Kyl, McCain meet with leaders amidst protests

By Alistair Mountz
Special to the Times

TUBA CITY, April 12, 2012

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(Special to the Times - Alistair Mountz)

TOP: Vincent Yazzie of Flagstaff drove to the protest in Tuba City April 5 from Flagstaff with his mother. Yazzie summarized S. 2109 for a large crowd at the Rocky Ridge Water Conference March 28 and said of the ground water delivery projects promised to each tribe in the settlement agreement, "I call them dream water projects. It's kinda like that guy in Popeye. That guy that asks for burgers. He'll pay you later."

BOTTOM: Protesters were out in force Thursday as President Ben Shelly and a delegation of Navajo leaders met with U.S. senators Jon Kyl and John McCain about Kyl's controversial water rights bill.

P resident Ben Shelly, Vice President Rex Lee Jim and 13 Council delegates met April 5 with Arizona Republican senators Jon Kyl and John McCain to discuss the proposed Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Settlement Agreement and the Bennett Freeze area.

Outside the conference room of the Hogan Restaurant in Tuba City, where the meeting took place, over 200 protesters from across the Navajo Nation gathered under the gaze of a large police presence to tell those leaders one thing, "Dooda water settlement!"


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Proposed Settlement

Among those who came for the meeting was Milton Bluehouse Sr. The former chairman of the Navajo Tribe said he fully expected to get into the meeting because Shelly had invited him while standing in front of the restaurant. That's until Bluehouse met a line of Navajo Nation Police inside the restaurant who he said grabbed his coat and forced him out of the building.

"I'm here on behalf of the public," Bluehouse said afterward. "The public needs to hear and if they throw me out they'll hear about it. In a democracy you don't get behind closed doors."

The meeting, which was not open to the public, was intended to be a "government-to-government" encounter, Shelly said last week.

Former Hopi Chairman Vernon Masayesva fared no better.

"I wasn't here to talk, just to listen," Masayesva said, adding that he attempted to enter the meeting and was pushed to the floor by the police and then refused service by the restaurant's manager.

In fact, an assortment of former tribal leaders, grassroots activists and private citizens were denied entrance with a few simply sitting at the restaurant tables refusing to leave.

Once police took control of the restaurant, protesters waited anxiously outside for the leaders to exit the meeting. As soon as the senators left in a long line of SUVs and BIA police cars, the crowd of protesters turned its frustration toward Shelly.

Shelly confronted

Shelly and a handful of Navajo Nation Council delegates tried to make it to a stage set up in the parking lot for an informal press conference about the meeting, but within a few feet of leaving the restaurant was totally encircled by loud protesters with chants of "Sellout!" and "Recall Shelly!"

The protesters pressed in so tightly that police moved Shelly back to the building entrance and formed a protective cordon before walking him to the stage.

It didn't get any easier for Shelly when he finally got on stage. Despite Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize's short speech calling for "transparency" and patience with the settlement agreement, the crowd shouted Shelly down and would not let him speak once he got the microphone after Naize.

Shelly, who had managed to smile through the entire ordeal so far, was now visibly agitated with the crowd.

"You want me to talk or not talk? Hush up!" he said, and then threatened to leave, handing the microphone to a nearby delegate and walking away.

It looked like he was ready to give up trying to talk when a respected local leader, retired Coconino County Supervisor Louise Yellowman, stood between the police and the crowd waving her arms and pleading in Navajo for the crowd to listen.

Shelly started again to explain the reason for meeting with Kyl and McCain.

"There's an agreement that was done by the attorney, the Navajo Nation attorney," he said, speaking in a mixture of Navajo and English. "What needs to happen is this agreement must be agreed to by the Navajo people. We're gonna do town hall meetings. You are to say yes or no. Your concern will be heard. Then it will go the Navajo Nation Council. They'll need to approve it. If they don't approve it, (Senate Bill) 2109 won't go."

"There's 110 chapters, that's not enough meetings," one woman called out, referring to seven public forums Shelly has scheduled to inform tribal members about the proposed settlement.

Shelly did not respond, outraging the crowd. As the chants and boos rose he managed a last statement: "That is the truth. It has to come from you, remember that!"

Shelly spokesman Erny Zah, speaking after the president had left the stage, said he was not granting media interviews.

Water lawyer speaks

Meanwhile, the water rights attorney Shelly referenced was on the radio answering questions about Senate Bill 2109, the bill that Kyl and McCain are sponsoring to ratify the proposed water settlement.

Stanley Pollock, whose official title is assistant attorney general, Water Rights Unit, Navajo Nation Department of Justice, was a guest on "Native America Calling."

Talking on the phone from his hometown of Ann Arbor, Mich., Pollack said, "We wanted to do this on Senator Kyl's watch because he's an influential senator.

"He was instrumental in each of the Indian water rights settlements in Arizona," Pollack said. "The idea here is that it takes a long time to get a bill through Congress and it is the parties' hope that this bill can be approved by Congress in this session, in this particular Congress, before Senator Kyl retires."

Kyl has said he will step down at the end of this term, which ends in December. McCain will continue and is on the Indian Affairs Committee where SB 2109 will start its journey to becoming a law, if both tribes agree to the settlement.

Pollack said, "The public has asked, 'Why has a bill been introduced when the tribes have not approved the settlement?'

"The short answer to that is, it was introduced just to get the legislative process moving," he said. "But Senator Kyl has made it very clear that this bill will not go up for hearing until the settlement has been approved by the Navajo and Hopi tribes."

Council Delegate Dwight Witherspoon (Forest Lake/Hardrock/Kéts'éélé/Piñon/Whippoorwill) reiterated Pollack's point when asked about Kyl's role after the Tuba City meeting.

"You need a champion to move it forward, but he was clear: The public has to be informed and make a decision and then the process can move forward," Witherspoon said.

The Navajo Nation Council is expected to vote on the settlement agreement soon after the public forums are held. The first one is scheduled Tuesday, April 17, from 4-7 p.m. at Greyhills Academy High School in Tuba City. Forums will be held Wednesday, April 18, in the Piñon High School auditorium and Thursday, April 19, in Ganado Chapter.

Forums are also scheduled April 20 in Oak Springs Chapter, April 24 in Leupp Chapter, April 25 in Teesto Chapter, and April 26 in Fort Defiance Chapter.

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