An Indigenous room in hip-hop’s mansion

R. Vincent Moniz Jr.

For five amazing decades, the world has been filled with the sounds, stories and voices of hip-hop. From music to brand deals, rapping to the beat has become a destination for poets and hustlers alike. But where in this behemoth of a building will you find exhibition space for Natives? Where is the room in this lodge for those who have been singing their prayers to beats passed down from their ancestors’ hearts?

It is a place much of Indian Country knows the direct location of. Every two-step those first Native rappers danced, another song was created. Star blankets transformed from curtains and doors, into soundproofing for closet turned recording studio.

There is not a specific date when Native people first reached for the mic. The cities and tribal lands they come from have their own creation stories and heroes of the game. The beginning of each rhymesayers origin story is as rich and diverse as the nations and neighborhoods they come from.

Gichi-manido wiidookawishin ji-mashkawiziyaan
(Great Spirit help me to be strong)

Mii dash bami’idiziyaan
(So that I can help myself)

Miizhishinaam zaagi’iiwewin
(Show us all love)

Ganoozh ishinaam, bizindaw ishinaam
(Talk to us, hear us)

Mii-wenji nagamoyaan
(That is why I am singing)

Nimishomis wiidookawishinaam ji-aabajitooyaang anishinaabe izhitwaawin
(Grand father help us to use the Anishinaabe customs)

Mii-ji-bi-gikendamaan keyaa anishinaabe bimaadiziwin
(So that we’ll know how to live the Anishinaabe way/the good life)

– Tall Paul, Ojibwemowin lyrics from ‘Prayers in a Song’

Paul Wenell, Jr. aka Tall Paul (Leech Lake Ojibwe)

What is known, is that Native people immediately connected with the beats, dances, and the intricate plot being told by master storytellers. Tales of survival, of triumph and tragedy were kindling First Nations had already spit like hot fire.

Like many Native children, the start for “MuMu Fresh” began with teasing relatives. These Afro-Indigenous youth, who grew up in and around Baltimore, Maryland’s Indian Center, stepped up their smack talk with tight flows.

The Baltimore Native remembers her brother’s ability to battle rap was the stuff of front stoop legends. However, younger sisters, no matter how much they loved the word play, were not allowed. MuMu Fresh talked about growing the four sisters of her rhyme game with the determination to get outside. The front steps were linked to her start when she tore through the Goliath to Fresh’s David.

Miracle Spotted Bear is stuck in between
‘I was raised through music’
‘He who walks through the battle smoke’
Rising Lakota musician ‘Hittin’ Home Runs’

Maimouna Youssef aka Mumu Fresh (Mississippi Choctaw descendant)

Leech Lake Ojibwe citizen Tall Paul knows the front and back end of the hip-hop genre. His appreciation of Native rap is deeper than 10,000 lakes. This Anishinaabe rhymer has no problem listing artists he likes and the ones he is keeping an ear to. One of the things that separates Native hip hop is the inclusion of Indigenous melodies and languages. ‘Prayers In A Song’, written Tall Paul, features the hip-hop artist rapping to the beat in Anishinaabemowin. The track, now a classic, was a turning point. Our languages can be braided into any beat, but these two were like connecting puzzle pieces of a larger masterpiece

Paul, who was raised in south Minneapolis, knows that it takes a lot of work to find success. The rapper has many hopes for the next 50 years of hip-hop. He sees more opportunity for artists to have the freedom to express themselves and their personal experiences. To the Tallest of them all, hip-hop is a gift. It is for strong hearts with cold flows to begin a remodel of their own. Fitting more Indigenous people into the mansion hip-hop built.

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Cherokee Nation launches broad expansion into film industry

Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to ICT

Film has become an important part of the Cherokee Nation’s business and identity as the tribe continues to build upon the film office they launched in 2019, the first certified Native American film office in the country.

Now, after years of supporting award-winning productions and $1 million rebates, they are rolling out a reorganization of the tribe’s filmmaking ecosystem and expanding the Cherokee Film Studios in Owasso, Oklahoma.


Now named simply Cherokee Film, the enterprise includes four branches – Cherokee Film Productions, Cherokee Film Studios, the Cherokee Film Commission, and the Cherokee Film Institute — with 30 full-time employees.

