2012 Top 10 stories

Navajo, Hopi pull support for water settlement

By Noel Lyn Smith, Cindy Yurth, Marley Shebala
Navajo Times

December 27, 2012

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TOP: Sunlight and shadows from rolling clouds brighten the Navajo sacred turquoise-colored Little Colorado River as it meets the Colorado River in Bodaway-Gap, Ariz. The Bodaway-Gap Chapter passed legislation in May opposing the Little Colorado River Confluence Project. (Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

SECOND FROM TOP: Nisi Jimmie, from Low Mountain, Ariz., holds her protest signs June 22 at the Naa'bik'iyati Committee meeting in Window Rock. (Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

THIRD FROM TOP: A construction worker uses a man-lift to get to the area he will be working at in November at the Twin Arrows Navajo Casino Resort construction site east of Flagstaff. (Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

FOURTH FROM TOP: The Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz. sets the backdrop for a hogan on Sept. 27. The Navajo Nation and Salt River Project say negotiations for amendments to the current lease for the NGS are ongoing and likely to be completed within the coming months. (Special to the Times – Donovan Quintero)

FIFTH FROM TOP: A framed picture of the late Navajo Code Talker George Smith is on display inside the Rollie Mortuary during his funeral service. (Times photo – Paul Natonabah)

1 No deal on water — An attempt to head off a court battle over the tribe's rights to water in the Little Colorado Basin drew enough anger from grassroots Navajos that President Ben Shelly backed down and withdrew his support of the bill, S.B. 2109. Some of the public hearings held on the bill this past spring and summer verged on riots, with tribal police called in to keep the peace as picketers angrily denounced the settlement as a "giveaway" that contained irrelevant clauses and would erode tribal sovereignty. Some protesters went as far as launching a recall effort against Shelly and Vice President Rex Lee Jim.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar's attempt to renegotiate a settlement at a meeting with some of the 30 stakeholders, including the Hopi and Navajo tribes, ended in a stalemate, and last Tuesday the Navajo Nation Council's Resource and Development Committee directed the Navajo Nation Attorney General (pending approval from the Council) to go ahead with litigation. Meanwhile, the Hopi Tribal Council also pulled its support of the settlement — which was extremely unpopular among its members as well.

2. Budget blues — After hearing projections that tribal revenues would fall by $45 million over the next three years and the federal budget ax was falling on another $32 million starting Jan. 14, the Navajo Nation Council launched a grab at the sacrosanct Permanent Trust Fund set up under then-Chairman Peterson Zah in 1985 and currently valued at $1.2 billion.

Legislation passed by the Council on Sept. 21 would have cut the annual set-aside for the fund from 12 percent to two percent, with the remaining 10 percent going into a "nation-building fund" for infrastructure projects. President Shelly vetoed the legislation, which would have violated Navajo law by tapping the fund without a five-year plan and a public referendum.

Meanwhile, news surfaced that the tribe had returned more than $63 million to the federal government since 2008 because it failed to complete projects in time.

3. Bonkers for Tonto — The moccasin telegraph was ablaze with Johnny Depp sightings over the summer as film crews from Disney's "The Lone Ranger" descended on Monument Valley, Canyon de Chelly and elsewhere on the Navajo Nation.

Many Navajos got jobs with the production, ranging from security guards to extras in the movie, but the sets were tightly closed and only a select few got to meet the elusive Depp, who will play Tonto to Armie Hammer's Lone Ranger. The production is scheduled for release in February.

Even after he went home, Depp continued to endear himself to the Diné by donating $25,000 to the tribal scholarship fund. His Internet fan club, Johnny Depp Zone, raised another $7,700 for simple water systems for homes on the former Bennett Freeze. At the same time as "The Lone Ranger" was filming, the NatGeo reality show "Navajo Cops" filmed its second season, with the Nation's finest starring as themselves.

4. Jackpot for tribe — The Northern Edge casino in Upper Fruitland was filled to capacity within 40 minutes of its grand opening on Jan. 16, and has hardly slowed down since. The Nation's third casino (after Fire Rock and Flowing Water) tended to draw a more racially mixed clientele and more aggressive players than did Fire Rock, according to the Navajo Gaming Enterprise.

Meanwhile, work continued on what will be the Nation's flagship casino, the $175 million Twin Arrows resort west of Flagstaff. At press time, the enterprise was starting to fill the 800 jobs the resort will create. It's scheduled for completion in late spring or early summer of 2013.

5. Divergence at the Confluence — Meanwhile, another huge proposed resort drew fire from some traditional Diné in the area because it would be built on a sacred site.

