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News > U.S.

US Supreme Rules Against Native American Tribe's Water Rights

  • A vendor booth on the Navajo Nation in Arizona.

    A vendor booth on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. | Photo: Twitter/ @propublica

Published 4 July 2023

The Navajo Nation was asking the federal government to assess the tribe's water rights along the Colorado River.

America's shameful tradition of breaking treaties and denying rights to Native American groups continued in Washington with the Supreme Court deciding to ignore protection for water usage in the Colorado River Basin for the Navajo Native American tribe.


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In the dispute between the Navajo Nation and the Arizona Department of the Interior, the tribe was asking the federal government to assess the tribe's water rights along the Colorado River and help create a plan to develop them for the 170,000 tribal members who live there.

Instead, a 5-4 ruling released June 22, with conservative, Republican-appointed justices in the majority, said that the federal government "isn't responsible for such actions" and "the treaties between the U.S. and the tribe didn't explicitly require it," the Colorado Sun reported.

"Tribal leaders say the decision is a step toward diminishing the overall responsibilities of the federal government outlined in the treaties," said the report, as harsh reactions to the recent ruling continued this week.

"Tribes might find it a lot harder to get the United States to help them and work with them on some of these projects, if they don't have to threaten the power of a trust claim behind them," said Daniel Cordalis, a Native American attorney and a member of the Navajo Nation.

That could impact how much the federal government is required to help with tribal projects related to other natural resources and climate resiliency work, said Cordalis.

Lawyers for the Navajo Nation had characterized the tribe's request as modest, saying that they were simply seeking an assessment of the tribe's water needs and a plan to meet them.

However, the Biden administration said that if the court were to come down in favor of the Navajo Nation, the federal government could face lawsuits from many other tribes.

The facts of the case go back to treaties that the tribe and the federal government signed in 1849 and 1868. The second treaty established the reservation as the tribe's "permanent home," which was deemed by the Navajo Nation as a promise including a sufficient supply of water.

"The 1868 treaty did impose a number of specific duties on the United States, but the treaty said nothing about any affirmative duty for the United States to secure water," Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was appointed by former President Donald Trump in 2018, wrote in the majority opinion.

Thirty-seven tribal governments, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority filed an amicus brief in support of the Navajo Nation in February 2023, according to the Drum.

The brief urged the Supreme Court to respect the water rights doctrine and enforce the trust relationship under which the United States had an obligation to assure water for the Navajo Reservation, the Drum added.

"Water is necessary for all life, and when our ancestors negotiated agreements with the United States to secure our lands and our protection, water was understood and still is understood to be inseparable from the land and from our peoples," said NCAI President Fawn Sharp.

"The Supreme Court has once again assisted in the United States' centuries-long attempts to try to get out of the promises they have made to Tribal Nations by stating that treaties only secure access to water, but do not require the United States to take any steps to protect or provide that water to our people," she added.

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