Opponents of the Navajo-Hopi Little Colorado River Water Rights Settlement Act of 2012 on the Navajo Nation have been riding a wave of false hope this week, following a flawed translation of statements by Navajo President Ben Shelly.
The president and his Water Rights Commission have been conducting a series of community forums to gather input on the water rights settlement, which seeks to apportion flows in the Little Colorado River basin. Parts of the bill are highly controversial, eliciting complaint from both Navajo and Hopi activists that too much is given away to the energy industry and surrounding governments.
Shelly’s comments came Friday, April 20 at the tail end of the fourth of seven forums, in Oak Springs, a remote Navajo community near Arizona’s border with New Mexico.
According to a press release issued by the activist group Diné Hada’ Asídí – or The Navajo Vigilant Ones – the president shocked all present by announcing, “I’m going to Washington, D.C. and stop this bill.”
“After this statement, and with the roar of approval from the audience going on, it was difficult to tell exactly what he said next,” the statement continues. “Witnesses report that both after and before his bombshell, Mr. Shelly alternately said: ‘I’m telling them the deal’s off.’ [and] ‘I’m visiting Kyl and McCain and telling them I change my stance to take the people’s stance in opposition.’”
As the press release has circulated, activists have been puzzled at President Shelly’s lack of follow-through.
“With our news release we are wanting to put pressure on him to … clarify his comments from Friday night, said Ed Becenti, Navajo grassroots activist. “…if he is really sincere about going to Washington, D.C. to tell Kyl and McCain that there is no deal because S.B. 2109 is creating great problems among the Navajo people, then we want him to come out in the open and state that one more time.”
But Erny Zah, President Shelly’s spokesman, said the president’s comments have been mis-translated.
“He was speaking in Navajo and basically what he was doing was reiterating what he’d been hearing throughout the week,” Zah said. He is going to Washington this week, and people translated that to mean he was going to Washington to fight the settlement. He was letting people know he understood where they were coming from. We’re continuing our education stance, and we haven’t taken a position one way or another.”