The $180 million Grand Canyon Escalade, proposed by Confluence Partners LLC of Scottsdale, Ariz., would include a tram from the canyon rim to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, which figures in the Navajo Creation Story. Bodaway/Gap Chapter is divided over the development, having most recently passed a resolution supporting it by a mere seven votes after rejecting it in two previous resolutions. Cameron and Coppermine chapters have both passed anti-Escalade resolutions. Individuals on both sides have circulated petitions and garnered more than 1,500 signatures each.

Come Monday — the deadline set by President Shelly for demonstrating "solid public support" for the project — Confluence Partners will have to convince the president's office the locals are on their side, or risk losing the administration's support.

6. Diving for dollars — There are those who might argue this hardly qualifies as news any more, but corruption scandals continued to plague the Navajo Nation.

The discretionary fund scandal of 2010 refused to go away, with newly appointed special prosecutors dropping charges against nine individuals but then announcing plans to file charges against 10 to 15 more, including some recipients of some of the $36 million doled out under questionable circumstances.

Tuba City Chapter officials also got caught with their hands in the cookie jar, allegedly making off with $80,000 in "bonuses" over the past two years. Then there was the "P-card" scandal, with an employee (ironically of the Navajo Nation's Division of Economic Development) wiping out an entire department's budget with purchases of designer handbags, perfume and other luxury items.

And 2012 found former President Joe Shirley — who will take office in January as an Apache County supervisor — still refusing to turn over documents to the special prosecutor concerning his involvement with two corporations whose endeavors on the Navajo Nation went up in flames, OnSat and BCDS. Stay tuned for a protracted court battle.

7. Pollution crackdown — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued strict new emission standards for two area power plants that burn Navajo coal and collectively employ hundreds of Diné.

Owners of the Navajo Generating Station in Page, Ariz., say the estimated $1.1 billion to retrofit their smokestacks may not be feasible, and the plant may close, taking 1,000 jobs with it along with a market for Peabody's Kayenta Coal Mine. The Four Corners Power Plant in Fruitland, N.M., is by some measures the dirtiest in the country. The new rules for that plant have prompted its majority owner, Arizona Public Service, to consider shuttering Units 1, 2 and 3 — the oldest and dirtiest units — and buy out its co-owners of Units 5 and 6.

Meanwhile, however, BHP Billiton is considering selling its Navajo mine — the main supplier of coal to Four Corners — because it no longer fits the company's investment portfolio, and Billiton and APS have been unable to come to terms on a new sales agreement.

The Navajo Nation has appropriated $750,000 to investigate buying the mine itself in order to have more control over the mine, the power plant and the 1,000-plus jobs at the two entities. What happens to the two power plants and their supplying mines is a big deal, because together they represent a huge chunk of the Navajo Nation's revenue stream. Stay tuned.

8. A Cobell Christmas — Christmas came just a little early for the 45,000 Navajos who hold an interest in Individual Indian Money accounts.

In November, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the last of the appeals to the $3.4 billion Cobell v. Salazar settlement, clearing the way for the first round of settlement checks, which started arriving on the reservation in early December. The first round of checks, to all 350,000 members of the class action suit, are about $1,000 each.

Depending on the age of the account and other factors, some beneficiaries will receive another check later. The National Council of American Indians immediately released a statement urging Native Americans to protect their windfall and be wary of modern-day carpetbaggers hoping to get their hands on it.

9. Still consolidated — The New Mexico Public Education Department put the kibosh on a scheme to divide the Central Consolidated School District at the reservation line.

Although proponents of the split, which would have created a large mostly Navajo district and a much smaller mostly Anglo district, collected signatures of 85 percent of the registered voters in the district, the state agreed with the Navajo parents and school board members who protested the division, saying it would hurt the more rural, mostly Navajo schools.

10. Smooth sledding for Snowbowl — The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals not only rejected the Save the Peaks Coalition's last-ditch appeal to prevent snowmaking with treated wastewater on the sacred San Francisco Peaks, it also gave their attorney the written equivalent of a stern tongue-lashing.

Efforts at preventing the snowmaking, however, continued in the form of protests, a hunger strike and even a tree-sitting stint. When the Snowbowl opened for the season this week, skiers were confronted by picketers. The Hopi tribe recently filed a lawsuit alleging the snowmaking would affect a rare plant, the San Francisco Peaks groundsel.

Honorable mention: Top cop survives removal effort — 2011 closed with a scandal in the tribe's Public Safety Department after a retired police officer accused Public Safety Director John Billison of brandishing his service weapon during a poker game.

The incident incited cries for Billison's removal, but President Shelly stood by his man. The scandal fizzled in February when the alleged victim recanted his allegation and the U.S. Attorney could find no credible evidence it ever happened.

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