Petition questions tribal council action

Noel Lyn Smith
The Navajo Nation Council begins its winter session earlier this year in Window Rock, Ariz.

FARMINGTON — Shiprock Chapter is requesting the Shiprock District Court to invalidate a tribal council resolution approving the proposed Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement agreement because the council did not follow tribal law by submitting the resolution for review and action by the tribal president.

Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie filed a petition for declaratory judgment on Feb. 10. Yazzie's action was authorized in a Feb. 7 resolution approved by 47 chapter members.

The petition lists the Navajo Nation Council and Speaker LoRenzo Bates as respondents.

It is asking the court to "expeditiously" hear the case because the resolution to settle the tribe's water claims in the upper Colorado River basin in Utah has been sent to the Utah Legislature for its consideration and approval with only Bates' signature and without any action by Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

Bates said the Council had asked Begaye for his opinion on the proposed agreement, but Begaye did not respond. Begaye, in a telephone interview on Wednesday, said the language in the agreement will change as it moves through the approval process and he will reserve his judgement until the terms are finalized.

The petition states that the Council's approval violated the Navajo Nation Code and Diné Fundamental Law, which state the president represents the tribe in government-to-government relations.

“This process is going forward without the president’s participation. The president is the legally recognized leader to interface with other sovereigns; Navajo law does not provide the council and its speaker that same authority,” the petition states.

It also states the council's action was a "contradiction" to Diné Fundamental Law, the tribal code, and rulings made by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court.

Yazzie said on Wednesday the chapter members remain concerned the council did not submit the resolution to the president.

"The president is the proper person to represent the nation when dealing with other sovereigns," he said.

He added that the chapter is not "talking" about the merits of the proposed settlement but addressing the "specific" violation of tribal law.

"We're not saying anything on whether or not the Utah settlement is good or bad,” Yazzie said.

The Feb. 7 chapter resolution comes after the members approved two resolutions on Jan. 31, which expressed opposition to the legislative process used by the council to approve the proposed settlement and requesting Bates not to sign the council resolution.

Jared Touchin, spokesman for the Office of the Speaker, said the council will not comment at this time because the matter is in litigation and under review.

In a Jan. 20 letter from Bates to Begaye, the council requested the president "to provide an official position" on the proposed settlement prior to the winter session in January.

The letter was written after the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee, whose membership consists of the 24 delegates, forwarded the legislation with a "do pass" recommendation to the council.

"During the discussion, committee members requested your official position on this particular legislation," Bates wrote in the letter.

As of Wednesday, the council has not received a response from the president, Touchin said.

Begaye said he was aware of the chapter resolution but did not know Yazzie had filed the petition. He said the settlement is a draft document, which makes it open to further dialogue and amendments.

"I would have a problem approving anything in a draft format. ...We want to act on the final writing of any legal document, not a draft format," he said.

The president said he wants to participate in the discussion when the settlement is introduced in the U.S. Congress because it impacts the entire Navajo Nation.

In a statement submitted prior to the telephone interview, Begaye said, "We support the Navajo Utah Water Settlement in general as it provides adequate water resources for Navajo communities in Utah. We are looking at specific issues where it might not provide water resources to certain areas of the Navajo community. We would like to see all communities have access to this valuable resource. If the amount of water is finalized, then we would support the general idea."

In addition to having the settlement provide water for drinking and housing purposes, the president said he would like to see a settlement that benefits business start-ups, tribal offices, schools and other tribal programs.

He added his office understands the settlement has to be introduced by a leader in Congress then debated at the congressional level.

It “would speak volumes” if the senators from Utah cosponsored the finalized legislation, Begaye said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.