Cherokee Film will continue to offer the enticing rebates for productions filmed in Oklahoma with the services of the tribal film office, but it will also increase production of its own original programming, help tribal citizens break into the industry and create jobs in and around the Cherokee Nation.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held on Wednesday, Aug. 30, for a new 10,000-square-foot studio, which will join a larger, extended reality or XR, facility that opened in July 2022.

“Cherokee Nation has quickly become a leading hub for Indigenous storytellers in television and film,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said at the groundbreaking.

“As we increase infrastructure, explore incentives, connect resources and remove barriers, Cherokee Nation and its businesses are helping grow and amplify television and film production in Oklahoma while making it possible for our citizens to be a part of it.”

Cherokee Nation Businesses announced the expansion in late August with the new company name and divisions, as well as logos, new social media accounts and a website to represent the tribe’s continued efforts.

Breaking new ground

The existing 27,000-square-foot studio — known as Cherokee Film Studios, Owasso Campus — was the first of its kind in Oklahoma and in Indian Country, though the Tesuque Pueblo tribe now operates Camel Rock Studios, a movie studio in an existing building that once housed a casino in New Mexico.

Owasso Campus sits on more than four acres in the Cherokee Nation Reservation and includes dedicated studio spaces with edit suites, a control room, a professional-grade audio booth, crew and client lounges, and hair and make-up facilities to meet the growing needs of production in Oklahoma.

Related story:
Tribes open film studios to lure movie, TV productions

The new 10,000-square-foot soundstage will feature a 35-foot ceiling, full soundproofing to cinema standards, a modular truss system with chain hoists, a hair and make-up room, a multipurpose-flex space, 14-foot bay doors for load-ins and RV hookups for production trailers. It is expected to be completed in 2024.

“Cherokee Nation and its businesses continue to stand at the forefront of industry and economic growth in Oklahoma,” Chuck Garrett, the chief executive officer of Cherokee Nation Businesses said at the groundbreaking.

“We are very proud of our ongoing leadership role in helping grow and evolve the film and television industry, and it’s time that our brand recognizes the entirety of those efforts,” Garrett said.

Cherokee drummer Makayla Bearpaw, right, is featured in Season 8 of the Cherokee Nation’s award-winning programming, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People.” The tribe announced in 2023 that it is expanding its film and television business to include additional original projects. Bearpaw is shown here with Cherokee Film production specialist Colby Luper. (Photo courtesy Cherokee Nation)

The four branches of Cherokee Film will expand the tribe’s already extensive efforts.

The Cherokee Film Commission will continue to offer its $1 million annual rebate to film production in the state and will serve as the liaison to Indian Country, connecting productions with diverse locations spanning five eco-regions, skilled Native talent and crew, and the virtual production soundstage.

The Cherokee Film Institute will train, develop and elevate Native and local talent to work professionally in the film and media industries, creating sustainable career opportunities within the Cherokee Nation and beyond.

Under the new Cherokee Film Productions, the tribe will continue the popular award-winning television production OsiyoTV and will add new projects that tell Cherokee stories and contribute to the tribe’s language revitalization efforts.

The National Academy of Television, Arts & Sciences recently recognized the show, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People,” with six Heartland Regional Emmy Awards.

The tribe’s cultural television series, and the short documentaries included within it, continue to be honored with numerous regional, national and international accolades for its approach to sharing real-life stories of the Cherokee people.

The show, which is often referred to as OsiyoTV, ranks among the most-awarded Indigenous-run series in the industry. The 2023 Heartland Regional Emmy Awards bring the show’s total Emmy wins to 22.

Since premiering in 2015, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People” has featured hundreds of Cherokees from both past and present. The first-of-its-kind series, hosted and executive produced by Cherokee Nation filmmaker and Emmy-winning journalist Jennifer Loren, is breaking barriers and helping change how Native Americans are represented.

And Cherokee Film Studios, meanwhile, will continue to support the local, regional and Native film industries through investments in infrastructure that expand on the tribe’s existing soundstage facility in Owasso.

Looking ahead

Hollywood is already gaining interest in Oklahoma.

Among the projects that have filmed in Oklahoma are the “Reservation Dogs” series; the film “Stillwater,” featuring Matt Damon; HBO Max’s “Land of Gold”; and Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the upcoming Apple+ film about the murder of members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s.

