TUBA CITY, Ariz. - U.S. Senators Jon Kyl and John McCain traveled to Tuba City April 5 to meet with Hopi and Navajo tribal leaders.
Accompanied by bodyguards, they did not stay long after they were booed, hissed and jeered by Hopi, Navajo and non-Native crowd. A protest erupted, with the crowd showing their displeasure with the two senators' closed meeting discussions with Hopi and Navajo leaders over one of their most precious tribal resources - water.
While Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly was finally forced to take public responsibility for initiating the northeastern Arizona visit by Republican Senators Kyl and McCain via a press release issued on April 4, the Navajo portion of the senatorial visit was to urge Navajo council delegates to move quickly to help push through the water rights settlement agreement through Congress before this session and Kyl's term of office ends.
However, in a press release issued by Hopi Chairman Leroy Shingoitewa on April 6, Shingoitewa continued to claim that the Hopi portion of the senatorial visit was only to discuss "items of concern" not related to the Little Colorado River Water Settlement agreement.
Shingoitewa's senatorial meeting agenda cited on the April 6 press release that the Hopi Council and its Water and Energy Team and council members were only going to discuss Hopi land acquisitions, environmental contamination issues, federal funding request for a new detention facility, and a request for a new school for Third Mesa area elementary students. A final disclaimer stated that "the 2012 Little Colorado Water Rights Settlement was not the focus of discussion between the senators and Hopi tribal leaders."
Hopi and Navajo tribal members at the protest responded to the Hopi and Navajo press release statements.
"Then why all the secrecy? Why the closed doors to the Hopi and Navajo public and why can't we as Hopi and Navajo members be allowed to listen in on these senate visits when it's our water and our communal concerns that are being discussed? If it's nothing to alarm us, there should be complete transparency," said Martha Berman. Berman is a Navajo member from Canoncito (To'haajilee') area near Albuquerque who drove with her sister the night before to be at the joint tribal Tuba City protest against the Little Colorado Water Rights Settlement agreement.
While Navajo President Ben Shelly addressed his own tribal people in a public press conference in uptown Tuba, Shingoitewa never left the Moencopi Legacy Inn to face his own tribal members who were standing outside the hotel parking lot waiting to hear from him on their concerns regarding their water.
Hopi police officers blocked the entrance to the Legacy Inn, not allowing any Hopi tribal members into the closed meeting.
SB 2109, introduced by Kyl in February, would require that both tribes "waive" all claims to the Little Colorado River water in exchange for three groundwater projects that would deliver drinking water to homes on both Hopi and Navajo who currently don't have running water. The senators both admitted that their plan needs full tribal approval before they can go forward.
"We must decide whether we will support or not support this water act as soon as possible. This is partly because the current session of Congress is closing if we're going to get this through," said Erny Zah, press officer for Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly. President Shelly did issue an additional press release last week, which indicated that there will be a series of seven public meetings for his Navajo people. Shelly said that comments from those public sessions will be submitted to their tribal council on the Little Colorado River Settlement agreement,
Navajo tribal member Louise Benally expressed doubt about the success of that plan.
"How are seven meetings going to help us? We have over 100 chapters and many Navajos do not have access to vehicles to get to these limited seven meetings. If Ben Shelly or Rex Jim really wanted to hear from all of us, then they need to go to every single chapter even if that takes more time and money and translation from English into Navajo. That's how important this water issue is to us," said Benally.
Hopi opponents of the Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement such as Benjamin Nuvamsa, Vernon Masayesva and Ivan Sidney - all former Hopi chairmen - have cautioned that the Little Colorado River proposal settlement agreement is nothing but empty promises.
"While Kyl, McCain, Shingoitewa and Shelly say they will provide much needed water to our communities, the groundwater projects for our people will come at a great and much more far reaching expense than just money. They also want us to forever extinguish and waive our future claims over our water rights and water quality, which will result in loss of our traditional values, culture, ceremonies and our sovereignty," said Nuvamsa.
Both Hopi and Navajo tribal officials are now having to "back-pedal" on their preliminary senatorial "agreement in principle" that was referenced on a Feb. 17 letter from Jon Kyl to Sandy Fabritz-Whitney, director at the Arizona Department of Resources. The letter references "minor tribal issues that must be resolved" because the bill requires full tribal consent.
Heavy police presence from federal, tribal and Department of Public Safety officers at the peaceable protest also was a concern for both tribes' members who wanted to be heard and visible against the Kyl and McCain visit.
Former Hopi tribal chairman Vernon Masayesva was one of the Navajo Police protest casualties. Masayesva was knocked to the floor at the Hogan Restaurant council meeting as he was trying to gain access along with former Navajo Nation President Milton Bluehouse to listen to the closed meeting topic.
"I was not even afforded the respect as a former Hopi chairman and long-time Hopi advocate of water rights, to listen in. I was instead shoved out of the meeting, knocked down and to make it worse, I was asked to leave the restaurant after sitting down inside to get something to eat by the restaurant manager. Who treats their own people like this? We are here to have our own voices heard about water and that is not being honored," said Masayesva.
Both tribal leaders have since issued press statements saying they will provide more public education sessions with open transparency for their tribal members.
"Let's see how accountable and honest Shingoitewa and Shelly are going to be, since we all heard and witnessed their promises about more public participation and input," said Lawrence Hamana, Hopi tribal member from Moencopi Village. He traveled from Phoenix to be at the Tuba City protest.
A large portion of the success of the joint tribal protest march was due to technology with email, social websites like Facebook postings and cell phone interaction between several of the Hopi and Navajo grassroots organizers.
A strong cross-tribal support system has gained much support between Hopi and Navajo tribal community members who are technology savvy and have finely honed research skills, which has built up a tight cross-tribal "Kill the Bill" movement.
"It's amazing what we can do in our own research for public documents, including information from Congress, with 'Google' and world web information at our fingertips. Public information is there for us as community members to check on environmental, science and federal, state financial information, we can quickly find out facts to help support our opposition to SB 2109," stated one young Hopi tribal member from Hotevilla who was with his mom at the protest.
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