Interview in collaboration with March for Science Albuquerque

My name is Phoebe Suina. I am from Cochiti Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo. I am a business owner and entrepreneur. I have a small consulting firm called High Water Mark.

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[For this interview] We are at Cochiti Pueblo. We are on reservation lands. This is where our ancestors lived since time and memorial through our oral history, our languages, our stories, and lessons. I love Cochiti; my heart is here, I am rooted here. I was blessed to know my grandparents and have fond memories of growing up here with them and my father. I have many memories of my family going into the mountains into our ancestral lands and our ancestral domain to learn about how our environment has sustained us. How we interact with our environment, our resources, birds, plants, the mountains, the river, the land, and the farm fields. Being rooted in the symbiotic relationship that we have with our environment. I was taught all of this through the interactions I had with my family here in Cochiti Pueblo.

The Cochiti Lake Dam was an Army Corps of Engineers project. From my understanding and through research, it started as an idea of putting a dam along the middle Rio Grande in the 1940’s through The Flood Control Act. They looked at placing the dam a number of locations. To the south of us that’s Santo Domingo Pueblo, if they would of put the dam there they would of actually had to move the Pueblo of Santo Domingo. Through the evolution of finding project locations, they began to look here at Cochiti. From talking to my grandparents, parents, and my grandpa in particular; they would share with me the struggle and how they had to grapple with the decision of allowing the dam to be constructed here. The footprint of the lake where it is located is on historical agricultural fields. As a agricultural society, our fields are at the heart and root of carrying on our way of life. If we lose the corn, the mellons, the squash, the beans… back in those days it was way of survival, it sustained and fed our people. Those crops also have a significant cultural part of our life and they are essential resources that we use during certain ceremonies and activities.

The [dam] took approximately about half of our agricultural lands. When the Army Corps. Of Engineers came here to approach our leadership, the leadership did not want the dam here, they are significant cultural areas. It was hard to communicate that to the engineers and the Army Corps. They [Army Corps] kept saying, “This is the place!”

To fast-forward a bit, what I learned from the elders was that they accepted and agreed with the decision to put the dam here with certain constraints. Through the initial designs you can see that they had to touch certain areas that were significant. Some of the initial promises that were made by the Army Corps of Engineers to not touch certain areas could not be fulfilled  because of basic engineering concepts. Talking to the elders and my grandpa, I don’t think there was a visual realization of the impacts the dam would cause. It’s a 5 mile long dam and its impacts are eastern views from the village. The weight of the water of the lake on the upstream side of the dam pushed the water downstream side of the dam up. The water table in the entire region rose because of all of that water weight and that made the remaining agricultural fields wetlands conditions and we couldn’t farm.

There were a number of years where our communities could not farm and farming is essential to our way of life. We are agricultural people. We didn’t have the crops, we didn’t have certain traditions that we carried on, and some of the other local Rio Grande Pueblos still carry these out. With agriculture going away, the language went away. Our language is oral based, we don’t write it down; so if we don’t use it, we lose it. And without the traditions being carried out on year to year, there were small pieces that were being lost. And when we couldn’t farm that transference of language and knowledge to the next generation was being broken. The dam really impacted our way of life, our community, our language, our traditions, and overall our way of life.

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I remember my father and grandfather talking about the activities that would happen down in the fields every year. One family would help another family. They would help one another maintain the farm fields and harvesting. They would trade and exchange foods. Each one of us in the Pueblo has our own gifts and our own assets. We all need each other and so we all helped each other. With the loss of that for a couple of decades, there’s a whole generational gap. That’s my generation that as young people we weren’t involved in the farming.

When we talk about the dam [and trauma]… it still hurts. My generation hurts. It’s something that is hard to describe, but you feel it. You feel that trauma. And we are still grappling with how do we move forward. It is also a lesson to my generation. What do we need to do? How can we be proactive? How can we steward our lands? How can we built up our toolbox and resources so similar impacts don’t happen during our generation or the next generation to come?

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Growing up I loved science! I loved the environment and I loved math. I am one of those weird people that like math. It’s something that going to elementary school, middle school, and high school, I loved chemistry and physics. As I grew up, I knew I wanted to be in those fields. I didn’t know what type of engineer I wanted to be. Did I want to be a materials engineer, chemical engineer, systems engineer. It was coming back to Cochiti and learning the history of the dam and learning that we didn’t have someone on Cochiti’s side to look at the engineer drawings and being able to decipher them. That really helped me focus as an undergrad. It gave me purpose in what I was studying.

I love water. I think water is amazing! Learning a little bit of thermo engineering and systems engineering, all of them are encompassed in how water works and how water flows. When I was going through undergraduate and my Masters degree I was motivated to come back to Cochiti. At that point I knew, that Cochiti is where I wanted to come back to. I went many miles away for school for 6 years and it gave me a perspective not to take for granted what we have in Cochiti, San Felipe, and Santo Domingo. Because we have a lot of our culture, we have a lot of our core traditions, we still have our language, we have these lessons that can only be carried through our Keres language. To come and to continue as a resource for my communities. I love the work that I do, to be able to provide information so that our leadership can make the best decisions and understand some of these technical terms. We need this in all aspects. In the legal, chemistry, physics, biological, engineering, and water quality. How do we communicate this to the western part of the world?

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One of the most pressing things is climate change. What we are seeing now is extremes. A few years ago they called it “global warming.” And I think the branding of that term is almost a misnomer. It was go back to systems engineering. A system at equilibrium goes up and down with a very defined range. What is happening with our environment is that these massive up’s and massive down’s. So if we talk about systems engineering, we have impacted through our own evolution of technology, the use of gas, oil, coal. It is this extreme overuse and extractions that have created an imbalance.

