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Center for Human Rights - Celebrating 15 Years! Students • Partners • Research

Amelia Schwartz studies connections between water rights and Indigenous culture and sovereignty

Amelia Schwartz
Sable-Brown Fellow, Amelia Schwarts, practicing with her new mapping gear.

November 5, 2019

This summer I was able to attend the Environmental Systems Research Institute’s (ESRI) geospatial conference in San Diego, California. The week-long conference hosted hundreds of talks, tutorials for new geographical information systems (GIS) tools, and examples of other researchers and organizations who use satellite and GIS in their work. Relating to my own thesis, I was able to go to various exhibitions and discussions by other Indigenous mapmakers, water resource managers, and satellite imagery users. While learning how to improve my own maps, there were ample resources for data given to me that I hadn’t previously been aware of. Thanks to this conference, I am now better prepared for the visual mapmaking and analysis section of my thesis, which, centers the human right to water alongside the Indigenous cultural connections to it, and how policy and climate change can help or harm Native communities.

While the drive from Seattle to San Diego took several days, I was able to utilize that valuable time by testing out the GPS and water-specific devices I brought along to use for my later mapping of the canoe routes. With a water-proof camera that also recorded GPS locations, I was able to take the camera into wetlands and waterway areas without fear of damaging the equipment, or mislabeling geospatial coordinates upon return to my desktop computer. The camera successfully recorded in the middle of the Redwoods National Park, in the Pacific Ocean near Big Sur, and 10-feet deep in Lake Tahoe. Armed with exciting Story-Maps lessons from the ESRI conference, I was able to start a practice run with the data of the geolocated photos, which could be easily georeferenced with the ESRI software. This was great news, as often on Indigenous reservations, even the Lummi Nation, phone service and GPS data can struggle to be accurate. Once I began pulling up the recorded coordinates, I noted that the captured data looked to be precise almost down to the square meter. This was great news on the precision necessity. I managed to work out some programming kinks with this run-through, and had a much smoother use upon following some of the canoe landing sites across the Puget Sound.

In late summer I made multiple trips to the Lummi Nation, becoming a volunteer for the upcoming Paddle to Lummi 2019 event, taking images of shoreline pollution (or lack thereof), and creating connections with Lummi organizers and community members. During Paddle to Lummi I helped prepare food for thousands of coastal Indigenous Nations and other Indigenous canoe paddlers and their families. As a non-Lummi and non-Coast Salish Indigenous woman, this was important to me, as I strive to not be an academic stereotype in my partnership with the Lummi. By giving my time through service to the Nation, I felt that my burden of questions would be somewhat lighter. This time in the Lummi Nation also allowed me to ask questions about the People, the environment, and how the changing landscape and population had affected the waterways. During this phase, I was able to attend protocol in the lodge and join with other Indigenous Peoples from across the world as we gathered in honor of our waterways. I recorded images and videos of the canoes pulling onto shore, the crowds gathered to honor their paddlers, the waters, and their surrounding environment, while making sure to not include material that should remain within the event and Indigenous communities. I also made trips to the Lummi Nation to speak with a council about my community research proposal and spark interest with Tribal leaders and knowledge-holders in partnering with me to create the oral history side of my project. 

Thanks to the Dr. Lisa Sable Brown award for facilitating this research.