Should Navajos and Hopis Kill the Kyl Bill?
Little Colorado River water rights are at stake. Credit: Indigenous Action Media
Should Navajos and Hopis Kill the Kyl Bill?

When Sen. Jon Kyl, Ariz. - R and John McCain, Ariz. - R, introduced the “Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012” or S.2109 into the U.S. Senate in February this year the resistance by some Navajos and Hopis was swift.


According to a press release by the Navajo Nation S.2109 proposes to “settle water claims and litigation” regarding the Little Colorado River Basin, which has claims by over 30 separate entities.


The bill‘s introductory statement summarizes some of its goals:


“To approve the settlement of water rights claims of the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the allottees of the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe in the State of Arizona, to authorize construction of municipal water projects relating to the water rights claims, to resolve litigation against the United States concerning Colorado River operations affecting the States of California, Arizona, and Nevada, and for other purposes.”


It’s the phrase at the end of that paragraph, “and for other purposes,” which has stirred many Hopis and Navajos into an uproar.


Those who have made sense from the jargon encoded 157 page bill, like Navajo Ed Becenti, are fighting it, saying it “is on a fast track to give Arizona corporations and water interests a '100th birthday present’ that will close the door forever on Navajo and Hopi food and water sovereignty, security and self-reliance.”


Opposition to a meeting between Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and McCain and Kyl said they object to losing water rights under the bill.


More than 300 people gathered throughout the day, beginning with 30-40 Navajo and Hopi elders, according to opposing Diné (the true name for “Navajo” people) Kelvin Long. Long is also the Executive Director of Echoes in Flagstaff, an organization that works to empower communities to protect their sacred sites, land, people and culture.


Protesters carrying signs that read “Water is Life” and “No future without water,” chanted in their native languages and English.


When Shelly addressed the crowd in Navajo and English after the meeting, he pleaded with them to “stop it” and “Listen!“ referring to their shouts over his attempted speech.


When they quieted down, he explained that so far this was only a proposal.


“What needs to happen,” he said, “is that (the proposal) needs to be agreed on by the Navajo people.”


President Shelly announced seven town hall meetings starting April 17 at some of the chapter houses (similar to districts). People in the crowd and responding on the President’s Facebook page asked, “Please tell us how seven town hall meetings guarantees that all 110 chapters will be heard?”


“The seven chapter house meetings scheduled are the chapters which would be directly impacted by the bill if it were to pass,” said Erny Zah, director of communications for the Navajo Nation.


“Our primary purpose [of the meetings],” said Zah, “is that we want people to be educated about the issue to the best of their ability. To understand what is being proposed and what isn’t being lost.”


But the unrest has reached the Navajo Nation's ears.


“From what I understand about what I’ve been reading online, is that a lot of people are stuck at the point of thinking we are ‘giving up rights,'” Zah said. “In all actuality, we aren’t ‘giving up rights’, we are settling.”


Diné and Hopi people alike are asking what exactly is the difference?


Zah explained what the bill intends to do in laymen terms.


“We are talking about settling the claim of the little Colorado River Basin,” he said. “That’s different than giving up our rights, per se. Our claim is similar to that of the Hopi Tribe. There are about 30 different entities with claims to the water. This is what the bill entails.”


This water settlement issue is not a new one, said Zah; it's been ongoing since 1979.


“Other parts of the bill say that the U.S. Government would provide 300 million dollars total to the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribes for water development projects,” he said.


The water development projects would build a water freeway between Leupp and Dilkon, and another from Wide Ruins to Ganado.


“Right now this area (Leupp to Dilkon) uses 441 acre feet of water per year,” Zah said. “Once the water line is built and completed, we are talking about 4800 acre feet per year distributed along those communities.”


With a new hospital in the planning stages for construction in Dilkon and a new municipal center, the water line could help to handle the town’s growth in future years. Without the water project Zah said, “any growth is going to be stopped because there will not be enough water.”


Zah himself is affected by the lack of accessible water in his own home.


“I grew up with running water,” he said. “Now I haul water and I understand how much simpler it is for people to take a ten minute shower in the morning when they are in rush. I have to heat up the water, get a wash pan, and so on; it takes much more time to do anything with water when you don’t have it running.”


Zah stated why he thinks S.2109 would be in the best interests of the Navajo Nation.


“On the larger scale, it is also a way to protect our way of life,” he said. “Because if people are leaving the Navajo Nation to get better jobs, to have better living conditions, because they are tired of hauling water, then this is a means to keep our people here. Jobs will be created.”


But Navajos and Hopis have good reason to be wary of the Bill.


Countless Diné and Hopi struggled since their colonization to protect their water and land from companies who have damaged and depleted their resources. Some of the companies they fought are those which would receive claims to water from the settlement for their coal and energy operations.


It has triggered an emotional response.


“It’s such a huge slap in the face,” Long said.


“Here is another bill that is designed to take everything from us as Native people and leave us with nothing,” he said. “We are in many ways the battery for the Southwest. We’ve given up our lands, our water, our natural resources. In return, we see social ills and issues in our communities because we don’t have our own resources, we don’t have our own means for our own social infrastructures to build.”


The Hopi and Navajo who have voiced outrage, list one of their main concerns being that there is no guarantee that the U.S. government will follow through with the water projects.


“Technically you can say they are right,” Zah said, “Our safeguard is that the deal is off, if they don’t give us the money.”


The opposing voices to the bill include Forgotten People (of the Bennet Freeze), Black Mesa Trust and Black Mesa Water Coalition (both battling Peabody Energy), among other organizations and individuals dedicated to protecting water and fighting environmental damages on Hopi and Navajo reservations.


“There are no absolutes in this thing,” Zah said. “It is so complicated. If it was that simple, we wouldn’t take the effort to educate. We have gotten a couple of requests for more meetings. We are open to that if there is a demand.”


Opponents of the bill also are wondering what is the U.S. Government’s interest in the settlement; what is their gain?


“The biggest gain for all of us is the management plan system that is going to be in place, whether it’s the other 30 parties that have claims to the basin water, or the tribes,” Zah said.


He does not want to consider the alternative.


“If we don’t do this, we are talking about another 20-30 years in litigation, tribes will be losing money,” he said. “Try looking at the other side. This might be the best deal we can get. If we go into litigation, we won’t get any money.”


“We are trying to create opportunities for people to stay at home. This is an investment,” Zah said.


Interestingly, Zah’s hope for Navajo people to reside on their reservation is parallel to Long’s hopes for young Navajos and Hopis to return.


“What I want to come from this is to get our younger people involved in their own local tribal governments. Our young educated people are missing opportunities because they are off in the cities going to school and leaving the reservation for jobs,” Long said. “ We need them to come back and build our nations, and build it within line of our values, our cultures, and traditions, in a sustainable way. We need to create really healthy models of ways we can all live better as human beings.”


S.2109 can be found in a PDF at:


Chapter house meetings are listed at:



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Mano Cockrum's picture

Mano Cockrum is a Hopi/Diné artivist in the visual and sonic arts. She performs in her band Sounds For Fathers, and frequents shows to record video for her ManoART10 Youtube channel, featuring her favorite bands on her music blog

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