In a recent 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Navajo Nation, stating that the government’s trust obligation does not require it to secure water for the tribe’s reservation. The decision has sparked outrage among Native tribes relying on treaties with the U.S. government.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh, writing for the majority, argued that the 1868 treaty between Navajo Nation and the U.S. does not establish a “conventional trust relationship” regarding water rights. This comes as a blow to the tribe, which is located in an area experiencing a severe drought and had sought assistance from the federal government in accessing much-needed water.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch emphasized that the U.S.’s relationship with Native tribes is far from conventional. He highlighted the power imbalance and language barriers faced by the Navajo people during negotiations of the 1868 Treaty of Bosque Redondo.
Gorsuch also referred to the long-standing “Indian canon of construction,” which dictates that treaties, statutes, and regulations should be interpreted in favor of tribes – a principle absent from Kavanaugh’s opinion.
Kavanaugh’s ruling did not completely negate the government’s trust obligation to federally recognized tribes. However, it sidestepped answering Navajo Nation’s question on reserving necessary water for Indian reservations under the “Winters doctrine.”
The implications of this decision are significant for Navajo Nation and other tribes seeking justice. Without clear answers on their water rights, Indigenous communities face an uncertain future in an already arid region grappling with limited resources.
Looking ahead, Justice Gorsuch suggested that Navajo Nation may need to start anew in its pursuit of water rights. The disappointment over Kavanaugh’s deviation from established principles of federal Indian law and his misunderstanding of water law adds another layer of complexity to the situation.
This ruling highlights a pattern. The U.S. government declares itself a trustee to tribes but falls short in fulfilling obligations. Indigenous communities are then forced to seek redress.
The hope remains that one day, the federal government will seek permission from Indigenous peoples before exploiting natural resources instead of expecting forgiveness afterward.
Navajo Nation stands firm in its fight for water rights, determined to secure justice and protect its people’s well-being amid this ongoing struggle.