Native Waters

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The era of the Indian land treaty ended more than a century ago, but now the West is in the midst of another treaty era - this time focused on water. So writes Daniel McCool, a longtime scholar of federal Indian policy and the head of the University of Utah's American West Center, in his book Native Waters, which will be released Oct. 17.

Though water rights were "reserved" for Indians by the Supreme Court's landmark Winters ruling in 1908, tribes were largely given lip service and elbowed out of the way while the Reclamation juggernaut pushed forward for white settlers' benefit. Now, the tribes are negotiating with the federal government and their neighbors for the real, wet water to which they're entitled.

The settlement process, writes McCool, has brought mixed results, but it has "the potential to reshape the entire water regime of the American West." In one of the book's final chapters, McCool turns his attention to the role Indians' newly won water may play in a region where water supplies are getting tighter every year. "The effort to lease tribal water (to other users) has played an important and often controversial role in water settlements," he writes.

Water marketing offers desperately poor tribes the potential to earn hard cash, but it has "run headlong into the defenders of the water status quo," many of whom fear that the tribes may become "a kind of water cartel."

McCool tempers that divisiveness with a gentle reminder that, "At the most basic level, the politics of water is a human interest story." And a final vignette shows just what's at stake: He leaves us with the image of Edward Canyon (who appears on the cover) and his wife, Jean, now in their 80s and still living at the edge of the now-dry Little Colorado River on the Navajo Reservation ... waiting for water.

Native Waters: Contemporary Indian Water Settlements and the Second Treaty Era

Daniel McCool

The University of Arizona Press, 2002.

260 pages. Hardcover: $45.

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