Scorsese’s western shot a few days on Cherokee land and worked with its film office on casting, an experience tribal leaders are hoping to build on.

The first film to receive the $1 million rebate was “Fancy Dance,” the Erica Tremblay film shot on the Cherokee Nation, which made its world premiere in the 2023 Sundance Film Festival and was a finalist in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.

This still shot is taken from the film, “Fancy Dance,” by director/producer and co-writer Erica Tremblay, Seneca–Cayuga, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It was the first film to officially receive a $1 million rebate under the Cherokee Nation Film Incentive program. (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“We knew it was going to be a success,” Jennifer Loren, senior director of Cherokee Film, told the Tulsa World after returning from the festival. “We had a pretty good feeling. That film, everything about it supports the mission of the Cherokee Film Office. It was a great fit.”

Starring actress Lily Gladstone, who is also in “Killers of the Flower Moon” with Leonardo DiCaprio, “Fancy Dance’ was a high-profile first for the Cherokee Nation Film Incentive program though other incentive projects have since been completed.

“(‘Fancy Dance’) is the first to get a check, to get the cash rebate,” Loren said. “There were several projects that were kind of the first wave, but they were the first ones to turn in the ledgers and everything to get their rebate.”

Other projects are on the way, but likely have been stalled by ongoing strikes by both the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America.

The movie “Twisters,” a sequel to the 1996 film “Twister,” was in the midst of filming in Oklahoma when the industry was shut down by the strikes. The Universal film, with a monster $200 million budget, stars Daisy Edgar-Jones, Glen Powell and Anthony Ramos, and had an expected release date in the summer of 2024.

Loren said four projects pre-approved for the incentive are in line to be filmed in 2023, though the strikes will cause delays.

Among those is a standout Indigenous story by Andrew Troy, a historical feature, “I Am A Man: The True Story of Ponca Chief Standing Bear.”

To qualify for the incentive, a film or TV show working with the Cherokee Film Office doesn’t have to be Native-themed. Cherokee Nation officials say they will consider the projects by merit rather than on a first-come, first-served basis, and special consideration will be given to projects that help dispel stereotypes about Indigenous people.

“The launch of Cherokee Film represents a new way forward, not just for the Cherokee people, but for all of Indian Country and for film and media as a whole,” Loren said in a statement. “With a community-driven mindset, we have built a living, breathing ecosystem to create positive change through the practice of storytelling in the digital age.”

She continued, “With Cherokee Film’s new investments in film and media production and investments in educating our workforce, we hope to create lasting change that will help diversify the stories we see in mainstream media. Our team at Cherokee Film is passionate about creating a better and more inclusive life for the next seven generations.”

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Sober living fraud scheme targeted Montana tribal citizens

When Autumn Nelson decided she was ready to seek treatment for her alcoholism, she knew she had to act fast.

“When someone with an addiction says, ‘I need help,’ we’re begging,” she said. “We want it.”

Nelson, who lives on the Blackfeet Reservation, knew she might have to leave home to get the help she needed. Crystal Creek Lodge provides inpatient and outpatient treatment on the reservation, but community members say the place is almost always at capacity. Journey to Recovery, another facility on the reservation, provides outpatient services primarily focused on supporting individuals after they return from inpatient treatment. And sometimes, it can be helpful for people struggling with addiction to leave their environment and disconnect from people in their circles who may be using.

So when Journey to Recovery gave Nelson the contact information for a treatment center in Arizona, Nelson was hopeful. She was ready to get clean. Little did she know she’d soon be caught up in a national scandal.

Phoenix House Recovery, a treatment center in Arizona, paid for Nelson’s plane ticket to Arizona, and Nelson was eager for a fresh start. Her father died of cancer three years ago, and just before his death, her younger brother died in a car accident.

“That really set my alcoholism off,” she said. “I kind of just stepped out of reality for a while.”

But Phoenix House Recovery wasn’t what Nelson had imagined. She has a background in health care and had been to other treatment centers in the past, and as time went on, she grew suspicious about how the facility was run.

