Fort Defiance audience opposes water deal

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

FORT DEFIANCE, May 3, 2012

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T he last of the town hall meetings about the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Settlement Agreement did not end without a lively discussion.

Like the previous meetings, the Water Rights Commission made a 90-minute PowerPoint presentation before hearing comments from the audience with the majority disagreeing with the settlement and its companion Senate Bill 2109.

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Heavy police presence mars Fort Defiance meeting

About 240 people attended the April 26 meeting but President Ben Shelly was absent and Vice President Rex Lee Jim arrived 30 minutes after it started.

Among the opposition was Brandon Benallie who drove from Tempe, Ariz., to attend the meeting.

"Water from a faucet doesn't solve poverty," Benallie said. "There are plenty of Third World countries that have running water and the reason why we are in that state is because of the leadership. The way this administration has been acting it might as well be a country with running water but Third World leadership."

He went on to ask the people to raise their hands if they supported the settlement but no one did. Then he asked for those who are against the settlement to do the same, almost everyone in the audience raised their hands.

Benallie turned from the audience and spoke directly to Jim, who sat facing the room.

"Mr. Vice President, the people have spoken," Benallie said.

Throughout the brief encounter, Jim did not make eye contact or acknowledge Benallie.

Irma Bluehouse, from Ganado, Ariz., suggested the Shelly administration develop a detailed list showing the settlement's benefits and drawbacks and present that information to the people instead of a presentation that was difficult to understand.

"To me, it looks like we are already sold down the drain," Bluehouse said.

Fort Defiance resident LeNora Fulton asked that an entire day be devoted to public education and gathering public comments and that the meetings should have been held in bigger venues.

"Is there a timeline? Why are we in a rush?" she said. "There's a lot of questions that people are asking."

Fulton's comments received cheers and applause but when moderator Bessie Yellowhair-Simpson received the microphone from Fulton, Yellowhair-Simpson said, "That's a politician for you," before continuing the meeting.

Both Fulton and Yellowhair-Simpson are members of the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors.




Throughout the evening, people asked leaders to continue to examine the settlement and not make any hasty decisions. They also questioned the bill's language, along with the inclusion of Navajo Generating Station in the deal and why no meetings were conducted in urban areas.

Yellowhair-Simpson said this was not the last public meeting and the Water Rights Commission would continue presenting information to the public.

On Wednesday, a staff member from the commission office said the commissioners are scheduling more meetings then added that some made individual presentations at Black Mesa and Tonalea chapters.

Besides water, another topic was the heavy police presence at the meeting.

Navajo Nation Police had blocked Navajo Route 112, which runs between Fort Defiance and St. Michaels. Parked along the road were police units and a mobile unit from the Shiprock District.

In addition to that, police blocked access to the chapter house parking lot and officers checked bags and screened people with hand-held metal detectors.

During Fulton's comments, she denounced this action.

"We have a lot of police officers and thank heavens for them being here on the nation but they don't need to be here to guard us," she said.

Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who represents eight chapters in the Eastern Agency, said he noticed the police presence at the other meetings. He had asked the administration to reduce the number of officers because there was no explanation for such action.

"I want to apologize for the police presence," Tsosie said. "Don't hold it against the police officers, it's people that ordered them to do that."

After hearing two more comments, Yellowhair-Simpson said the meeting was ending with the vice president's remarks followed by him singing a traditional song.

In his comments, Jim said Shelly met with Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is co-sponsoring the Senate bill with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in Washington, D.C. but did not provide further information.

In a press release issued Tuesday by the Navajo Nation Washington Office, the leaders met for an hour to discuss concerns raised by the public, potential changes to the bill that would clarify portions of the legislation and objections made by the public and the Navajo Nation Council concerning provisions related to the Navajo Generating Station.

As Jim prepared to sing, Jason Brock, a member of Occupy Walk USA, yelled from the back of the room that he signed up to speak but his name was not called.

Jim did not acknowledge Brock's statement and began to sing.

Another man stood and shouted that he did not get to speak then a woman stood and announced that her father signed up too and was not called.

Throughout the shouting, Jim did not stop singing.

After the meeting was over, Brock explained that Occupy Walk USA is a group walking across the United States to show solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement.

During the group's walk through the Navajo Nation, they learned about the water settlement and they are supporting the opinions of the Navajo people, he said.

"Water rights is a worldwide issue," Brock said. "Water is life, remember that."

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