By Alan Sorensen
ROCKY BOY -- Water Is Sacred -- e mah ni tow wah ki tek nip piy. Water gives life to everything.
That's the spirit with which Chippewa Cree tribal leaders have pursued their water rights agreement with the state and federal governments during the last 20 years.
At 7:24 p.m. last Thursday, that spirit paid a huge dividend when the U.S. House of Representatives passed Senate Bill S. 438 without a single dissenting vote.
"I feel great," Tribal Council Water Committee Chairman Bruce Sunchild said Sunday afternoon at the Chippewa Cree Water Resources Office at Bonneau Village. "It's been a long, hard road. Of course, there were a lot of people involved in this."
The bill provides the tribe with clearly defined and expanded water rights and $50 million in which to pursue them.
"Water is sacred to us," said Jim Morsette, director of tribal water resources. "It is our life blood, and without it, none of us would survive."
The Tribe's process of securing a reserved water rights compact agreement with the state and federal governments began in 1981. After years of research, the tribe established its first water rights negotiating team in 1989. Now, 10 years and several negotiating team members turnovers later, the tribe has the blessings of every one except the president and Montana Water Court.
"We're hoping we can have a signing ceremony with the president and our chairman (Tribal Chairman Bert Corcoran) and vice chairman (Sunchild)," Morsette said. That event would be held in Washington, D.C. in the not too distant future.
"This is really a momentous occasion because it's a treaty that the United States government is signing with us," Morsette said.
"This reaffirms the special government-to-government relationship we have with the federal government as a self-governance tribe," Tribal Councilman Kelly Eagleman said.
Eagleman, who also serves on the tribe's water committee, said this agreement also demonstrates to Rocky Boy Reservation residents that self-governance was not a step toward termination as some had feared. It demonstrates that the federal government still has an obligation to other tribes, too, he said.
When Clinton puts his name on the agreement, it will become the first Indian water rights settlement reached with the United States in more than seven years.
The next step, the water court process, could take years to complete. The U.S. Department of Justice will file the agreement with the water court on the Tribe's behalf as soon as the president signs it, Morsette said.
"We have to wait until the water court issues a decree before we can start spending any of our money," Sunchild said. "And that should be in about 18 months."
"We hope to have it done in less than 18 months, less than the required time," Morsette said.
Morsette said that the makeup of tribal committees trying to respond to tribal water needs have changed several times over the last 20 years. But the same spirit that moved tribal elders to pray for the establishment of Rocky Boy has been at work in the reserved water rights process.
Among those whom Sunchild, Morsette and the Eagleman's credit with getting the ball moving and keeping it going were the late John WindyBoy and Paul Eagleman, Raymond Parker Sr., Daryl Wright, Paul Russette Jr., Roger St. Pierre and numerous others.
"There's a number of people who worked on this throughout the years," Sunchild said.
Sunchild credited the Business Committee (Tribal Council) with rotating members onto the negotiating team to maintain continuity throughout the last 10 years. "I'd like to thank the council for more or less giving us the reins to this thing," he said.
Joining Sunchild and Eagleman on today's committee are council members Lydia Sutherland, Alvin WindyBoy and Russell Standing Rock.
It was a "trying and cumbersome process of doing this through Congress," Sunchild said. Morsette added that tribal negotiators and others relied on prayer, sweetgrass, sweats and other spiritual tools of their forefathers to see them through.
They also received instrumental help from non-tribal people, too, they said, in particular Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Hayes. "When he came on board 2 years ago, it turned things around," Morsette said.
The lawyer representing the tribe over the last 10 years was Yvonne Knight of Boulder, Colo., attorney for the Native American Rights Fund. "I really want to thank her for sticking with us this long," Morsette said.
Chippewa Cree Tribal Lawyer Daniel Belcourt also contributed a lot of time and effort to the project.
Others who helped immeasurably, they said, were Gov. Marc Racicot, and Sue Cunningham, Barb Cosens and Chris Tweeten of the Montana Compact Commission. They also singled out Pam Williams, Hayes' chief negotiator.
"I'd like to thank the efforts of Sens. Conrad Burns and Max Baucus and Rep. Rick Hill and Rep. Dale Kildee of Michigan," Sunchild said.
"For as much work that has gone into the negotiation process and the subsequent passing of the legislation," Tribal Water Resource Manager Jay Eagleman said, "there still lies ahead of us a tremendous amount of work as we continue to manage the resources within our watersheds. The Tribal Water Resource Department will continue to move forward with this charge."
The proposal covered by the bill includes the following projects, accompanying funding, and funding sources.
Chippewa Cree Fund ($21 million from Bureau of Indian Affairs budget):
Tribal compact administration account, $3 million;
Economic development account, $3 million;
Future water supply facilities account, $15 million over three years;
On-reservation Water Development ($25 million from Bureau of Reclamation budget):
Bonneau Reservoir enlargement, $13 million in 2000;
East Fork, Stone Man and Brown's reservoirs improvements, $8 million in 2001;
Completion of dam and other water projects, $3 million in 2002;
Bureau administrative costs associated with tribal water development, $1 million in 2000.
Feasibility Studies ($4 million from Bureau of Reclamation budget):
Municipal, rural and industrial feasibility study of water and related resources in north central Montana, $1 million ($.5 million in FY 1999 and $.5 million in FY 2000);
Regional feasibility study to evaluate water and related resources in north central Montana.
The bill recognizes the Tribe's right to approximately 10,000 acre feet of water on the reservation. It also provides a set-aside of another 10,000 acre feet of water stored in Tiber Reservoir, but does not describe or ask funding for a delivery system to transport the water to the reservation about 40 miles away.