“I started asking questions,” Nelson said. “Like, ‘Where’s the 12-step plan? Why isn’t that in our daily agenda? Why aren’t we learning about triggers, external and internal? Where is our life skills training? Why aren’t we building resumés? Why is there one therapist for 30 patients?’ I asked the clients and staff, and they kicked me out the next day.”

Out on the streets in 100-plus degree weather, Nelson had to find somewhere to go. She looked into other sober living homes but grew concerned when she was offered alcohol and drugs at one of them. She didn’t know who she could trust.

“I was scared,” she said. “I’m thousands of miles away from my family and my home. I was freaking out. I was hysterical.”

While Nelson ultimately made it home to the Blackfeet Reservation, her experience in Arizona is not uncommon.

What happened to her has happened to thousands of other Native Americans in Arizona amid a widespread Medicaid fraud scheme, where treatment centers billed the state thousands of dollars per patient for services that were not actually provided. Indigenous people from Montana, Arizona, New Mexico and South Dakota were recruited to get treatment at these fraudulent facilities, and experts estimate that at least 100 Native Americans from Montana are tangled in the scam.

The scheme defrauded Arizona taxpayers, and at these fraudulent sober living homes, some clients were given drugs and alcohol. Others were told to get on food stamps. And some people seeking treatment were paid to recruit more Native Americans to these facilities. As the fraudulent treatment centers have shuttered amid a government crackdown, Montana tribes and grassroots advocates are scrambling to get their relatives home. But because these facilities changed clients’ state of residency to Arizona for billing purposes, it’s even harder for tribes and families in Montana to locate their loved ones.

What exactly is happening in Arizona?

Arizona officials have called it “a stunning failure of government.”

In a widespread scam, treatment facilities in Arizona billed for nonexistent services, and the money was paid through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS), Arizona’s Medicaid program. The scam targeted Native Americans because a loophole in AHCCCS’s American Indian Health Program allowed individuals to pose as a treatment facility.

Reva Stewart, who launched the campaign #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits to raise awareness of the fraud, said experts have traced the origins of the scam to the pandemic.

“They targeted Native Americans because the American Indian Health Plan would pay for everything they documented,” she explained. “Once these places found out they could get something like $1,700 per day per person, you saw them popping up everywhere. With that money, one home can make $2 million in two weeks. I even saw a YouTube video on how to open a sober living home in 15 minutes.”

The Arizona Mirror reported that AHCCCS was billed $53.5 million under the outpatient behavioral health clinic code in 2019. In 2020, it more than doubled to $132.6 million, and by 2022 it exploded to $668 million.

The FBI, which is investigating the fraud, is seeking to contact victims of the scam. The agency said in some cases, organizers pick up addicts at popular gathering places; sometimes individuals are given alcohol during transport; and clients are told to obtain food stamps during their time in treatment even though their enrollment brings funding to the home. The FBI investigation has resulted in at least 45 indictments by the office of the Arizona Attorney General, and at least $75 million has been seized.

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs in May announced, according to The Associated Press, that the homes defrauded the state of hundreds of millions of dollars. AHCCCS has since suspended payments to hundreds of providers in the state.

As these homes have closed, Native American residents are left on the streets of Arizona in temperatures nearing 115 degrees. Some people have been reported missing, and others have turned up dead.

‘I blame them’

Mona Bear Medicine, Blackfeet, said when her 25-year-old son RayDel Calf Looking went to Phoenix for treatment, she had high hopes for him.

Calf Looking completed a longer treatment program, lasting 60 or 90 days, and Bear Medicine said he was doing well. There are many highly regarded treatment facilities in Arizona that have effective programs and competent staff, and plenty of Montana tribal members speak highly of them.

“He sent a selfie over Christmas, and he looked really healthy,” Bear Medicine said of her son. “He looked good. And I could tell he was doing good for himself.”

Bear Medicine said her son started drinking in high school, but she didn’t realize he was doing drugs until about five years ago. Calf Looking was gay, and Bear Medicine said he struggled to come out and faced adversity when people he loved didn’t accept him.

“I think that was the reason he got into drugs,” she said. “He didn’t know how to come out. He was teased for it, and it hurt him. He started doing different drugs, and it got worse and worse, and he got into meth. It was hard for me to realize the extent of it, and I didn’t realize how hard it was going to be on my family.”

