LAPWAI, Idaho - It's hard to tell which might be louder - the victory beat
of Nez Perce drums or old-time Idaho fiddlers sawing away at an all-state
country dance. One thing's for sure, the tribe and the Idahoans have cause
After nearly 20 years of negotiating, leaders on both sides have signed off
on one of the largest water rights settlements in U.S. history. That the
negotiations took place within the theater of the West, where arid
conditions make scarce water supplies highly-prized resources, makes the
agreement all the more significant.
Based on treaty rights the Nez Perce gained from forfeiting millions of
acres of land in the 1850s when white settlement swept into the area, the
tribe claimed rights to most of the water in the Snake River.
Fears of spending the foreseeable future in one court battle after another
brought the state of Idaho to the negotiating table. "That's a pretty dark
cloud to have hanging over the water rights of this state," said Sen. Stan
Williams, R-Pingree, of the tribe's 1999 claim to Snake River water and its
In return for waiving its off-reservation claims to water in the Snake, the
Nez Perce will receive 50,000 acre-feet of water for on-reservation uses,
sufficient instream flows on almost 200 tribal priority streams, 11,000
acres of BLM land, $23 million for tribal water and sewer projects, $13
million for fish habitat projects, and $60 million for various tribal
purposes including cultural preservation.
Once Idaho signed off on the agreement, the nine-member Nez Perce tribal
executive committee held a five-hour session to finalize its position. The
6 - 2 vote reflected the weight of the matter and inter-tribal divisions.
Dissenters within the tribe tried to put the matter to a vote of the all
members, but were unsuccessful.
"We have done our homework and feel we have made an informed decision that
best protects the interests of the people of our sovereign nation and the
tribe's sovereignty," said Tribal Chairman Charles Johnson. "This is not a
decision that was made lightly or in ignorance by any member of the
Similarly, while southern agriculturists in Idaho were pleased with the
agreement, protest came from northern Idahoans concerned about property
rights. Sen. Skip Brandt, R-Kooskia, from the Idaho panhandle, said before
Gov. Dick Kempthorne signed off on the deal: "There's no turning back. This
isn't a rule. This isn't a statute. If we say yes to this agreement, it's
"I believe that there are too many concerns, too many questions, too many
unknowns ... for this Senate to take this drastic of a step."
The Shoshone-Bannock tribe doesn't like the deal either, but for different
reasons. They say the plan has given the Nez Perce control over three
streams in their territory - the East Fork of the Salmon, the Lemhi, and
the Middle Fork of the Salmon. Although the tribal attorney has pledged to
block the deal in court, attorneys for the state and the Nez Perce tribe
are skeptical that the Shoshone-Bannock's argument will hold up in court.
On the other side of the issue, Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes noted
that the agreement "provides some progress into a complicated and difficult
issue that we have struggled with for many, many years." He acknowledged
that the resolution was not perfect: "It's true that in negotiated
settlements, there are no pure winners."
The Nez Perce tribal chairman echoed this thought. "Unlike the uncertainty
involved in litigating such water right claims, the Nez Perce tribe, by
agreeing to the terms of the proposed settlement, was able to have a voice
in the decision making involved in the final determination of our water
right claims," said Johnson. "Although far from perfect, we felt this
proposed settlement was in the best interest of the long term future of the