Water Rights Day celebrates 12th Anniversary of Water Settlement Act
December 16, 2016
Thomas R. Throssell
Gila River Indian News
Hundreds of Gila River Indian Community members gathered at the Huhugam Heritage Center on the morning of Dec. 10 to celebrate Water Rights Day and honor tribal leadership, both past and present, who fought a decades long battle to secure the tribe’s water rights.
Water Rights Day is an official GRIC holiday celebrated annually on December 10. The holiday commemorates the signing of the Arizona Water Rights Settlements Act of 2004 by President George W. Bush.
The celebration kicked off with the Posting of Colors presented by Post #51 Haskell-Osife Antone.
A congregation of students from St. Peter Indian Mission School led the Pledge of Allegiance and sang the National Anthem in both English and O’otham languages.
District 5 Community Council Representative Robert Stone offered the event’s traditional blessing.
The theme of this year’s Water Rights Day celebration was “Reflecting on the Past and Protecting the Future,” a point emphasized by Lt. Gov. Monica Antone in her opening remarks.
Lt. Gov. Antone talked of the Community’s ancestors who, with their own eyes, saw the Gila River flow and eventually dry up after the Coolidge Dam was constructed.
She recounted a story about a family of Tohono O’odham who lived near San Luis that would come to the Gila River to harvest. She said that after the waters of the Gila River disappeared the family of Tohono O’odham stopped coming to the river. Several Akimel O’otham went in search of the family only to find that they had all died from starvation.
Lt. Gov. Antone’s reflection on the past underlined the importance of water to the Community and the life or death consequences that it held for so many of GRIC’s ancestors.
“There are many here today…[who] looked after us and I thank the Creator for looking after our people during the hard times our ancestors [endured],” she said.
Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis, focused his remarks on the Community’s present leaders and future water protectors.
“What is important is that we have our protectors here, the original negotiating team, past governors, council members, elders, veterans, and then our youth. Our youth are going to be our future water protectors,” Gov. Lewis said.
He said the tribe fought a long and hard battle to finally take over its own water infrastructure and that future Community water protectors would be needed to continue the work of those who had gone before them.
“We can’t lose our water again,” Gov. Lewis said. “We can’t let the state or the federal government or any other private interest take our water, that is why we have to be vigilant, we have to be eternally vigilant.”
“As governor I inherited this…and I want to build on [it]. I am just a part of a long path and…I want to give this to our next governor, our next leadership, and our…youth to continue to build our community, a healthy, vibrant and growing community. To make sure we have water for our future generations,” he said.
Following Gov. Lewis’s speech, a group of ten water runners, who participated in the Water Rights Day Run 2016 that began in District 7 on Dec. 9, carried a gourd filled with water collected at the confluence of the Gila and Salt rivers and placed it at the front of the stage. Gov. Lewis greeted and thanked each member of the water runners.
Shortly after, past GRIC governors Richard Narcia, Donald Antone, and former GRIC lawyer Rodney Lewis, spoke about the history of water in the Community and working with the late Z. Simpson Cox, who was one of Gila River Indian Community’s first attorneys and integral in beginning the fight for the tribe’s water rights.
“In the beginning, the Gila River Indian Community has been very fortunate to have acquired the services of Cox and Cox attorneys,” said Narcia. “Z. Simpson Cox was hired by the Community as General Counsel. He, and later his sons Alfred and Alan guided the Community as official water negotiations started. I believe the initial groundwork for the Community’s water settlement started with Cox and Cox,” he said.
“I would acknowledge the importance of the work done by Cox and Cox attorneys, not only in water but in other…legal matters with the Community. I would personally like to thank every member of the Cox and Cox family for their invaluable service to the Gila River Indian Community, thank you,” Narcia said.
Alan Cox, son of the late Z. Simpson Cox, took to the stage and talked about his father’s relationship with the Gila River Indian Community and how he came to represent the tribe and fight for its water rights.
“It’s been almost 70 years since we started to work for and develop great friendships here in the Community,” said Alan.
Z. Simpson was noted throughout his life for representing people who were poor, he said, with up to 90 percent of his clients being pro bono, meaning his legal fees were billed at a reduced rate or completely free.
Alan said one of the many obstacles his father faced when dealing with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), was that at the time they would simply say they were working on a contract but without showing progress. In effect, stalling.
“The Washington [BIA] office kept saying to my father that they were working on the contract and finally my father took a night flight, went to a hotel, took a shower, took a cab to the United States Senate, went to the Majority Leader of the United States Senate and said ‘I have this contract with Gila River Indian Community but the Interior Department won’t approve or disapprove,’” Alan said.
He said that the Majority Leader, who was Ernest McFarland at the time, called the Secretary of the Interior and told him to see Z. Simpson. After discussing the details of the contract with the DOI, no agreement was made and thus began the Community’s fight for its water rights, he said.
“This settlement you have today, unlike the settlements that were made by the BIA, by the federal government, you…have a seat at the table,” Alan said. “[In] 1935 when the Gila River Decree was entered…your ancestors were not even allowed in the courtroom. This [settlement] is yours. This one is one that you fought hard for, it’s one that you will be able to put into effect and be able to bring back the agriculture and development that you so richly deserve,” he said.
After Alan’s speech the veterans performed the Retrieval of Colors and a lunch of chumuth, red chili, beans, and potato salad was served up by the Sunna Family. The Water Rights Day entertainment was provided by the Pee Posh Song and Dance Group followed by an O’otham social dance.