Calf Looking completed the long-term program, and then went to a sober-living home in Arizona, called Calm Integrated Healthcare. Bear Medicine said, “That’s when the problems started.”

In February, Bear Medicine hadn’t heard from her son in a while, and she was worried. She and her sister flew down to Arizona and found Calf Looking, who had walked out of the home and appeared to be intoxicated.

“He was disappointed in himself for relapsing,” Bear Medicine recalled.

Bear Medicine took her son back to Calm Integrated Healthcare and almost immediately got a bad feeling about the place. She said her son was clearly intoxicated, and the staff at Calm Integrated said it was fine for him to stay with Bear Medicine at her motel for a few days.

“It was so shady,” Bear Medicine said. “When she said RayDel could stay with us, I asked, ‘What does he need to do? Does he need to go to class?’ And she just said, ‘No, he doesn’t need to do anything.’ When I drove away, I said to RayDel, ‘I’m so confused. I thought sober living was sober.’ And he said, ‘They don’t care as long as they get your money.’”

When Calf Looking stayed with Bear Medicine at the motel, he kept drinking, and after Bear Medicine left, she knew he was still drinking, even though he’d returned to the sober-living home.

In late March, Calf Looking’s cousin, Vandree Old Person, was found dead on the Blackfeet Reservation, and Calf Looking, who was supposed to fly home to be a pallbearer, was taking the death hard. Again, Bear Medicine didn’t hear from him, and again, she was worried.

One day in April, Bear Medicine got a call from a detective.

“When she called, I thought, ‘What did he do now?’” Bear Medicine recalled. “I said, ‘Is he in jail? Is he hurt?’ And she said, ‘No.’ Then she asked me, ‘Is anyone with you?’ and that’s when it started clicking. I said, ‘Oh my God. Is he dead?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’”

The detective told Bear Medicine that her son broke into a house while intoxicated and the homeowner, fearing for his life, shot Calf Looking as he walked up the stairs of his home. Bear Medicine said her son was shot in the back, which she finds incongruous with the detective’s recounting. And she still hasn’t received an autopsy. She was told the FBI is investigating her son’s case, but months later, she still hasn’t heard from the federal agency.

Calm Integrated Healthcare has told Bear Medicine that her son walked out of their facility and was not under their care at the time he was killed, but Bear Medicine maintains that the sober-living home had a part in his death.

“I do think the center was responsible for his death,” she said. “They took the money but still let him drink. He was really trying. He really did try, but it was so easy for him to have a free place to stay that allowed him to drink. I blame them. I really blame them.”

AHCCCS payments to Calm Integrated Healthcare were suspended on May 15 — about a month after Calf Looking was killed.

‘It’s systemic’

Just as with Autumn Nelson, Journey to Recovery in Browning connected Josh Racine to a treatment center in Arizona. A spokesperson for Journey to Recovery was not available for comment.

Racine, Blackfeet, flew out to Sunrise Native Recovery, an alcohol and drug treatment center in Scottsdale, in March. About a month later, he was on the streets.

Laura McGee, Racine’s sister, didn’t know where he was or what happened, but she was determined to find him. She called Sunrise Native Recovery, but they were no help. She called the hospitals in the area, but no luck there, either. Racine would occasionally ask her to send him food at the treatment center — something McGee thought was odd — so she scoured previous food orders to try and nail down a timeline of his disappearance. She scrutinized past texts with her brother to pinpoint a location, but her efforts felt futile.

“I was panicking because I knew what had happened to RayDel,” she said. “It was a feeling I can’t even describe. We lost our mother suddenly, and seven months later, our stepdad, who primarily raised Josh, died. And then our grandmother died, and our first cousin died of an overdose. So Josh is already an addict and now he’s out on the streets dealing with sudden death.”

As McGee did more research, she learned about the hundreds of other sober-living homes in Arizona that had been shut down. It became clear that the problem was bigger than just her and her brother, so she approached the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council.

“I told council, ‘I need help,’” she recalled. “’You sent him there through a program on this reservation. I need help getting him back.’”

The council ultimately paid for a few of McGee’s family members to fly to Arizona, and they successfully brought Racine home, but McGee’s work was not done. Upon her brother’s return, she began to piece together the broken system.

