Citizens’ demand for water rights continues
TUBA CITY, Ariz. – Medicine man Tony Billy remembers the medal given to him when the Colorado River was dammed—and the promise that came with it. He is elderly now, but unafraid to stand and demand what rightfully belongs to his People. And so he traveled from his home in Coalmine to Tuba City on February 16 to hear what people had to say about water rights.
He isn’t alone. Louise Yellowman and Frank Bilagody are in their second meeting of the day. There isn’t enough time in the day, it appears, to deal with all of the concerns of Western Agency residents. Before lunch, uranium workers and their dependents met to discuss compensation rights. Inserted in that meeting were announcements about dealing with the need for housing and the Bennett Freeze situation.
Without breaking stride, Yellowman shifts gears into a meeting of concerned citizens who hope to win the ears of their leaders in Window Rock about Colorado River water rights—or rather, the lack of those rights.
“Water is an important issue,” Leonard Gilmore explained at the beginning of the meeting. “We want our leaders to be here to listen to us and help us solve the problems.” Gilmore, who is recognized as the president of the Dine’ Sovereignty Defense Association (DSDA), has invited other prominent leaders to stand with him—yet these are peaceful meetings. DSDA is described by its members as a group of concerned citizens sharing information. Louise Yellowman, Seymour Tso, Christine Begay and Don Yellowman are among its supporters.
Billy’s is a new face. He stands to share an event that has become a part of history. He explains that he had been invited by many important people, biligaana in charge of the dam project at Page, to bless the project at the time when the dam was being made. He witnessed the site before the first cement was poured, and he was told by interpreters that half of the water that was to pass through the dam was to belong to the Navajo. “I was told that Navajo water could be diverted to the reservation for Navajo use.
At the time of the ceremony, Billy continued, he was presented with a medal made with his name printed on it and a repeat of that promise; that half of the water would belong to the Navajo. Part of the reason he was asked to come was that he wore, as he still does, his hair in the traditional hairstyle that symbolizes Navajo water.
“Many people shook my hand, many people took my picture there,” Billy said. He saw some of those pictures at the information center.
He advises that it is important for people to work together to find a solution to the problem at hand, and though he is elderly he is willing to do his part. He intends to look for that medal, and return to the information center and ask for copies of documents made at the time when he came to bless the project.
“It seems that no one is saying or doing anything about Navajo water,” he says. “It seems we’re afraid of our own water.”
“He was telling us not to be afraid to get our own water rights. That was his purpose for coming today,” Yellowman says of Billy, as he takes his seat.
Seymour Tso has established himself as a champion for water rights. The silver-haired gentleman steps to the front of the room to speak of the interrelationship of water and sovereignty. “If we can’t get rights to our own water, then that is an indication that our sovereignty is weak.”
Tso, who up until the last election, held several terms as the president of Cameron Chapter, remembers Peter MacDonald’s efforts towards obtaining Navajo water rights. “When MacDonald was in office back in the 70s, the Council drafted a resolution for water litigation. That resolution was stashed away when MacDonald was put in jail; that’s where it got stuck, and it’s been over there collecting dust since then.”
Tribal lawyers, Tso points out, were hired by the Nation to protect Navajo rights against outside interests. Yet that is not, he believes, what is going on in Window Rock, and he urges his fellow Navajo to work with the DSDA in seeking Navajo rights to the Colorado River water. “Let’s take action now,” he says. “Let’s not wait until tomorrow.
Let’s provide material to chapter planners, pass resolutions requesting our council to work on this a little harder.”
And what of the non-Indian lawyers identified by DSDA as having failed the Navajo Nation? Tso’s answer—“Maybe we should tell them to move off the reservation, get their money elsewhere. We need this water for younger people who are going into business. We are going to have to move into the future with development for our people.”
Bilagody, who is Vice President of Cameron Chapter also questions the work of Stanley Pollack, Britt Clapham and Steve Boos. “Why does our nation need non-Navajo lawyers to tell us what our law is,” Bilagody wonders aloud. He expressed the complaints of chapter members who are frustrated by efforts to understand what is being done to establish Navajo rights to Colorado River water. Trips to Window Rock, where people hope to learn information from council meetings, are often foiled when the meetings go into executive session—a measure that excludes non-council members, the attorneys, and other government officials. The purpose is to protect sensitive material, such as legal strategy that could be spoiled if that were to leak to opponents.
Bilagody is just one individual frustrated with that process. “What do the attorneys say to the people when we try to get information? ‘We need to go into executive session.’ They don’t serve the community.” Bilagody wants to see changes in the system that provides more information to the people, to allow the voice of the people to guide their elected leaders.
“Everybody wants to know how we can get our water rights quantified—what water we have left.” That, says people like Gilmore and Tso, decreases each day as Colorado River water runs steadily downhill.
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