Water: the real test of <br>sovereignty for the Navajo Nation<br>
“I’m going to pick on lawyers.” Dr. Jack Utter, a hydrologist for the Navajo Nation stands at the front of the Tuba City Chapter House on January 26, where members of the To’Nanees Dizi’ Chapter, as well as guests from many other chapters, are meeting to discuss Navajo Nation water rights.
“I used to timid. I used to be afraid,” he says. And although he wants to keep a low profile, he is determined to “tell the truth.” According to Utter, the Navajo Nation has been cheated out of billion of dollars in water rights.
Utter says that this is no secret to many water rights attorneys, scholars, students, activists and others outside the Navajo Nation.
Louise Yellowman, Coconino County Supervisor, agrees. “There is more and more concern growing among the Navajo people about the status of our water rights. Questions are growing among the Navajo people about the status of our water rights. Questions are going around, asking ‘who is running our rights—is it the council or the lawyers? Who is really in charge?”
In an open letter published in the Navajo Times in September, Utter (who states that he speaks for himself and not the government) points to Navajo Nation attorneys, specifically Britt Clapham, Stanley Pollack and Steve Boos. A joint committee, headed by Councilman Ervin Keeswood, was formed in December to determine the truth of Utter’s controversial allegations, and in the meantime, Utter has developed a following of people who believe that what he says is true.
Michael Bilagody has live in Tuba City for most of his life. Except for a stint in the Marine Corps and various trips off the reservation, he is deeply rooted in his community. Perched on his heels in a corner, Bilagody speaks quietly of the importance of water. “We all need it to survive,” he explains. “Water is life, but water is also money. You have to remember, water runs downhill.”
The Navajo and Hopi Nations, he explains, lack the capability of storing water, and therefore have not been afforded their share of this valuable resource. “We need to come together, learn to practice reciprocation. Large corporations have made billions of dollars from the use of water to generate electricity.” The Nation may be unable to directly utilize their fair share of water, Bilagody says, however it should receive the monetary value for that water.
Bilagody has kept an eye on other important issues affecting Western Navajo. Much of his family, including himself, has lived under the onus of the Bennett Freeze. He understands that had the Nation received its fair value for Colorado River water, life could have been very different for himself and his family.
Then there are the redistricting efforts.
Boundary lines are very important, Bilagody explains. Not only land surface, but the minerals and natural resources beneath that land, will be affected. That will include the rights to groundwater, he points out. “We need to be very careful about where those lines are drawn.”
Yellowman has spent a good part of her life working on water issues—beginning in the 1960s when she served as Chapter secretary, participating in the drafting of resolutions pleading for more water for the community. Now, as a Coconino County Supervisor, she has become one of Utter’s better know supporters. She also names Milton Bluehouse, Jr., Seymore Tso, Daniel Peaches, Leonard Gilmore and others as eye-openers, and commends their courage for coming out in the media to address the water issue.
She believes that, in the end, water will be the real test of sovereignty
Utter explains that the Colorado River, to which the Navajo Nation potentially holds the largest single claim, serves 32 million people. “They’ve been scared to death of Navajo on the outside because they thought the sleeping giant might wake up and say ‘we want our water.’”
Navajo Nation Council members are aware that many people see the Navajo Nation as a puppet dancing at the end of strings held by biligaana lawyers. During the hearings, Keeswood stated that he was aware that people believed the council was led and misled by attorneys and he is determined to get to the truth behind Utter’s allegations.
During his own testimony during the joint committee, Pollack denied Utter’s allegations, stating that they were reckless and libelous. “I believe we are pursuing all matters with great diligence,” he said.
Still, Utter has become a hero to many Navajos on the Western Agency. Many have shared their traditional viewpoints concerning water issues. “There are some things that have always been missing from the Navajo Nation’s water rights strategy,” Utter read in Navajo from testimony he tried to deliver in Window Rock. “The elders tell me they are Navajo wisdom and Navajo intelligence.”
Someone has posted two large posters toward the front of the chapter house with the words of Wilson Aronlith, Jr.
“Always remember that the greatest power that has been given to you by the Holy People is the power to choose.”
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