Through conversations with her brother, McGee said she learned that Sunrise charged AHCCCS at least $117,000 in one month for services related to Racine — services that Racine himself said he did not receive.

“That was for one month for one person,” McGee said. “So imagine doing that for 20 or 80 people in a facility. It adds up.”

Racine told McGee that the centers would give clients $50 a week to live on, and he was reportedly told by Sunrise that if he recruited other Native Americans, they would reward him with $100.

“It’s systemic,” McGee said. “There weren’t protocols, and people were being taken advantage of.”

McGee said people struggling with addiction are a particularly vulnerable population, which worked to the scheme’s advantage.

“These are addicts who have lost the trust of their families,” she said. “So when they say, ‘This treatment center isn’t good. They’re putting me out on the street,’ families weren’t believing them. These people knew that and used it against them.”

That’s exactly what happened to Wendy Bremner. Her daughter Brooke Running Crane, Blackfeet, also went to Sunrise, and Running Crane was also suspicious of the facility. She told her mother she wasn’t comfortable at Sunrise and was scared to be there. But Bremner didn’t know what to do.

“I didn’t want to be an enabler,” she said. “I don’t know if what she’s telling me is true. I don’t want to interfere with treatment.”

Later, Running Crane’s anxiety about Sunrise rose to a breaking point, and she was hospitalized for a panic attack. Sunrise told Bremner that her daughter could not return to the facility, and as far as Bremner could tell, her daughter was going to be discharged from the hospital on to the streets.

Bremner called Sunrise over and over again until they finally agreed to help transfer Running Crane to another facility. Running Crane’s new facility is a good one, but Bremner said she doesn’t know what would’ve happened to her daughter if she hadn’t intervened.

“It was really scary,” she said. “She didn’t have anywhere to go, and I was just calling people saying, ‘You can’t just throw my daughter out.’”

Bremner said her daughter ended up at Sunrise because she’d heard of several people in Browning who’d gone there. And when Running Crane expressed that she wanted to receive treatment, Bremner said the treatment facilities in Arizona “felt like a miracle.”

“Families are desperate to get their people help when they say, ‘I want to go to treatment,’” she said. “It’s very rare, so at that moment, you really want to get them in somewhere while they’re ready to go. It’s so hard to get treatment here, and sending her far away is scary, but we wanted her to get help.”

AHCCCS payments to Sunrise Native Wellness were suspended on July 21 — almost two months after Racine went missing and five months after Running Crane’s panic attack.

Tribes take action

After the Blackfeet Council helped get Racine home, it quickly became clear that its work wasn’t done.

As McGee became more vocal on Facebook, more and more families reached out saying their loved ones were missing or stuck at treatment centers in Arizona. McGee continued to present her findings to the tribal government, and eventually, the council came out with a formalized plan of action.

Councilman Lyle Rutherford directed facilities on the reservation, including Journey to Recovery, not to send clients to treatment centers in Arizona. The tribe has worked with McGee and other advocates to bring at least 10 members home. And on Tuesday, the council issued a public health state of emergency “for Blackfeet tribal members affected by the humanitarian crisis arising from shuttered fraudulent behavioral health treatment facilities in Arizona.”

The council on Thursday instituted a ban prohibiting the solicitation of individuals on the reservation to attend fraudulent treatment facilities in Arizona and established civil penalties for individuals or entities that violate the ban at $5,000 for the first offense, $10,000 for the second offense and permanent expulsion from the reservation on the third offense.

The council also pledged to continue to help members who were displaced and said it created a task force to identify displaced individuals.

Councilwoman Shelly Hall said the emergency declaration helps bring awareness to the crisis and could allow the tribe to allocate more money toward its resolution.

“I believe there are about eight or 10 more Blackfeet down there,” Hall said. “This is important because these are our members. If they’re in any kind of trouble, we want to help them. We’ve heard horror stories of people who are on the streets in this heat.”

McGee said she also urged Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office to issue a public service announcement on the matter but was told that his office needed more information on the subject. She also reached out to members of Montana’s congressional delegation, and Sen. Jon Tester sent a letter to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, urging the group to “immediately investigate this matter further and provide a detailed report of their findings.”

The Billings Area Indian Health Service has asked Montana tribes to let the agency know how many citizens have been impacted, and other tribes in Montana have also taken action.

