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Democracy in water decisions

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Matt Jenkins' article on Navajo water claims seemed to exhibit a subtle bias against the grassroots Dine folks on the outside of the tribal bureaucracy (HCN, 3/17/08). And maybe the activists are a little unfair to the white lawyer - after all, there are also Indian lawyers, elected officials, water consultants and bureaucrats who are equally ready to cut deals.

In these water deals, the devil tends to be in the details. Former Chairman MacDonald's inflated claim probably does not pass the legal laugh test, but that begs the question: What is a realistic claim for the Navajo Reservation? The article never approached this issue. Too bad.

Nor did it focus on the larger question of what role the people themselves - including generations to come - should play in decisions about whether and when to negotiate water rights and what sort of deals to cut. When one looks closely at tribe-fed-state water deals across the West, the missing element is the people. Where are the educational processes designed to empower tribal members to understand what is at stake, what is proposed and the alternatives? Where is the consultation with elders (those who speak for future generations)? And where are the referendums whereby the people can let their will be known?

If Mr. Pollack and the tribal leaders for whom he works are at fault it is because they have not taken the extra step of educating - and thereby empowering - the people. This is nothing new in Indian Country.

It is often the case that tribes do not do well when negotiating with feds, states and water interests behind closed doors. History will judge whether the (predominantly) white lawyers and consultants negotiating the current round of Western water deals for tribes will be seen as heroes of indigenous peoples or as representatives of a colonial power knowingly or unknowingly extending the long history of appropriation of indigenous resources by conquering societies.

Felice Pace
Klamath, California

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