CROW AGENCY — The Crow Water Rights Settlement Act got a ringing endorsement Thursday from a high-ranking federal official.
Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs for the Department of the Interior, told a crowd of about 200 why he supports the bill signed in December by President Barack Obama. Echo Hawk spoke for about 50 minutes at the Apsaalooke Center in Crow Agency.
In about two weeks, members of the tribe will vote on the $460 million settlement act and the Crow Water Compact. Tribal officials have been holding a series of meetings to explain the act in advance of the March 19 vote.
At the same time, a small but vocal minority has been organizing meetings to persuade tribal members to vote against the legislation. Opponents say, among other things, that the settlement bill and water compact do not protect the rights of allottees, and that allottees were excluded from all negotiations.
Allottees are tribal members who hold beneficial real property interests in an allotment of Indian land on the reservation.
Echo Hawk took a few moments to tout the accomplishments of the Obama administration in regard to Indian Country. In the first year of his presidency, Echo Hawk said, Obama kept his promise to meet with the leaders of the 564 federally recognized tribes.
That happened when Obama invited the leaders to Washington, D.C., in November 2009 at what Echo Hawk called the largest such gathering ever.
“He looked at the tribal leaders and said ‘as president of the United States of America, I promise you that you will not be forgotten,’ ” Echo Hawk said.
Obama kept his promise, he said, signing the Tribal Law and Order Act to make reservations safer, reauthorizing the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and increasing money in the federal budget to aid the nation’s tribes.
“This administration has stood up strongly for Native people,” Echo Hawk said.
Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, was nominated for his position by Obama in 2009.
On the topic of the water settlement bill and water compact, he said he felt it was important to take time from his schedule to advocate for ratification. Tribal water negotiations have continued for more than three decades, he said.
“They worked hard to make things solid so future generations will have economic prosperity and that this will be a productive homeland,” Echo Hawk said. “Water as lifeblood for economic development must be there for your use.”
In talking with the top lawyers at the Department of Interior, Echo Hawk said the attorneys called the Crow Tribe’s water settlement bill one of the best ever negotiated.
An attorney and former Idaho attorney general, Echo Hawk suggested a settlement is better than deciding water rights in court “because you have control over what that settlement will be.”
The settlement quantifies a very significant amount of water that will be held in perpetuity for reservation residents, he said. It includes 500,000 acre-feet per year from the Bighorn River and 300,000 acre-feet annually of water stored in Bighorn Lake.
Even better, he said, the $460 million will rehabilitate the reservation’s irrigation project and construct a municipal, rural and industrial water system. That money was appropriated in the bill and so will be immediately available to the tribe.
Echo Hawk also sought to address the concerns of the allottees.
“We’re all about executing the trust responsibility and protecting all Native people that have an interest in water,” Echo Hawk said. “I’m here to tell you we will be vigilant in protecting the rights of allottees.”
The bottom line, he said, “speaking as the assistant secretary, this is the best deal that you’re going to get.”
“If you turn this one down, you go back to square one,” he said.