by Antonia Gonzales and Sarah Gustavus
Native organizations and advocates across the United States are seeking to get young Native people to switch from drinking sugary beverages, such as soda and energy drinks, to water. The Service To All Relations School, known as the STAR School, near the Navajo reservation in Flagstaff, Arizona is one place efforts are underway to encourage students to drink water while also identifying ways to address the longstanding lack of access to clean water in their homes. Pauline Butler grew up on the reservation. She’s the STAR School’s Coordinator of Community Happiness, but many of the students know her as the water lady. The school’s drinking water is filtered, but for many students drinking water regularly is not likely a habit. Butler works to help them enjoy choosing water.
“(I’m) trying to get people to get a little more healthy, stay away from SSBs, sugar sweetened beverages,” said Butler. “I don’t like the fact that a lot of the students are drinking more of the SSBs than they should be.”
Soda is banned during school hours, but sugary drink options are still widely available in the community. Butler and other educators at the school are making water more inviting to children by infusing flavors such as citrus, mint and vegetable blends. Infused water dispensers can often be found in the classroom and in the cafeteria. Young people are asked to bring water bottles to school for use throughout the day. The school received a Water First Community grant from the Notah Begay Third Foundation (NB3), which provided funds for the school to design water bottles with the words “no soda” in both Navajo and English. The NB3 Foundation, which works with grantees across the country, is dedicated to reducing childhood obesity and diabetes. Federal statistics show, by age 10, nearly 50 percent of Native American children are classified as overweight or obese. Health experts recommend moving away from consuming sugar-sweetened drinks as one step in addressing childhood obesity.
Not only is the school working to address diseases like diabetes, students and staff are pursuing improved water quality for Navajo community members through a water filtration system on a decommissioned school bus. Most of the seats have been removed from the 70 seat yellow bus, now retrofitted with a Nano filtration unit, which scientists from the University of Arizona designed. According to the Navajo Housing Authority, more than half of households on the Navajo Nation have no indoor plumbing, which means families have to haul water for cooking, cleaning and livestock. Many people from the Navajo reservation would rather buy water to drink than consume well water, according to school officials.
“It’s a tragedy families can purchase soda much cheaper,” said STAR School CEO Mark Sorensen. He said the mobile filtration unit was designed as both a teaching tool and to improve the bad taste and smell of local well water. “We looked at what contaminants were in our wells and we got instruments to measure that so now the students can learn how to test the water that comes out of the wells,” said Sorensen. “Then we can filter the water and then they can test the water after it’s been filtered and they can see for themselves the difference.”
The unit can filter around 500 gallons of purified water a day. Plans for the solar powered mobile unit include helping families filter well water on the nearby Navajo reservation. The Pre-K through eighth grade public charter school serves students from the Southwest corner of the Navajo Nation. Educators and students decided to tackle the water quality issue to make well water more palatable. It is not just smell and taste, people know some wells in their community are contaminated. The Navajo Nation was a key place for uranium mining from the 1940s through the 1980s. According to federal and tribal studies, many water sources have shown elevated levels of radiation and heavy metals throughout Navajo land. Water is also sacred to many Navajo people, especially around arid areas of the reservation.
“Water is one of the primary substances we sing about and chant about in our creation and journey narrative,” said Philmer Bluehouse, a traditional Navajo practitioner and a school advisor. Bluehouse sees a value in young people understanding both the science behind water management and its cultural value. “There’s a revival among the youth, they are reconnecting with culture (at the school) here and other places on the reservation,” said Bluehouse.
Many of the students at the school have pledged to be water warriors when the bus travels to nearby communities and educators are seeing students choose to drink water through the school’s initiative. A water filtration bus may not address the water infrastructure needs on the Navajo Nation, which water experts believe are likely in the hundreds of millions of dollars on the vast Navajo reservation. Yet, people at the school including Mark Sorensen think empowering young people to see themselves as problem solvers could lead to real changes in the health and well-being of the Navajo Nation in the future.