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Navajo power coalition grows

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. ? Guided by the philosophy of "one mind, one voice, one prayer," a growing alliance of 17 Navajo grassroots organizations is finally getting respect from the Navajo Nation Council.

After four months of organizing and a series of public meetings held across the Navajo Nation, members of the Dineh Bidziil Coalition were able to address the council in a 10-hour special session held last week on Navajo water rights, which have been the center of ongoing controversy for more than a year.

Council delegates heard testimony from coalition members who think the nation has failed miserably to assert and protect water rights for future generations. Speakers called on the council to mandate reforms in Navajo water policies.

"In 1968, the Navajo government waived its claim to Colorado River water rights for 50 years as part of a deal to build the Salt River Project power plant near Page (Ariz.)," said Max Goldtooth, representing the Din? Sovereignty Defense Association. "We think it's time to reexamine that deal and assert our water rights under the Winters Doctrine that says Indian claims take precedent.

"All these cities in the west ? Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas ? are benefiting from part of our water, and other tribes on the Colorado are finally getting a settlement. We're entitled to almost two million acre-feet of water from the Colorado. Where's ours? We have to think about what water means to our future, our children."

Before the close of the session, the council supported a resolution to create a water commission to review water policy, develop an extended water rights plan, fund staff development and fund initiatives to protect future water rights.

The water rights issue is one of several key concerns on which the coalition is focusing. Others include leadership accountability, government reform, teaching Navajo language and culture education in schools, protecting sacred sites, uranium mining and domestic violence.

Dineh Bidziil, meaning Navajo strength or power, started with 35 people who held a public meeting in mid-January to discuss how they might jointly create much needed change on the Navajo Nation.

They insist reforms must come from the Navajo people because they felt the 88-member council has largely ignored the will of the people on everything from gaming and health care to environmental protection, cultural preservation and a $10,000 pay raise the delegates voted for themselves.

On four recent issues, they say, the council has ignored voters' decisions to reduce the size of the council, to veto gaming on the reservation, to prohibit pay raises and to nix a proposal for a tribal corporation to contract operating the IHS health care system.

Posters and signs line the roads leading to the Navajo Nation Council chambers in the nation's capital, Window Rock, that voice discontent with Navajo government. Numerous marches and protests have been held there during the last three months and letters to the editor in local newspapers complain about the amount of money used by council delegates for travel and extra meetings.

DBC has quickly grown to become a recognized political movement that is demanding changes and getting some results. The coalition recently drew more than 250 people to a public rally in Shiprock, N.M., where accountability by Navajo leadership was discussed.

Its member organizations include Dineh for Better Government, the Navajo Medicine Man Association, Din? Sovereignty Defense Association, Big Mountain Resisters, Native American Youth Coalition, Eastern Navajo Uranium Workers, Din? Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, Din? Nationalists, Southwest Alliance of Navajos, the American Indian Movement and Doo'da 638, (no to 638) which opposes a tribal corporation contracting under P.L. 93-638 to operate the Navajo health care system.

Norman Patrick Brown, a Navajo activist and filmmaker from Shiprock, said the current model of Navajo government ? and its leaders ? have moved too far away from the philosophy and values of Navajo people.

"In the traditions of our people, a leader was the first one to wake up, the first to make the fire. He's the last one to eat, the last one to rest and the first one to fight. We've really lost that if you look at how it's operating. We need to get back to a government that supports the people, not themselves."

Brown said his organization, the Din? Nationalists, think the voice of the Navajo people needs to be strengthened and respected. They use the Navajo flag and its symbolism of sovereignty and protection within the Four Sacred Mountains as their philosophy that Navajo people and culture should come first.

"Navajo government used to be based in community where people could meet and talk about issues, get educated about what we are facing as a people and participate in the decision-making," Brown said. "Consensus building works much better than this top-down centralized government model that's in place. It's time for reforms."

As the election season begins on the Navajo Nation, more political candidates are paying attention to the coalition and attending their meetings, Brown said.

"Something is evolving on Navajo that will give us greater control over our destiny and our rights. The people's voice must be heard and respected and we intend to make that happen."