M.A. Student Amelia Schwartz Receives Award from UW Center for Human Rights for Work on Indigenous Water Rights

View of the Puget Sound and Discovery Park Lighthouse in Seattle

Nearing the end of the first year in the geography graduate program, M.A. student Amelia Schwartz has established a balance that seems to be working well: "I’ve figured out a way of rarely working outside of 9-5 weekdays on school. When I work on readings, I try to do them outside, or at least in comfy clothes somewhere relaxing. To keep myself from GIS burnout, I often like to create maps simply for the fun of it, with no requirements or anxiety about perfection. On weekends, my boyfriend and I have been exploring the local trails, eating dim sum, and working with our local animal shelter. Most evenings I spend relaxing, playing with my cat and our foster kitties, and learning new baking techniques; just doing things that take me out of the stressful mindset of grad school, paying rent, and trying to be a functioning adult."

Now Schwartz will have a head start on summer research with a significant award from the UW Center for Human Rights Lisa Sable Brown Fund. Named in honor of a UW alumna who "was particularly motivated by the urgency of stopping modern-day slavery and other grave forms of oppression in our world," the fund "provides financial resources to benefit graduate students to study and/or conduct research about human rights." Thanks to her advisor, Megan Ybarra, Schwartz was motivated to apply for this funding because "Water is Life, and human life cannot continue without it, [so the fund] was a good fit for my research." Together with a grant from the Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies, this award will support Schwartz's work - described as "outstanding" by Professor and Chair Sarah Elwood - that blends "GIS and remote sensing science with ethnographic interviews to work with Coast Salish Nations to better understand the impact of changing waterways on culture and environmental health." Here, Schwartz describes the project in detail and explains how water is a paramount human rights concern that will benefit from this new research.

About the project: "... [M]y argument will be that climate change will not only impact water resources and the environment, but the very cultural fabric of Coast Salish Nations. I’ll be utilizing GIS to create visual representations of the [2019 Paddle to Lummi] canoe journeys and the area, as well as hopefully a story map in thanks to the Paddle to Lummi organization. The remote sensing will be used to analyze shore change over the years to estimate how these ancestral waterways may be impacted, and therefore impact the sacred sites and practices of the Lummi Nation and surrounding Nations."

Why this is important work: "I come from a Cherokee and rural Oklahoman family, with close ties to the land, which has developed my own love and the environment and the ways Geography and GIS can work to benefit it. I work to help continue a world where the peoples that are tied to the land can keep or rebuild that relationship."

How this project has taken shape: "I knew I wanted to continue my work that I had done with water and Indigenous Nations for my undergraduate [degree], but wasn’t sure how to apply it to the locationality of Seattle and the greater region, which is very different from my home in Oklahoma. My advisor, Megan Ybarra, helped me learn more about the Coast Salish Nations and their canoeing cultures and how political and environmental divisions had been created to separate them in the past. While working on maps for her research on the Northwest Detention Center, I became more focused on the nations around the Puget Sound and how they are coping with political and environmental barriers to their water. I’ve started communications and relationship building within the Lummi Nation and will be volunteering for the 2019 Paddle to Lummi indigenous canoeing journey this summer to further my relations with the Lummi and other Puget Sound Coast Salish Tribes. I’m hoping to use my skills in water and sanitation, GIS, and ethnography to blend in westernized and 'technical' perceptions of water quality and health with oral histories and conversations with community members with close connections to the waters. By using this mixed methods approach, I hope my research can better communicate the need for environmental protections for the Puget Sound, as it not only affects the waters, it affects the people who are so tied to them."

Professor Ybarra has said that Schwartz "is equally comfortable talking about parcel data in relation to Superfund site remediation as she is discussing how to better support American Indian students in college. Her proposed project affords the opportunity to move beyond early human geographic work in counter-mapping to one that will partner with Tribes in understanding and intervening in their own environmental futures."

On the significance of this project to the advancement of human rights: "Water is life. Without it, humans could not survive. It is a resource, sold, managed, polluted, and drained throughout the world. For some communities, however, it is revered, respected, and a component of the cultural and spiritual structure of daily life. For those, the loss or degradation of their water can have devastating cultural, financial, and environmental impacts. My research 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. With my community-oriented research, I argue that damaging water resources isn’t simply a resource concern, but a human concern, as it can fray the very social structure of the lives around it. As a master’s student, this is my initial human-rights research work, but I have years of community engagement working to house and feed the people that have been left behind by capitalism and a failing justice system. This project builds on my commitment to increasing equity and access, but centers on the Indigenous community that I belong to in North America, and our fight for our waters and our lives.

…Indigenous identity is connected to the lands and waters, and our peoples’ histories within them.  This connection to the land, as well as the vulnerability to climate change is a universal Indigenous predicament; the land and water’s health is our health, and we are their protectors.  In a time of progressive climate change science, it is crucial that Indigenous people are part of the management and policy-making process and have the literature and data readily accessible. Without active engagement in the environmental and policy work on their waters, Indigenous communities are left in the dark, subject to whatever violence is created through the water.”

Congratulations to Amelia Schwartz, whose award will be celebrated at the UW Center for Human Rights Tenth Anniversary Reception on Thursday, May 23!