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Interior Provides Latest Confusion in Little Colorado River Issue

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People on all sides of the presumably failed Navajo Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act are regrouping after an invitation by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to try to push the controversial measure through during Congress’s lame duck session. Navajo activists and government representatives alike have been puzzled by conflicting accounts of a September 28 visit by Salazar to Navajo government offices in Window Rock – and a follow-up meeting, planned for November 14 in Washington, D.C. Reports first emerged last week that the November 14 meeting would be focused on the controversial settlement and its companion Senate Bill 2109, when a letter was leaked to anti-settlement activists. “The purpose of this meeting is for the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe to discuss mutual issues of concerns namely the Little Colorado River Settlement, Navajo Generating Station, and Bennett Freeze rebuilding,” wrote Navajo Nation Washington Office Executive Director Clara Pratt, in the memo addressed to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Navajo Nation Council Speaker Johnny Naize. “Importantly and what we anticipate the majority of the meeting will focus on is their concerns regarding the Little Colorado River Settlement.” The memo goes on to outline a strategy: “The Secretary believes that if the Tribes can come to agreement on portions of the settlement that have raised the most objections, he can convince Senator Jon Kyl to make changes to the settlement. If the settlement can be changed there may be a window of opportunity for passage during the upcoming ‘Lame Duck’ Congress after the November election.” On first hearing of Salazar’s intentions, Shelly’s spokesman Erny Zah was taken aback. “Most of the talk revolved around Hopi Partition Lands and the Bennett Freeze area,” he said of the September 28 meeting with representatives from the Council and the executive branch. “When Secretary Salazar responded, it was a general kind of response. He wasn’t pushing any agendas. The phrase ‘Lame Duck’ never came up. It was a listening session for him.” As far as Shelly’s staff is concerned, the president is past pushing for the settlement. “The president addressed water rights at the state of the nation,” Zah said, referring to a 17-minute speech delivered October 15. “He said to the council, ‘I tried to educate people, and nobody wanted it. You have a Water Task Force now, It’s up to you guys what you want to do with water rights.’ That’s the way it’s viewed here in Window Rock.” The Navajo legislative branch also appears to have been surprised by the agenda for the November 14 meeting in Washington, D.C. In an October 18 memo addressed “to whom it may concern,” Naize wrote that Salazar indeed invited Navajo representatives to attend a meeting in Washington the week of November 12, “with little emphasis on specifically what priorities the Secretary wishes to discuss.” Because of the ambiguity of the invitation, the memo goes on to explain, Naize and the council members saw no reason to notify the public about the upcoming meeting. As soon as Salazar’s letter came out clarifying an agenda, Naize shared it with members of the Naa’bik’iyati’ Water Rights Settlement Task Force, which happened to be meeting the same day. Nicole Horseherder, a grassroots activist who fought the settlement, participates in an advisory capacity. "Any talks on the LCR are premature, from a grassroots point of view," she said. Horseherder added that the best she feels the council could do at this point is to educate Salazar on more general aspects of the proposed water settlement. For example, "the Secretary of Interior, being the trust responsible party, could take back some of his authority over the rights of Indian people. Right now the LCR is being adjudicated in the state of Arizona, and the state of Arizona is not Indian-friendly at all." Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa has also been invited to the November 14 meeting, and he says he plans to attend with an open mind. Before the Navajo Tribal Council killed the settlement in a 15-1 vote on July 5, the Hopi Tribal Council had voted for the settlement – but against its companion Senate Bill, 2109, endorsed by Kyl and Sen. John McCain. “The Hopi are not the ones who have got to make a decision,” Shingoitewa said. “We went in and made our vote in regards to that. Really it’s the Navajo Nation that’s got to decide what they want to do. The issue for me is where is the water going to come from? The future of water for the Hopis will be determined by whether we’re able to get some kind of system in place.” Like Shelly, Shingoitewa had lauded the settlement for its promises of pipelines to deliver clean drinking water to parts of both reservations that lack it. Shingoitewa’s comments this week contrasted in tone with an August 31 letter that’s been widely circulated to the press, in which he wrote to Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes, “we are most gravely concerned about any implications that the right of the Hopi people to have clean and reliable water depends on the tender mercies of the Navajo Tribe toward the Hopi people … We know of no other tribe in the country whose rights to water hinge upon, and may be held ransom by, the political machinations of another tribe."

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