Crow Tribe discusses water settlement bill

Billings Gazette

by Susan Olp

CROW AGENCY — In 1998, Clara Nomee, then chair of the Crow Tribe, instigated negotiations with state officials over a possible water compact.

On Tuesday, she sat on the stage of the Multipurpose Building in Crow Agency as speaker after speaker, including U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, talked about the importance of the recently passed federal bill that would quantify the tribe's water rights and bring hundreds of millions of dollars in water projects to the Crow Tribe.

“It's for the benefit of employment of the people,” Nomee said in a soft voice, over the din of a loudspeaker. “And it's for the betterment of the reservation.”

March 8 vote

The Crow Water Rights Settlement Bill of 2010 won't be enacted until the enrolled members of the Crow Tribe ratify it. A vote has been set for March 8.

The vote is not a slam dunk. Some members of the tribe feel the bill will strip away the rights of allottees, Crows who hold land rights on the reservation.

On Tuesday, hundreds of members of the tribe came to the first meeting about the bill to hear Tester, a sponsor of the federal bill, along with Crow Chairman Cedric Black Eagle and several others. Tester, with former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, met with members of the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes at a number of events Tuesday.

Giving back

Black Eagle also presented gifts to past Crow chairmen, including Nomee and Clifford Birdinground, who helped move the negotiations along, as well as Tester, state and federal officials and others who had a hand in the work of the water compact.

The negotiations, from their start until December, when Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed the Crow Water Rights Settlement Act, took a little more than 12 years, said Black Eagle, who was involved almost from the start. The decision to put the vote to the Crow Nation last of all was intentional.

“I was able to witness those historic times, in terms of how this process went, knowing full well at the end of this road would be the Crow people.” Black Eagle said. “That they would — you would — have the final say. That's how it was written into the federal legislation.”

Black Eagle, who watched as Obama signed the bill Dec 8, said it felt good not to have to negotiate anymore. He said he knew the hard work was still ahead, convincing the tribal membership that the bill is one worth embracing.

“I think opportunities of a lifetime come every now and then for the Crow Nation,” he said. “This is one of them that we certainly cannot let go by.”

He introduced Tester, whose history with the water compact also goes back a long way. Tester was president of the Montana Senate when then-Gov. Marc Racicot called a special session in June 1999 to consider the water compact bill.

Tester voted for the bill, which passed both the state House and Senate. Years later, he helped carry the water settlement bill, part of the Cobell settlement bill, in the U.S. Senate. It passed, he said, “in an era of bitter partisanship with unanimous passage in the United States Senate.”

Tester said Crow tribal members will now have the opportunity to scrutinize the act, ask questions about it and see how it impacts them.

“This bill is important for the Crow people, and here's why,” Tester said. “Without it, we start over and there will be long, long, long expensive process of litigation, litigation and more litigation where nobody benefits. We won't get another bite at this apple.”

Tester said he believes the document will withstand every bit of scrutiny it will receive over the next several weeks.

“If this is ratified, it means new jobs, it means opportunity, and it means the ability to make sure that with that water, that lifeblood, you can move the economy forward and do some things with the unemployment rate in Crow country,” Tester said.