Native Waters

Contemporary Indian Water Settlements and the Second Treaty Era
Daniel C. McCool


Before I began doing interviews for this book, I asked an elderly Navajo woman, whom I had known for a number of years, what kind of reception I might expect from Indian people when I interviewed them about water settlements.

"You want something from them?" she asked, already knowing the answer.

"I guess you could put it that way," I responded defensively.

"Yep, just like all the other white people," she said, chuckling.

It is my hope that this book does more than that. I hope it gives something back to the native people who for so long have been the object of the acquisitive desires of Anglos. But to be a success, it will need to do more than that. Any book on water settlements should, like the settlements themselves, offer something for everyone. Thus the objective of this book is to enhance our understanding of the settlements in the belief that increased understanding will lead to better settlements for all parties.

Indian water rights and the settlements regarding them have been the focus of decades of debate, conflict, and misunderstanding. A great deal has been written, often in anger and occasionally in ignorance, about Indian water. Much of the literature consists of legal analyses, and a few studies focus on history and politics. Much of this research is quite technical in nature, dealing with case law, acre-feet, or costs and benefits. One cannot understand contemporary Indian water settlements without discussing these technical issues. But I have striven to move beyond that in order to explore what is, essentially, a very human subject and to demonstrate how water settlements actually affect the lives of individual people.

I began this project with a grant from the U.S. Geological Survey's water resources research program. The original grant proposal was couched in the terms and methodology of formal policy assessment: establish a performance baseline and then empirically assess the extent to which policy objectives have been realized. My research proposal included a travel budget that allowed me to travel to various Indian reservations and discuss water with the people most directly affected by settlements. But as I met with individual tribal members and non-Indians who live near reservations, I began to see the inadequacy of my original research design. There is of course a great deal of arcane information, but reams of data tend to sanitize; real people become abstractions, and the true richness of water and its connection to life gets lost in the numbers. At the most basic level, the politics of water is a human interest story, a personal narrative that is best told by those who have experienced it. Thus this book uses a combination of methodologies, approaches, and styles designed to capture the richness, complexity, and human texture of the water rights conflict. The reader will encounter everything from dialogue, descriptive narrative, and personal testimony to traditional social science methodology.

This book also relies on history as a context. Everything from Columbus to Custer to Clinton is relevant to the present Indian water dilemma. It is not possible to understand the settlement era without looking at antecedent conditions and events. In Anglo culture, history is often pedantic, the subject of academic discourse. But Indian people do not relegate their past to history. It is an integral part of their contemporary lives, as though the past is standing there looking over their collective shoulder. When asked to explain their water situation, many Indian people begin their explanation with events that happened centuries ago. Typical is the Navajo who, when asked to explain the current stalemate over the Little Colorado River negotiations, said, "Well, it all started with the Spanish." In addition, many Indian people have a compensatory notion of the water settlements. They view them as an opportunity to redress past injustices and want to know how a settlement fits into the long-term pattern of Anglo-Indian relations. Joe Ely, past chairman of the Pyramid Lake tribe, used a historical metaphor to describe how some Indian people feel about the settlement process: "It's like your neighbor has been stealing your horses for many years, and now we have to sit down and decide how many of those horses they get to keep."

There are innumerable perspectives on this issue, and it is quite easy to slip into simple categorization; this is the "Indian view," or that is the "state position." But water is too central to our existence, too complex, to lend itself to such simplicity. True, there are significant trends in thought and action, but there is no rote-step to fighting over water. The only truly common thread is that it is worth fighting for.

To a certain extent this book is a follow-up to my previous book on Indian water, Command of the Waters: Iron Triangles, Federal Water Development, and Indian Water. That volume compared the history and politics of both Indian and non-Indian water resource programs, and the role played by reserved water rights. I completed that manuscript just as the settlement policy was beginning to bear fruit, so this book is a logical extension of that line of research. However, the approach used in this book is quite different.

Over my years of research on Indian policy I have sometimes been asked why a white man would select this research topic; is not research on Indian policy best left to Indian scholars? There are two parts to the answer to that question. First, "Indian policy" is a gratuitous misnomer; nearly all Indian policy is made by white people, not Indian people. A more accurate term would be "Anglo policy imposed on Indians." There are a few exceptions, such as the tradition in the twentieth century of selecting an Indian to be the commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the current "638 process," which allows tribes more control over their own destiny. But for the most part, historically significant decisions involving land, water, culture, and other policy issues have been unilaterally applied to Indians by the white-controlled government. In addition, policy making has taken place well within the context of western European decision-making—a process that is completely alien to traditional forms of indigenous government. As a Zuni leader put it, "The whole decision-making process is imposed upon us, without us having a choice. We're a square peg pushed into a round hole."5 Thus, as a white man and a political scientist, I am quite familiar with the way "Indian policy" is made.

The second part of the answer concerns the problem of Anglos speaking for Indians. Throughout our history well-meaning but naive whites have often voiced the "Indian" point of view. Their interpretation of that point of view was often tainted by assumptions of cultural superiority and basic ignorance. I have worked hard to avoid that pitfall by interviewing many Indian people and quoting extensively from Indian writing, speeches, and testimony. Nearly all of the interviews I conducted for this book with Indian people were done in person on Indian reservations. I felt I should meet them on their home ground in Indian country in order to maximize my understanding of their situation and to make it more comfortable for them to talk with a stranger so full of questions. I also conducted dozens of interviews with Anglos, primarily over the phone; I am already familiar with their cultural context.

In my travels to Indian reservations, water offices, and the seats of power, I met hundreds of people. I visited capitals from Washington to Window Rock. Some of the people I interviewed hold high elective office or have prestigious titles in the bureaucracy. Others are simply people whose lives have changed—or have failed to change—as a result of water settlements. I was repeatedly amazed at the diversity of opinion and experience. Some people, both Indian and non-Indian, believe water settlements are the best thing to happen in Indian country in the twentieth century; others regard the settlements as a sellout, another great theft of Indian resources similar to nineteenth-century land losses. But the jury is still out on water settlements. The earliest settlements are barely twenty years old, and the water settlement era is still in full swing. When I asked Ernie Robinson, Northern Cheyenne, if his tribe's settlement was a good one, he replied, "I won't be around any longer by the time we know the answer to that question." He is quite right, and thus this study can be considered only a preliminary assessment of a policy that will have a pervasive impact for centuries to come.

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