A handful of Crow tribal members carried signs outside the James F. Battin Courthouse on Wednesday to protest what they see as their water rights being taken away.
Several women walked slowly in front of the courthouse, where a Bureau of Indian Affairs office is housed, holding signs with slogans such as “BIA did not protect our water rights” and “Crow Water Rights Settlement 2010 Conspiracy DOI/BIA/Montana/Crow Tribal Administration, Shame On You.”
The women are displeased with the 2010 Crow Tribe Water Rights Settlement, signed by President Barack Obama in December 2010, and the 1999 Crow-Montana Water Rights Compact. The water settlement bill, which includes the water rights compact, must be ratified by members of the tribe before it goes into effect.
That secret-ballot vote will take place in the six districts of the reservation on March 8.
Tribal leaders are holding a series of meetings to explain the bill to Crow members, but opponents believe their concerns are not being heard.
Beverly Greybull Huber and Colleen Simpson, both Crow allottee landowners, claim that they will lose their individual water rights if the tribe ratifies the bill.
“The tribe is going to determine whether or not I get water for my livestock or my land,” Simpson said. “And everything with the tribe is political.”
Under the new law, the tribe will get a quantified confirmed water right of 500,000 acre-feet per year from the Bighorn River and 300,000 acre-feet annually of water stored in Bighorn Lake.
Tribal members will be granted water out of the tribe's allocation.
The tribe will establish a Tribal Water Resources Department and a tribal water code and will manage the water on the reservation. That doesn't sit well with Simpson, who fears she may lose her water rights.
Although the water settlement bill includes a statement that the intent of Congress is “to provide each allottee benefits that are equivalent to or exceed the benefits allottees currently possess,” Simpson is dubious that will happen.
“There's a lot of double talk in that bill,” she said. “If you have something right now, you have your water, and all of a sudden they say, 'I'm gonna come and get your water, you have to come and get my permission,' how is that going to improve your rights?”
Huber said she thinks a lot of Crow people don't realize they'll have to go through a permit process to secure their water rights.
Both women also raised a question about the water compact that goes back to 2000, just after Clifford Birdinground was elected chairman of the tribe.
The Crow Tribal Council passed a resolution that disapproved the water compact, which had already been approved by the Montana Legislature.
Tribal officials involved in the water negotiations said that after all of the Birdinground administration's questions about the water compact had been answered, negotiations began with the federal government.
But Simpson said she doesn't think the resolution was ever rescinded, and questions how negotiations could have continued without that happening.