Activists want Benally to head water task force

By Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, August 9, 2012

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A n alliance of Navajo grassroots organizations is recommending the appointment of Council Delegate Katherine Benally to head the effort to re-negotiate a water rights settlement to govern the Little Colorado River.

Speaker Johnny Naize is recommending that he, as speaker, handle that job. Naize was directed by the Council to set up a water rights task force when the delegates voted July 5 against the Navajo Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Agreement proposed by President Ben Shelly.

Benally, who chairs the Council's Resources and Development Committee, has been a vocal critic of the agreement and the enabling legislation that would make it law.

The Diné Water Rights Committee is comprised of the Forgotten People Corp., Black Mesa Water Coalition, To Nizhóní ání, Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment, Hada'asidi, Next Indigenous Generation, Council Advocating an Indigenous Manifesto, and individual tribal members.

According to Naize's task force legislation, the task force would be a seven-member subcommittee of the Naa'bik'iyáti Committee.

Naize nominated delegates LoRenzo Bates (Nenahnezad/Newcomb/San Juan/T'iistoh Sikaad/Tsé Daa Kaan/Upper Fruitland), Elmer P. Begay (Dilkon/Greasewood Springs/Indian Wells/Teesto/White Cone), Joshua Lavar Butler (Tó Nanees Dizí), Jonathan Nez (Navajo Mountain/Oljato/Shonto/Ts'ah bii Kin), Walter Phelps (Cameron/Coalmine Mesa/Leupp/Tolani Lake/Tsídii To'ii) and Dwight Witherspoon (Forest Lake/Hardrock/Kíts'íílí/Piñon/Whippoorwill) as task force members.

He stated that there also would be an advisory group to the task group made up of tribal members representing nongovernmental organizations, academic professionals, and Navajo traditional practitioner.

Naize recommended that the task force be authorized to involve all appropriate tribal entities, including but not limited to the Department of Justice and the Water Rights Commission, in its work.

The task force would exist until the Council approves a water rights settlement for the Little Colorado River.

The Diné Water Rights Committee hopes it goes further than that.

The committee also wants the water rights task force to negotiate the Navajos' rights to other water sources, and to revisit the Navajo-New Mexico San Juan River Water Rights Settlement.

In formal comments on Naize's task force proposal, the committee said that when the New Mexico San Juan River settlement was being negotiated, "our 1849 rights were intentionally and unlawfully hidden from the Council and the people, and waived by legal staff. The canons of construction were similarly and secretly waived, allottees' constitutional rights to fair notice and a hearing were violated, all senior rights were subordinated and potential marketing damage was done to the nation in the billions of dollars."

The committee nominated the following individuals to the task force advisory group: Byron Huskon as the non-governmental organization representative, Dr. Jack Utter as the professional academic representative, and Rita Gilmore, a respected Navajo traditional practitioner.

The group recommended that the task force recruit independent professionals in the legal, water, agriculture, economic and environmental fields to serve permanently on the task force.

The experts should be Navajo or Indigenous individuals whenever possible, and if non-Native, must be experienced in Indian water rights and loyal to the Navajo people, it said, and the task force should have subpoena power.

The committee also urged the Council to follow through with its July 5 directives to replace all members of the Water Rights Commission and the Department of Justice legal team that participated in negotiating the discarded Little Colorado agreement, in order to start anew "with a clean slate," as Navajo Human Rights Commission Chair Duane "Chili" Yazzie has put it.

The committee recommended that the task force hire a new legal team and that the five agency councils nominate new water commission members.

It also urged Navajo water rights negotiators to look at two other entities that negotiated successfully, the Montana Reserved Water Rights Commission and the Gila River Indian Community.

Naize's proposed task force legislation was posted for the legally mandated five-day public comment period on July 18, and requires the approval of the Naa'bik'iyáti Committee, which is scheduled to consider it at today's meeting.

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