One of the things that we talk about in terms of resiliency is to keep the world in balance. With the dramatic changes in environment from very hot to very cold, our environment is like “what’s going on?!” It goes back to our core values and principles of keeping things in balance. Our environment and world is so out of balance that sometimes we will be cold but for super long periods of time. Our birds, our trees, and our land are trying to adjust. Mother earth is trying to adjust. And she will adjust [laughter]… but at that point the question is, “what is she going to have to do to adjust and to bring it back into balance?”

The concern of extraction and exploitation is another big concern. Through our elders we learn that we are suppose to take care of land and to use up everything. There is that phrase, “our world has enough for our need, bot for our greed.” It is very congruent with what we’ve [Pueblo people] have been taught and how we’ve lasted and been resilient in this landscape for thousands of years. I ask people ask me, “how did you all do that?” It was this respect for everything around us. But also the understanding that we got to be part of the solution and part of the balance.

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I believe that for this part of the Hemisphere we are the first scientists. We are the first architects, hydrologists, astronomers, engineers, and biologists. What is science? The observation of how things react, act, and what are the consequences. It is the trial and error. I think that because we don’t write things down, the western world thought our knowledge was illegitimate. Our theories could not be written down or peer reviewed. But we were always testing theories.

I believe that as we move forward, there is still a lot of knowledge within our elders and our language that can only accessed by the speakers of the language. What is really important is to keep carrying that on. As we move forward, we need to remember that there is validity in what our ancestors observed for thousands of years. We make decisions based on the western world which is only maybe the last couple hundred years, but within our language and stories we have knowledge for thousands of years.

So are we going to base it on this little segment of time? Great, it’s written down, but we have this whole encyclopedia that goes way beyond that amount of time. Why can’t we incorporate that knowledge into good decision making in the current time?

High Water Mark came out of my former business partner and my desire to continue work for the community of Cochiti. Back in 2011 there was the Las Conchas Fire and there was a good deal of flooding, specifically here in the Peralta Watershed where the main Cochiti Village sits. We were working for the Pueblo under another company to do post-fire mitigation efforts. In that work, we focused a lot of our time trying to get resources for the Pueblo. Half an inch in the upper watershed, which is an annual or bi-annual rain event, and we would hear the big boulders coming down. The Peralta Watershed is like a funnel and Cochiti sits at the bottom of that funnel.

My former business partner and I spend a great deal of time getting people to realize that this was a big issue in Cochiti. In 2013 those resources finally started rolling in and we were starting to implement some big infrastructure projects. During this time, my previous company had been awarded a Master Task Agreement for work up at the labs and they wanted me to run one of the points of the contract, but we still had work to do here in Cochiti.

I asked my former business partner if he still wanted to do work in Cochiti and he answered, “absolutely!” We had made agreements with the Pueblo, to the people here, so we decided to start High Water Mark. We stood it up in a week! We gave our resignations and we told the leadership at Cochiti Pueblo.

Through our work with Cochiti we learned a great deal of how to navigate the federal resources. 2 days after we gave our resignations, the whole middle Rio Grande flooded, so all the communities needed somebody to help them navigate and we would share the information with them whether we were on contract or not. We just wanted the communities to be resilient and have the resources they need to protect their people. And 2 months later the whole state flooded. In a sense, we were lucky that we were fully billable when we started High Water Mark. It just came out of a need to help communities.

We don’t control mother nature. It is not within our understanding that we can control mother nature. If we build a dam, in essence that is trying to control mother nature. That’s what happened with the Cochiti Lake Dam, it’s a control.

Phoebe Suina with her children 4

The advice I would give them [someone from a minority group pursuing a degree in the sciences] is to pursue their interest and their gifts. To pursue what makes their heart happy. If it is indeed in the sciences, to know that there is going to be those hard times. If you really want something, you work hard for it, and then you don’t take it for granted.

I talk a lot with the youth of Cochiti and the Pueblos and I always tell them, “We need you! Your our next generation of warriors.” Back in the day, our warriors had to carry bow-and-arrows and in essence we are stewarding and protecting our lands through education. Through knowledge of legal aspects, through engineering, knowledge of biology, and knowledge of all of these things within our environment to be able to speak that language to the outside, to western America. I think we need those individuals and I encourage them to learn that language but also be rooted and participate in our traditions here at Cochiti.

My grandma from San Felipe says, “It’s hard to be a Pueblo Indian, because we have so many commitments here within the Pueblo.” It among the participation in your community that you maintain strength.

I want to give thanks to my grandma’s and grandpa’s and ancestors because if they didn’t face these challenges of their times and have been strong, we wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t be here. They sacrificed and they worked hard. They went through a lot for me to still be a Cochiti Pueblo woman. I hope that whatever I do in my time here on earth that I can contribute to that legacy of providing an environment and a community for the youth that comes from that essence of our grandma’s and grandpa’s. My hope is that we are a strong community and that we also recognize this long history of knowledge and it’s validity. That we consider our traditions in our decision making process. The only way that we can access this encyclopedia is through language and the lessons that are contained through our language. I have this dream that when I am in my 70s or 80s that I am fluent [in the Keres language]. That I will be speaking 99% Keres and I wish that for my kids too. I hope that our leadership can make that a priority.

When your a child it is so much easier to learn languages. You’re a sponge! There is that sensitive period from birth to 5 years old where language really gets into your brain. The consciousness of consistently speaking to our children and amongst ourselves in Keres. English [language] is all around us and it is strong, but we have to be just as strong to maintain our Keres language. For our community to be whole and to be strong.

Phoebe Suina with her Children 3

Photo Credits: Jim Holbrook


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