Ute Mountain Ute leaders traveled to Washington this week to attend President Barack Obama’s eighth annual White House Tribal Nations Conference.
Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart and councilwoman Regina Whiteskunk had two key messages: designate the proposed Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah, and support tribal efforts to renegotiate interstate water compacts within the Colorado River basin.
On Bears Ears, Heart said federal officials reported at the meeting that a decision was not likely until December.
“When the president walked right by us, we reminded him of Bears Ears, and he acknowledged us,” Heart said during an interview at The Journal, gesturing that Obama gave an A-OK hand sign. “Our ancestral lands are within the Bears Ears area, and we would like to see that protected under a monument.”
Whiteskunk also reminded Obama of the Bears Ears Monument plan, which is supported by a coalition of five tribal leaders in the Southwest.
“I was able to shake President Obama’s hand and said ‘Remember Bears Ears,’ and he responded, ‘There is still work to do’,” Whiteskunk said. “It was not a ‘No,’ so I am pushing forward and maintain the thought that it can still get done.”
Regarding renegotiating water compacts to protect tribal interests within the Colorado Basin, Heart said it’s long overdue and will take time, but the administration “listened to our concerns.”
Native water rights were not considered when the compacts were signed in the 1920s between upper and lower basin states, Heart said.
“There is only one sentence referencing Native tribes,” he said. “We need more input, and I believe it’s time to revamp those compacts to ensure Native tribes receive our legal share of water.”
Heart plans to attend meetings in Phoenix to advocate adding amendments to the Colorado River Basin Compact that address Native American water rights.
Currently, a key issue for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe is delivering water to the reservation from Lake Nighthorse near Durango, he said. The tribe owns 40 percent of the water in the 120,000-acre-foot reservoir, and a component of the Animas-La Plata Project built to satisfy Ute Mountain, Southern Ute and Navajo water rights. But while much of the lake’s water is owned by the Ute Mountain Utes, it is out of reach for practical uses, Heart said.
“It’s like a pitcher on a high shelf we can’t reach. We need delivery to our land, which was initially promised but was eventually cut out, so we have been fighting to get that back.”
One possibility is to use local rivers to deliver the water to the reservation.
It could be released from the Lake Nighthorse spillway into the Animas River, then flow to the San Juan River, which meets up with the Ute Mountain reservation near the Four Corners Monument.
Heart said that idea is being discussed, but has legal and topographical challenges.
“From the San Juan River, it would require many miles of new pipe and pumping the water uphill before it could arrive at our farms,” he said.
Delivering it to the tribe via pipelines directly from higher Lake Nighthorse is preferred because it would be gravity-fed, he said. Piping it to Jackson Reservoir could allow it to be delivered via the Mancos River to reservation lands.
“Delivering it to our land gives us control of our water to grow our economy, expand our farms or build a new community on the east side,” Heart said.
Federal support is key to getting things done in Indian Country, he said, and Obama’s annual Tribal Nations Conference helps influence federal officials to act and secure funding.
“I have been so privileged to learn from you while visiting more tribal communities than any other President,” Obama said at the conference. “We haven’t solved every issue. We haven’t righted every wrong. But together, we’ve made significant progress in almost every area.”
Under the Obama administration:
The White House Council of Native American Affairs was created, a cabinet level office that focuses on Indian Country issues.More than 428,000 acres of tribal homelands were restored back to their original owners, and the Cobell settlement was signed into law that established the $1.9 billion Land Buy Back Program to consolidate individual Indian lands and restore them to tribal trusts.Reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act so that tribes can prosecute those who commit domestic violence against women in Indian Country, whether they’re Native American or not.Provided health care services in Indian Country through the Affordable Care Act, including permanent reauthorization of the Indian Health Care Improvement Act.Whiteskunk praised Obama for “elevating the voice of Native Americans and valuing us” during his administration. In her meetings with federal officials, she pushed for improved consultation with tribes on projects and laws affecting Native American lands.
“We discussed in great length about how consultation is either weak, vague or not consistently applied,” Whiteskunk said.
“As president he has reached out to work with Native Tribes,” Heart said. “He is the first president to hold these annual meetings, and the hope is that the next president will continue them, so we have to wait and see.”