Native American Perspectives on Water

Feb 22, 2017

Ledger art depicting a man and two women by Arapaho artist Hinono'eiteen (1862-1885), ca. 1882
Credit Frank Henderson / Metropolitan Museum Collection

Denise Low’s grandfather of Delaware Indian heritage was among the dislocated Eastern Natives who settled on the Kansas Plains of the 19th Century.  As one might guess, history and heritage both are important to her story as they are for many Native American poets and writers.

Today, Denise, a former Kansas Poet Laureate and a valued friend to the Radio Readers Book Club, explores shares the thoughts of some of her colleagues around the topic of water.

In the near desert Great Plains, waterways define the land for Native peoples.

N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa writer and 1968 Pulitzer Prize winner, begins a description of his home place in Kiowa country: “Some of my earliest memories are of the summers on Rainy Mountain Creek, when we lived in the arbor, on the north side of my grandmother’s house.” This is from Momaday’s book The Way to Rainy Mountain. He goes on to describe the landscape he viewed from the arbor, “the long sweep of the earth itself, curving out on the sky,” and essential to his life is water, what he draws from a well near Rainy Mountain Creek (61). He also writes about the Washita River, about its slow current and “warm, brown water,” and its wildlife—dragonfly, water strider, a frog (31). He reflects on the magical quality of water, how it reflects his image.

In the dry southern plains and canyons, Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo writer, describes the sources for water in New Mexico. In her novel Ceremony, drought is a theme, and also how to survive drought. Silko writes: “The dark orange sandstone formation held springs. . . all along the base of the sandstone where wind and erosion had cut narrow canyons into the rock. These springs came from deep within the earth, and the people relied upon them even when the sky was barren and the winds were hot and dusty (Ceremony 94). The earth’s depths protect the life-giving water.

Years ago I visited Utah and met the poet David Lee. It was he who first explained spiral petroglyphs to me, how often these water-related glyphs indicate the locations of springs. Maps of water, like these literary maps of words, are essential to human survival in our home, the so-called Great American Desert. Both water and words are essential to human existence. 508 words

Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians. Vol. 1. Yale University Press, 1923.

Momaday, N. Scott. The Way to Rainy Mountain. University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. Viking, 1977.

Wild Hog Ledger-Kansas State Historical Society “Pictures Drawn by Wild Hog and Other Cheyenne Indians.” Kansas, Kansas State Historical Society, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply.

Wild Hog Ledger-Schoyen, Plate 9, page 7. Mandeville Library and Plains Indian Ledger Art Publishing Project, U.C. San Diego, La Jolla, California. View the complete book at