Nov. 27, 2006

American Indians continue to struggle for their water rights, conference speakers assert

"If water flows downhill, why is its protection an uphill fight?" asked Henry Lickers, Nov. 18, addressing a large audience in Cornell's Berger Atrium. His provocative question was at the center of a two-day conference, "Native Water Law and Public Policy: Critical Issues in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Watersheds," hosted by the Cornell Law School at Myron Taylor Hall, Nov. 17-18.

The conference was the first event of the newly created Transboundary Indigenous Waters Program at Cornell, which has the goal of broadening an understanding of the political, economic, cultural and environmental significance of water to native people and of empowering native communities in their pursuit of water sovereignty and sustainable water resources. Over the two days, 240 people from the United States, Canada and many Indian nations attended the conference.

Lickers, director of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Department of the Environment, spoke about the culture of the Haudenosaunee (native people of the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy). To them, water is not just a physical resource. "Because we live by the land," he said, "water has a spiritual meaning ... it is a part of our culture."

The Great Lakes/St. Lawrence River basin is home to more than 100 American Indian communities; this 518,500-square-mile watershed represents 25 percent of the Earth's fresh water supply. Dramatic changes in the basin's land uses have degraded its water resources and the ecosystems they support, speakers said. Negotiations are advancing to sell fresh water from the basin to more arid parts of the country.

In both the West and East, native communities have attempted to reclaim water rights and protect water quality, only to be faced with many forms of opposition, said the conference speakers. Steve Moore, an attorney from the Native American Rights Fund, cited the Kansas Kickapoo as an example. In the span of 20 years, that tribe has been unable to secure a stable water supply, even though it was granted water rights in 1998. Moore said that certain federal, state and local officials have hindered water sharing to fill the tribe's impoundment.

"Litigation takes decades," Moore said. "It's not unusual for a lawyer to start a native water rights case early in his or her career and retire without it ever being resolved."

John LaVelle, professor at the University of New Mexico School of Law, said that even where Indian nations and tribes win in court, they often get "paper water" -- water on paper rather than the actual resource.

Conference speakers agreed that native communities need to reclaim their water rights before water supplies get tighter, as they inevitably will as good water is in short supply. Rob Porter, director of the Center for Indigenous Law at Syracuse University Law School, emphasized the intimate connection between land and water rights. The Onondaga Nation has filed a land claim to leverage the clean-up of Onondaga Lake in Syracuse -- one of the country's most polluted lakes. Several speakers noted the importance of water in Cornell's evolving land-grant mission.

Expressing the commitment of many conference speakers, Lickers said that he will work tirelessly to show the integral tie between water rights and native survival "until [I] can no longer pick up the burden and carry it."

The conference was sponsored by the New York State Water Resources Institute, the American Indian Program of Cornell and Cornell Law School's Journal of Law and Public Policy. Law school students will dedicate an issue of the Journal of Law and Public Policy to the conference, and the presentations will soon be available on the Web sites of the sponsoring organizations.

Chandni Navalkha'10 is an intern at the Cornell Chronicle.