Water Has a Spirit, Just Like Everything Else That the Creator Has Made | Cheyenne River

Tribal Councilperson Bob Walters speaks about the historical significance of water and its role in Lakota culture and spirituality.

Listen to Bob Walters describe how water is sacred to the Lakota.

This audio recording is excerpted from the conversation that has been transcribed and edited in the interview below.

Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros interviewed Bob Walters in 2021.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Annie Coombs and Zoë Malliaros (AC and ZM): Can you speak a little bit about the significance of water in Lakota culture and spirituality and life?

Bob Walters (BW): I want to thank you for asking me to talk about something that’s so sacred to us. There’s been a lot of battle over our water, our river, and you know, water is life. We all need it. Water’s sacred. Water has a spirit, just like everything else that the creator has made. Everything has a spirit. Everything is sacred.  

Culturally, water is sacred, and we all have to have water to live. Sixty-five percent of our body is made up of water. Water is used for every one of our ceremonies. Water was the first medicine that our people had and today we still use it in the same fashion for our ceremonies. 

AC and ZM: Can you speak a little bit about the history of water on Cheyenne River?

BW: First of all, I would like to talk about the 1868 Treaty. The 1868 Treaty says that we have from the East Bank on, and so to me, the river is ours. There’s been times that the Army Corps of Engineers wanted to sell that water, but my question has always been to them, how can you sell something that does not belong to you? It belongs to the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota peoples, the Native American people, because the 1868 Treaty said “from the East Bank on.” So, who owns the water in the river? Back in the day, one of the governors of South Dakota said if there was one bucket of water left in that river, it belongs to the Native Americans. Even he understood that the river belonged to the Native American people.  

When the 1944 PickSloan Act was passed, there was no consultation with the tribes. The federal government made a plan. They started building their man-made dam and flooding our people. Our old agency1Cheyenne River Agency, a former settlement now flooded by the Missouri River. was down along the river, and now we’re up here on this rock called Eagle Butte where there’s no trees. There’s nothing. Our people were protected on that river, and I always share this with the Corps Engineers: Because of the man-made dam, that’s why we’re at the table today. When you mess with the creator’s creation, this is what happens. The creator made that river, and that river should have been left alone, but it wasn’t. 

Our water intake was put in the Cheyenne River, which is a tributary of the Missouri River, instead of in the Missouri River itself. It became a problem. The sedimentation from the gold mines from White Creek flowed down into the Cheyenne River. That put heavy metals, arsenic, and different things into our water system. When the sedimentation happened, we had to move our water intake. Our water intake today is deep in the Missouri River. We’re just now starting to put in all the new pipelines so that our people can get water.

Some of our people still today do not have water in their homes from the water company.  The water that they do have is the cistern system, and they have to haul their own water.  We had to put a moratorium on our home sites because they put a moratorium on water.  Our people have the right to put in for a home site. Our people have the right to have water. I always pray that once the water company gets their new lines in, every one of our people could have water.

Although this home near Bridger is within the boundaries of the current water system, it was not inhabited when the water system was laid, and therefore never received a water hookup. In order to use the indoor plumbing fixtures, the residents instead fill a cistern. Hauling water involves five trips between a nearby highway pasture tap and the home’s cistern. Fifteen-hundred gallons supports a household of two adults for approximately two months, even with stringent conservation efforts. Photographs taken in 2010. Credit: Annie Coombs

AC and ZM: Do you think the original intake should have been in the Missouri River? 

BW: I think so. Our people should have received free water. That was one of the promises made when we were put up here on the flat.2This refers to the harsher open prairie around Eagle Butte, where many residents were resettled following the flooding of the more sheltered, riparian community of Cheyenne River Agency. Our people should receive good water. All the infrastructure that had to happen with the new water intake, the new plant, we paid so much for our water to get it up to town, to get it to our homes.

AC and ZM: In rural communities like Timber Lake, can you get a new home site?

BW: People are getting home sites. Today, people put in for home sites and they’re starting to be able to get water in some places. If they’re not able to, they usually say they’re gonna put in a cistern system, and then when the new water comes, they can get off that cistern system and hook up to the water company. 

AC and ZM: Is the water company, Mni Waste, owned by the Tribe? Can you explain how tribal members in the towns of Eagle Butte and Dupree get their water on tribal land? 