Josie Fisher, Northern Cheyenne, was at a different treatment facility in Arizona and didn’t feel safe. She said a staff member made inappropriate sexual comments to her, and she wrote on Facebook that she wanted to leave.

Fisher got connected with advocates through Facebook, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe paid for her plane ticket home.

“I’m so thankful to be home,” she said. “I’m at peace now. When I was there, I was just in survival mode.”

Northern Cheyenne Councilwoman Melissa Lonebear said as of Aug. 1, the tribe had helped three members get home from Arizona and added that the council is working with the tribal health department to develop a plan to get more people home.

She said part of the issue is that there is no treatment center on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

“The way the system is set up is if someone hits rock bottom and they want treatment, they will do an assessment at the Northern Cheyenne Recovery Center and then get referred to an outpatient 10-day program,” she said. “After 10 days, there’s a chance a bed will open in Billings or Butte, but that person may have to just return home. And because we don’t have sober living homes here, people come back and return to the same environment.”

Lonebear is hopeful that the tribe will be able to help people return home from Arizona, but acknowledged the council will have to overcome significant barriers in doing so. To be eligible for AHCCCS, treatment centers had clients change their residency address to Arizona, so it’s hard for tribal councils in Montana to know how many of their members are there. And tribes have noted that even when someone returns home, it can take time to change their residency back to Montana and re-enroll them in Medicaid.

“I just posted on Facebook asking, ‘How many Cheyenne members do we have in Arizona?’” Lonebear said. “I’m getting names from families, and it’s hard. It’s hard to reach people because there’s no way to communicate if that person doesn’t have a phone. This is a lot bigger than we know.”

Fisher’s boyfriend was at the same facility in Arizona, but it wasn’t as easy for him to get home. Jacinto Brien is Crow, and he tried reaching out to his tribe, just as Fisher had. But he had no luck.

“I tried reaching my tribe on the phone, but I couldn’t get ahold of anyone,” he said. “And because I’m Crow, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe couldn’t help.”

Reva Stewart, of the #StolenPeopleStolenBenefits campaign, ultimately fundraised to help get Brien home. Her GoFundMe has raised more than $8,000 to help Native Americans caught in the scam.

“I’m really grateful,” Brien said of Stewart’s efforts. “I’d just say, for any tribe that’s willing to help, please answer your phones. People need your help. This is important.”


If you or a loved one is at an Arizona treatment center or was at an Arizona treatment center and wants to come home, here are some resources:

  • Call your tribe. See if they can help bring you or a loved one home.
  • The Billings Area Indian Health Service is asking each tribe to let the agency know how many members have been impacted. Send relevant information to and or call 406-247-7248.
  • For an updated list on which Arizona treatment centers have been suspended, visit
  • To either verify or report an existing treatment center, visit
  • If you suspect Medicaid fraud or a health violation, call the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ fraud hotline at 800-201-6308.
  • If you would like to file a report to add to the ongoing FBI investigation into Arizona treatment centers, visit
  • Advocates Reva Stewart and Laura McGee can be reached on Facebook.

This article was first published in the Missoulian. 

The post Sober living fraud scheme targeted Montana tribal citizens appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

Canada’s first female national chief ousted over Zoom

Supreme Court rejects Navajo Nation’s water rights trust claim

The U.S. Supreme Court said the United States is not required “to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Tribe” because that provision is not explicitly stated in the Navajo Treaty of 1868, according to its ruling in a 5-4 vote in Arizona v. Navajo Nation, released Thursday.

The case was the third and final federal Indian law case this term.

Thursday’s decision reverses a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. The tribe cannot proceed with a claim against the Department of the Interior to “develop a plan to meet the Navajo Nation’s water needs and manage the main stream of the Colorado River in the Lower Basin.”

The court also ruled that the tribe cannot present a cognizable claim of breach of trust.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Amy Coney Barrett.

“And it is not the Judiciary’s role to rewrite and update this 155-year-old treaty,” Kavanaugh wrote. “Rather, Congress and the President may enact—and often have enacted—laws to assist the citizens of the western United States, including the Navajos, with their water needs.

Kavanaugh went on to write that the United States has no similar duty with respect to land on the reservation and it would be “anomalous to conclude that the United States must take affirmative steps to secure water.”

