Navajo OKs Water Rights Settlement
By Kathy Helms
WINDOW ROCK – Surrounded by murals of their ancestors, the Navajo Nation Council voted 51-24 Thursday to approve the Northeastern Arizona Water Rights Settlement in front of an overflow crowd of grassroots opposition that filled the historic Council Chamber.
Jones Benally, an internationally acclaimed hoop dancer and traditional Navajo medicine man originally from Black Mesa, came from Flagstaff with his family to stand strong for his people. He offered a prayer to the four directions.
“Our future is water, so we're here to make sure that they vote 'no' and our Council hears us,” Clayson Benally said.
“Within our traditional history as Navajo people, the very traditional belief of our people is that the reason the previous world was destroyed was because the coyote – the ma'ii – stole the water babies, and that's the future of our water. And today these politicians, who are exactly ma'iis, or exactly coyotes, they're crafting these laws, basically to get at money or whatever, and they're acting with that same kind of trickster nature of coyote; and here we go once again where the coyote is trying to steal the water babies,” he said.
Jeneda Benally, Clayson's sister, said it's important that Navajo elected officials understand that they are the voice of the people. “And our people say 'no,' that we don't want our water rights sold out underneath us, because our future generations – my daughter's great-great-great grandchildren are going to be affected by this decision, and 31,000 acre-feet of water is not enough. We need to be able to sustain ourselves as a people, and for that we need water. Water is life.”
Council Delegate Thomas Walker Jr. said that according to an Indian Health Service Report from January, there are 61,700 homes that need water on the Navajo Nation. “The Navajo Nation has always maintained that water and sanitation are priorities” he said.
“The water supply projects in the agreement will provide resources for community development such as addressing the Navajo Nation’s highest health priorities: the construction of health care facilities, providing safe drinking water and the availability of sanitation. The Navajo Nation government is responsible for these pragmatic issues and the passage of the water settlement will help in protecting and improving the quality of life for our Navajo people,” he said.
But a group of students from Fort Lewis College in Durango disagreed. Dawn Murphy said about 10 of them drove from Durango to just say “no” to the settlement. The students arrived in Window Rock around 3 a.m., slept a couple hours, and then joined in the protest march to the Council Chamber.
“Basically they're just taking our rights as Navajos. They want us to settle for 31,000 acre-feet per year, and that's not good at all for our future, so that's why we're out here to protest,” Murphy said.
Chad Yen, also a student at Fort Lewis, came to support his Navajo friends. “The reason why I'm against the water rights settlement agreement is because the water is going to be diverted to help with the Navajo Generating Station, which is one of the most polluting power plants in the country,” he said.
Arnold Yellowhorse, 70, from Tuba City also came to protest. “People want more water than 31,000 acre feet. It should be in the millions. We're growing each day. We need more for our young people. The future is what we're looking at. We want this one voted down.”
Robin Jackson of Wheatfields, who is a member of Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, addressed the crowd outside before the vote. “I am from the Near the Water Clan,” she said. “We realize how precious water is, but do the cities of Tucson and Phoenix realize how precious it is? No, they don't. They have a ton of swimming pools, spray mists. Do we have that? No, because we realize that water is sacred. ... We're thinking of the generations who have yet to come. I'm 23 years old, but I have three nieces and two nephews. What's going to be left for them?”
Inside the Council Chamber, delegates said they also were thinking of the Navajo people.
Roy Laughter told the crowd, “I know this is a sensitive subject. We're not going to please everybody.” But, he asked, “What's the guarantee we're going to get a bigger portion if we say no?”
Leonard Chee said the good thing about the settlement is there is money for water projects. “Leupp, Birdsprings and Tolani Lake would benefit the most,” he said. “I would encourage our young people to get involved at the chapter level rather than at the tail-end.”
Leonard Tsosie said the other Native American party to the settlement, the Hopi, “are always opposite us. We can't have whatever Hopi does be a driving force.”
Raymond Joe said his chapter of Blue Gap told him, “Go ahead. We need the water,” and Harold Wauneka of Fort Defiance told delegates that if the settlement is not passed, they would have to go back to the drawing board with federal and state litigation.
“It requires water to create jobs, so we cannot just continue to say no. We need to go forward,” said Lorenzo Bedonie. “The Navajo Nation Council, whether it is this Council or the next Council, it makes decisions for the good of the Navajo people.”
GloJean Todacheene said negotiations on the water rights has been occurring since 1994. “There's 33 stakeholders, two are Native Americans, which are the Hopis and the Navajo Nation ... These people get together and they negotiate,” she said, and Navajo has people such as hydrologist Jason John, Bitah Baker of the Department of Justice, and John Leeper of Water Resources in there fighting on its behalf. “This has to move forward for the next generation,” she said.
Hope MacDonald-LoneTree said she had serious concerns. “Let's be clear it is wrong to connect the right to our water and the need for water lines, We, the Navajo Nation need to determine the current and future water needs of our people, not the non-Indian parties that Miss Todacheene read off. ... The construction of waterlines should not mean the surrender of the birthright of future generations. Let's not fool ourselves, there is no funding for these pipelines that are attached to this document.”
Navajo water rights attorney Stanley Pollack said there has been a lot of confusion about whether the funding is guaranteed. “There is no way for any particular Congress to guarantee that any funding will be made by subsequent Congresses. As a result, the best that Congress can do is to authorize projects to be built and authorize funding to be spent on projects.” For this reason, he said, the settlement contains what they call a poison pill. “If Congress doesn't spend the money, no deal, and you haven't waived anything.”
Following the vote, protesters gathered outside the Council Chamber. Marie Gladeau of Black Mesa said she was really sad for the people. “I'm sorry that our leaders were not wiser today. I'm sorry that they didn't have the strength to stand up and to speak for us. What I see is they want to get rid of the biggest Indian nation here in the United States, which we are. We're the largest tribe, we're the one with the largest land base. And until a moment ago, we were the one with the largest water rights.”
George Kee of Tuba City, a former U.S. Marine with 20 years' service, who hauls water for many of the Forgotten People in the former Bennett Freeze area, said, “The councilmen have no consideration for their people. Council should have said no.”
Ed Singer, president of Cameron Chapter, said, “I guess a lot of the confusion is from the Council not being educated about this.” He said he thought they should have delayed the decision.
Norman Brown, a Navajo filmmaker and long-time activist, told the crowd, “What has happened now today is evident of why this government was created. It was created to give away our most valuable and precious resources. This is what this government has done.”
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