BW: Mni Waste is our water company. It’s tribally chartered, and tribal members that have a meter are owners in that company.  

Mni Waste sells the water to the city of Eagle Butte. In the city of Eagle Butte, whether we’re annexed into the city or not, we are on the city water line. So, we pay the city of Eagle Butte for our water, plus a bunch of other things. I’m sure [the neighboring town of] Dupree has a similar situation. 

AC and ZM: Thinking back to how we started this conversation about the significance of water and Lakota culture, could you tell us your thoughts on the concept of ownership of natural resources like water? We’ve heard people say, “We can’t own land. I borrow it from Mother Nature and give it back,” as well as the idea that the tribe owns the water. In terms of water and this concept of ownership, when you say it belongs to the tribe, one perspective might be that it actually belongs to no one but that it’s a shared resource.  Where would you fall on that philosophical spectrum?

BW: I believe that the water belongs to the creator, but it was put there for the people. I believe that because of the 1868 Treaty, that’s who the water belongs to that’s in that river. It doesn’t belong to the federal government. That’s always been my kick about the federal government trying to take and sell it to municipalities out of our river. We didn’t ask for that lake, and that’s where they’re pulling their water from, the lake. To me, it belongs to the people because the treaty said we have from the east bank on. When I talk to the Corps of Engineers, every time I remind them, when you flooded us off that river, you made our boundaries a little wider. Because that river’s in the middle of that lake somewhere, that water in that river does not belong to the federal government. The water in that river is sacred, and it belongs to the people.

AC and ZM: What does Cheyenne River need in terms of getting access to water? What do you see as the most important next steps?  

BW: To get our water? I would say everything takes dollars, and we could use development grants to continue to grow our water system, because housing is growing. Our people want to live out in the country. Our people want to have their own space, their own little piece of land to live on, and to get water out there. I know this young woman, and she calls me every day: “Bob, I can’t get water out there, but yet, there’s a pasture tap out there on some fee land, right?” It’s hard to understand when people put in a pasture tap when the two-legged are still needing water. The livestock should be watered off of wells. The potable water should go to the people.

AC and ZM: Is there just a strong lobby from ranchers?  What’s preventing the tribe from converting pasture taps to house taps?

BW: Today, we don’t pass easements for potable water to go to livestock taps. We haven’t for a lot of years. When it’s fee land, they have their own land; that’s theirs. Sometimes they’ll tap into their water line. But we don’t allow new taps to come off of our potable water system. 

Cattle relatives round up at the James Picotte Ranch, Armstrong, South Dakota, a photograph by Dawnee LeBeau

AC and ZM: How do you feel about all the ranching that happens on Cheyenne River? 

BW: I come from a ranching family, but I haven’t ranched for many years. I was born on the ranch and we always had cattle and horses, and we leased the land from our tribe. My lalá [grandfather], my até [father], my lekší [uncle], my tȟuŋwíŋ [aunt], they all ranched, and that’s how we were brought up. I don’t have a problem with ranchers. I see some successful ranchers, but we have to look out for the people first. So, when it comes to our sacred water, we cannot allow pasture taps to happen.

AC and ZM: Is there anything else you thought was important to share? 

BW: I’m looking forward to our water company being able to get the pipes throughout the whole reservation. I look forward to not having to worry about people getting water right to their home site. 

It takes time and money. With the help of the creator, we’re gonna accomplish this. I hope to be paying my own water company for water in the near future rather than a municipality. 

I love my job. I love my people and I believe that everything through prayer works. Water is one of the most sacred things we have. You see the fight with the oil pipelines we had. I was proud of our tribe for going up north and standing up to DAPL (Dakota Access Pipeline), and I’m proud of our tribe for standing up to KXL (Keystone XL Pipeline). It’s gonna ruin our lands. The earth is sacred. It could get into our aquifers. Then what are they gonna do? Without water, guess what? We’re gonna not be here. We’re gonna all perish, but they don’t understand things like that. They don’t understand sacredness, and it’s hard, but every meeting I’ve gone to, I’ve always reminded them how sacred our water is, how sacred our Mother Earth is, and of why we should respect it. We’ll do what we have to do for the people, so that our people can live.  


Bob Walters

is a representative for Cheyenne River’s District 5, and also served in that position from 2000 to 2014. In addition, he sits on the Missouri River Recovery Implementation Committee.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.