At 3 p.m. Thursday, more than a dozen Smith River Rancheria tribal members simultaneously took the plunge into separate frigid watersheds spread across a 40-mile span of their ancestral Tolowa territory, from the Umpqua River basin to Wilson Creek and several places in between.
They were continuing a campaign that started in British Columbia and has spread from tribe to tribe across North America, with some people jumping into holes cut into frozen lakes in Montana, others jumping into the Atlantic.
“I am Kara Miller, Tribal Chair for the Tolowa people of Smith River Rancheria. I am accepting a challenge from Danielle Vigil-Masten, the Hoopa Tribal Chair,” Miller said into the camera, before diving into the breathtaking, jade-tinted water of Rowdy Creek. “She has challenged me in the winter challenge of water rights of indigenous people to jump in the river and show how much water is important to the Tolowa people, and I am accepting that challenge on our behalf.”
In turn, Miller challenged the chairs of Elk Valley Rancheria and Trinidad Rancheria and even Assembly member Wes Chesbro to take the plunge, all in the name of raising awareness of tribal water rights.
“Keep the bond strong, keep it going and take this challenge within 24 hours to jump into our waters and keep us all whole and healthy,” Miller said.
The swimmers screamed “Within 24 hours!” as they dived into Rowdy Creek, a sticking point to keep the challenge going.
Two other Smith River Rancheria tribal council members have taken part as well as Thomas O’Rourke, chairman of Yurok Tribe.
“As an indigenous people the tribe does have water rights and we need to bring attention and awareness to it,” said Briannon Fraley, SRR tribal member and self-governance director, after taking the swim. “We need to start exercising our sovereign right to utilize our water.”
Cynthia Ford, of SRR’s cultural department who also took a cold dip on Thursday, said that raising water awareness is all the more important now with a pending nickel mining proposal on the North Fork Smith River.
“Water is our precious commodity,” Ford said. “It serves so many different purposes spiritually, economically. It’s essential to our health and our life.”
SRR has been beefing up their natural resources department lately. Fraley highlighted tribal research to identify why there has been a decline in the smelt population traditionally harvested by Tolowa people on the Pacific Ocean, funded by a Tribal Wildlife Grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“We’re taking temperature readings of the gravel beds and looking at changing habitat of the spawning grounds,” Fraley said. “We’re starting to do western science to help those cultural resources that are really important to the tribe.”
Miller said the biggest water issue facing the tribe and much of California is the current drought, which is made it difficult at times for the tribes water infrastructure to locate underground water supplies.
Climbing out of a cold creek, Miller turned to Ford and Fraley and said: “Thank you girls for helping me because I probably couldn’t have done it without you.”