe’s knowledge and understanding of our environmental health. They have found that impaired waters pose a great risk to the Apsáalooke community. Microbial contamination like coliform coming from leaking septic systems or livestock waste along with heavy metal contamination such as uranium, arsenic, manganese and zinc all contribute to low water quality, causing community health issues. This is concerning as coliform can cause short term illness like diarrhea and nausea but can severely impact those that are immunocompromised. Heavy metal contamination from uranium can cause kidney toxicity, and arsenic causes circulatory issues, while both are carcinogens.

There is a focus on home wells because many community members live on unpaved roads in rural areas relying on groundwater or hauled water. These sources are not tested like the Crow Agency municipal drinking system, so unless an individual pays for water testing, they are unsure of their water quality.

Crow Tribe Little Bighorn River

​Little Bighorn River looking toward the Bighorn Bighorn Mountains. 

Credit: JoRee LaFrance

If a family’s home had a test result that exceeded the EPA maximum contaminant level of a pollutant or had a presence of coliform or E.coli, the Committee provided a 5-gallon water cooler dispenser to the household. This would give a family direct access to safe, clean drinking water at the very least. My own family members relied on the work we did so it made my interest in water science and access to clean drinking water much greater.

The first step on my long journey in water quality started with my undergraduate education at Dartmouth College, where I majored in earth sciences and Native American studies. Watershed science captured my interest. After my time at Dartmouth, I interned with the committee as part of a team that tested for various contaminants in home wells and a few of our sacred springs, and helped with a climate change study.

I saw a need for an understanding of surface water quality especially in Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe Aliakaate, a river that became a familiar friend. Growing up along this river, I was a bit naïve, assuming the water was pristine; but I have come to learn that agricultural, municipal and township uses, as well as illegal dumping, are changing the river and its valley.

The Little Bighorn River functions like any other snow-bound watershed in western United States and we need to understand how industries like mining, agriculture and byproducts from wastewater treatment plants are polluting it with contaminants such as heavy metals, man-made compounds like PFAS, and those that come from agricultural activity. Through my work now at the University of Arizona’s Department of Environmental Science, I want to understand how pollutants behave as the river flow changes through seasons and to address those impacts on tribal water use. To do this, I collect weekly samples that are then sent to the Arizona Laboratory for Emerging Contaminants where we analyze for various pollutants. In addition, I have two in-situ multi-parameter sensors that are stationed in the river that continuously analyze the river’s pH, temperature, turbidity, electrical conductivity and more. I am very grateful to do work with a river that is a part of who I am.

Bimmaxxpée - Medicine Waters

Crow Tribe Indigenous water rights

Author JoRee LaFrance setting up a water sensor.

Credit: Talon Lonebear.

My goal is to support my Nation to implement our own water quality standards based on science and culture, which is integral for us to preserve our traditional way of life by having access to healthy waters. This would strengthen our sovereignty and allow us to hold all users – whether upstream or downstream – accountable for contaminating our waters.

My káalixaalia told me that we, as Biiluuke, were given four medicines that would always heal and sustain us as we move through this world: the tobacco planting ceremony, sweat lodge, sun dance and rock medicines. Each of these four medicines involves the use and respect of water. I want to do everything I can to ensure that our children always have access to the same quality of water that our ancestors had.

When we restore the health of our medicine waters, we restore the health of ourselves.

This essay was produced through the Agents of Change in Environmental Justice fellowship. Agents of Change empowers emerging leaders from historically excluded backgrounds in science and academia to reimagine solutions for a just and healthy planet.

​Essay Notes

*Apsáalooke/Crow: This term is used to refer to us as a Tribal Nation. Crow is actually a mistranslation used when the federal government came along and gave us English names. There is so much more to the name Apsáalooke but that is for another discussion. You will see Apsáalooke, Crow, and Biiluuke used interchangeably from my perspective.

**Biiluuke/Our Side: We use this word to refer to ourselves, our worldviews, and our language as Our Side. That is why you will see Biiluuke instead of Apsáalooke.

Vocabulary:

Apsáalooke/Crow
Káalixaalia/great-grandmother
Biiluuke/Our Side/Crow
Uuwaatisaash/Big Metal
Iisaxpúatahchee Sahpua/Seven Sacred Bighorn Rams
Iisaxpúatahcheewilichke/Big Horn Lake
Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe/Big Horn River
Iisaxpúatahcheeaashe Aliakaate/Little Bighorn River
Iichiinmáatchilash/Fortunate with Horses
Iisaxpúatahchee Isawaxaawúua/Big Horn Mountains
Iikooshtakáatbaatchaache/Mighty Few District
Buluksée/Water Creatures
Apsáalookbia/Crow Woman
Immaachikittúua/What We Respect
Bimmaxxpée/Medicine Water

About the author(s):

JoRee LaFrance

JoRee LaFrance - also known as Iichiinmáatchileesh/Fortunate with Horses – comes from the Apsáalooke Nation, located in southeastern Montana. She holds a B.A. in earth sciences and Native American studies from Dartmouth College and is now a doctoral student in the Department of Environmental Science at the University of Arizona studying the Little Bighorn River watershed.

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