Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

A recent water conference in southern Arizona was dedicated to honoring one of the Indigenous giants who fought for water rights.

The Tribal Water Resilience in a Changing Environment conference took place virtually on Aug. 31- Sept. 1, hosted by the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center in Tucson.

This year’s conference was dedicated to honoring Rodney Blaine Lewis, a citizen of the Gila River Indian Community. He died in 2018 and left a legacy fighting for water that future generations will benefit from. Most notably, he secured the largest and most significant tribal water rights settlement in the nation’s history.

On the opening day of the conference, center Director Sharon Megdal announced the Rodney Blaine Lewis Scholars Award.

"I'm very pleased to announce the establishment of the Rodney Blaine Lewis Scholars Award to honor Rod Lewis' legacy through the UA foundation,” Megdal said.

The establishment of the award will support graduate students enrolled in an Arizona tribe and a water law policy program - or a closely related field.

The university has established an endowment fund and is seeking donations which will support the award in the near future.

The conference program had almost entirely all Native voices, from water professionals, advocates and cultural leaders.

It started with an opening prayer by Tohono O’odham Nation’s Jerry Carlyle, vice chairman of the San Xavier District, and closed with a reading from Tohono O’odham Poet and Regents Professor Ofelia Zepeda.

Featured guest speakers included Lewis’ family and son, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk.

Gov. Lewis reflected on his dad and recalled his disappointment that more Natives weren’t involved in water policy issues, which he called “sacred work.”

Water legacy scholarship announced - The Rodney Blaine Lewis Scholars Award. It will support Native graduate students enrolled in an Arizona tribe and a water policy program. The University of Arizona's Water Resources Research Center director announced the new award at the annual conference, August 30th, 2021.

Leaders addressed water resiliency issues like having meaningful consultation and called for bold changes.

“You know consultation is very important but many times we’re at the 11th hour when we’re asked to participate,” Colorado River Indian Tribe Chairwoman Ameila Flores said. “Policies have to change, they have to be brought into the 21st century.”

For decades, Rodney Blaine Lewis fought to return water to his ancestral lands.

He was the first Native American attorney admitted to the Arizona State Bar in 1972. He was the founder and first chair of the bar’s Indian Law Section. He was also the first Native attorney to argue a case before the Supreme Court.

In that 1980 case, Lewis successfully argued a 5-4 majority that recognized the sovereign authority of tribal nations to operate outside of the taxing authority of non-tribal states.

It reinforced the sovereignty and independence of tribes to operate in a nation-to-nation status with the U.S.

He was instrumental in securing water through the Arizona Water Rights Settlement of 2004.

It gave the Gila River Indian Community 654,500 acre-feet of water annually and other Arizona tribes water allocations.

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