Seeking the Water Jackpot

For almost a century, the Navajo Tribe has been left out of the Colorado River water game. Now, they're ready to play their hand.

  • Seeking the water jackpot

  • The coin-operated water dispenser in Gallup, New Mexico, where a quarter will buy 50 gallons of water, if it doesn't get stuck in the slot

  • Bobby Esplain, 77, has jugs for 22 gallons of water that he'll haul the 30 miles from this Tuba City watering point to his home in Cameron, Arizona

  • Trucks line up at the City of Gallup water distribution point on a Friday, before the weekend rush when the waiting line sometimes runs all the way around the block

  • Lena Fowler of the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission says states have ignored Native American rights to Colorado River water

  • Water pipes stop just short of these homes on the Navajo Nation, which lie between Tuba City and the Colorado River, 50 waterless miles in the distance

  • The Navajo's traditional holy land is roughly twice the size of the current reservation and is bounded by the four sacred mountains, noted in green on this ma

  • Stanley Pollack, assistant attorney general for the Navajo Nation's Department of Justice, collects bumper stickers and fliers from groups that say he isn't doing enough to get the best water deal for the Navajo Nation


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In the years since he wrote the letter, Utter has become circumspect to the point of silence, but his theme of colonial victimization resonates deeply on the reservation. During the 1960s and 1970s - call it the high era of Western natural resources treachery - the tribe was cheated in a massive royalty deal with a company called Peabody Coal. Indian Country has also long grappled with the federal government's failure to honor its trust responsibility to the tribes. Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian woman, has doggedly fought for years to prove that the federal government mismanaged as much as $176 billion in oil-and-gas royalties owed to Indians across the country.

But there was an added dimension here. Navajo grassroots groups like DSDA were also fighting against what they saw as a breach of trust at home. In 2003, Norman Brown, who was then president of a group called Dine Nationalists, told me that "when we talk about breach of trust, we talk about breach of trust within our own tribal organizations" - by which he meant the tribal government.

Not long after the Lawyers-and-Betrayal letter appeared in 2000, DSDA - as part of a broader grassroots coalition called Dine Bidziil, or Navajo Strength - called for major reform in the Navajo government. The groups weren't going after anyone with AK-47s, but they did seem to constitute a genuine insurgency.

Much of their wrath focused on the tribal council, but DSDA also targeted four white lawyers, including Pollack. The group placed an ad in the Navajo Times that called the tribal government "a colonial government that is run by WHITE POWER" -- this one did mention Pollack by name -- and bumper stickers began to appear that read "Four Lawyers Out / Dine Freedom In."

People on both sides of the fight reported having their tires slashed and the lug nuts on their wheels loosened. There was an allegation that someone had slipped poisoned cough drops into a tribal council member's desk drawer. There were dark rumors that the 'adlaaniis -- the notorious Navajo drunks -- had been recruited into the fight. Several people made mention of witchcraft and "evil way" ceremonies secretively held in the remotest reaches of the reservation.

Finally, when the votes were counted in the 2000 tribal election, more than half of the council's 88 delegates were unseated. Pollack survived: After weathering subpoenas to appear before two tribal council subcommittees, he was exonerated from the charges in the Lawyers-and-Betrayals letter. The three other white lawyers left, however. Then DSDA and Dine Bidziil melted back into the shadows.

The annual tribal fair, held each September in Window Rock, is one of the few times when Navajos from across the reservation come together in one place. Last year, some of the old DSDA hands ran into each other there and shared concerns that their government had again grown complacent. Not long afterward, a tribal member named Ron Milford resurrected the fight with a letter to the Navajo Times that insisted, "We must maximize Navajo water rights now."

A low-level war in the local newspapers followed, and I'm pretty sure Lena Fowler rolled her eyes when I happened to mention it. "They give an open mic to people like Ron Milford, and somehow he becomes credible enough for you to interview him," she said. "I'm tired of these one-sided stories where it's all about" -- she switched to the Navajo word for "rumor" and repeated it like an incantation -- "jini, jini, jini."

On a sloppy, miserable day, I went looking for Milford. He was in Tuba City, three hours from Window Rock, on the reservation's west side. I had just reached the ramshackle houses on the edge of town when another storm hit, and the world went leezh lichii go' bilni'yol -- a bloody maelstrom of red dust.

Half an hour later, I sat with Milford and another DSDA organizer named Max Goldtooth at a table in the back of a restaurant called The Hogan. Outside, the weather had turned again. Now it was chiil bilni'yol: blowing snow like a mother. Forty minutes into our conversation, all the lights went out.

The three of us sat huddled in the back of the restaurant as the storm raged outside. "Our starting point should be 5 million acre-feet of water," Milford said. That was considerably less than Peter MacDonald's idea of a winning number, but it was still more water than the entire state of California is entitled to, and nearly twice as much as Arizona gets.

As Milford and Goldtooth talked, I could appreciate their resentment about water getting sucked away to fuel prosperity everywhere but on the Navajo Nation. Fifty-five miles north of us was the Navajo Generating Station, which burns Navajo coal and provides royalties for the tribe. But, Milford said, "All that power goes right to those big pumps (on the Colorado River) that pump water into the canals" -- the Central Arizona Project's mainline -- "and down to Phoenix and Tucson."

The tribe's quest to build its economy has been fitful, at best. Last year, the tribal council approved the Navajo Nation's first casino and began negotiating a $100 million loan from JPMorgan Chase to finance the project. But the deal became controversial when the bank asked the tribe to pledge $125 million worth of its assets as collateral.

"They have money here if they assert their water rights," Goldtooth said. "There's money flowing all around us. We're sittin' on a national treasure here."

When he said that, I could pretty well imagine the sound of a slot machine pumping out streams of quarters.

"If we had receipts from leasing water and stuff like that, we would be investing in our infrastructure," Milford continued. "We could pump a lot of money into different things."

But instead, they watched as more and more of the river's water rolled away downstream. Just last year, the seven Colorado River states negotiated a new round of drought-protection agreements for themselves. "Now that global warming and everything has spanked them in the butt, they're over here divvying up what's left," Milford said. "I bet they're just smiling from ear to ear because Navajo is not gonna file this big ol' claim for the water that we said we were entitled to."

Milford had, however, thought his way forward through the bitter paradoxes of the situation to a position of strategic advantage. Water demand from the seven states has been growing steadily since 1922. If the Navajo ever did get the water, that mounting demand would make it even more valuable for the tribe.

There was a certain Red Power strain to Milford's argument, but he was also starting to sound an awful lot like a water broker. In fact, by this point he had thought his way pretty well into a supply-and-demand graph. "Two factors will raise the price of that water," Milford said: "Global warming. And drought."

His eyes lit up, and the slot machine in my head went nuts.

But after we paid for the meal, we went outside to discover that the world had turned to ice. Neither Milford nor Goldtooth had an ice-scraper in his truck, and Goldtooth snapped his I.D. card in half trying to scrape the frozen spackle off his windshield.

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