“For example, under the treaty, the United States has no duty to farm the land, mine the minerals, or harvest the timber on the reservation—or, for that matter, to build roads and bridges on the reservation,” Kavanaugh writes. “Just as there is no such duty with respect to the land, there likewise is no such duty with respect to the water.”

The Navajo Nation argued that securing water rights to the Colorado River for the tribe fell under the federal government’s trust obligations that were being unfulfilled.

Critics immediately reacted to the decision saying it is a virtual theft of water from the Navajo Nation.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and Speaker of the 25th Navajo Nation Council Crystalyne Curley shared their disappointment in the decision in a joint press release.

As president, Nygren said it is his job to protect the people, land and future and that he remains “undeterred in obtaining quantified water rights for the Navajo Nation in Arizona.”

“The only way to do that is with secure, quantified water rights to the Lower Basin of the Colorado River,” Nygren said in the statement. “I am confident that we will be able to achieve a settlement promptly and ensure the health and safety of my people.”

“Today’s ruling will not deter the Navajo Nation from securing the water that our ancestors sacrificed and fought for — our right to life and the livelihood of future generations,” Curley added.

As he has done in the past, Justice Neil Gorsuch laid out the history of the tribe and the surrounding circumstances that led to this point in his dissenting opinion. He writes that it is known that the United States holds some of the tribe’s water rights in trust and the government owes the Navajo Nation “a duty to manage the water it holds for the Tribe in a legally responsible manner.”

In his concluding paragraphs, Gorsuch writes that the tribe has tried nearly everything and poses the question, “Where do the Navajo go from here?”

“The Navajo have waited patiently for someone, anyone, to help them, only to be told (repeatedly) that they have been standing in the wrong line and must try another. To this day, the United States has never denied that the Navajo may have water rights in the mainstream of the Colorado River (and perhaps elsewhere) that it holds in trust for the Tribe,” Gorsuch writes. “Instead, the government’s constant refrain is that the Navajo can have all they ask for; they just need to go somewhere else and do something else first.”

Derrick Beetso, Navajo, is an attorney and director of Indian Gaming and Self-Governance at Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. He also is a board member of IndiJ Public Media, the non-profit that owns ICT.

He said the opinion acknowledges that the tribe does have water rights, although they are unquantified.

“The tribe itself is pretty much in the same position they were in before this litigation and in some respects has to go back to the drawing board to figure out how they can get the administration to move forward on assessing their water needs,” Beetso told ICT.

He added that the Supreme Court is just one branch of the government and the Navajo Nation may switch focus to the Biden Administration and Congress in the future.

“The administration can do all the things that the tribe’s asking them to do without a court telling them to do it,” he said. “And so I think the Navajo Nation can shift gears and put a lot of pressure on the Biden administration and see what can get done under this administration.”

Native American Rights Fund executive director John Echohawk, Pawnee, said in a joining statement with the National Congress of American Indians that the decision condones a lack of accountability by the U.S. government.

“Despite today’s ruling, Tribal Nations will continue to assert their water rights and NARF remains committed to that fight,” Echohawk said.

Fawn Sharp, Quinault, called the decision a setback but added tribes and Native organizations will continue to fight for and defend tribal sovereignty and the preservation of Indigenous ways of life.

“Water is necessary for all life, and when our ancestors negotiated agreements with the United States to secure our lands and our protection, water was understood and still is understood to be inseparable from the land and from our peoples,” Sharp said in the statement. “Today, the Supreme Court has once again assisted in the United States’ centuries-long attempts to try to get out of the promises they have made to Tribal Nations by stating that treaties only secure access to water, but do not require the United States to take any steps to protect or provide that water to our people.”

The court ruled in mid-June on the other two federal Indian law cases. The high court affirmed the Indian Child Welfare Act in a major win that was celebrated across Indian Country. The same day the ICWA opinion was released, the court also ruled on Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians v. Coughlin.

In that ruling, the court stated that tribes cannot use sovereign immunity in Bankruptcy Court.

The court still has a number of cases to rule on before taking a summer break. The justices will return for the next term starting in October.

The opinion on Arizona v. Navajo Nation can be read here.

The post Supreme Court rejects Navajo Nation’s water rights trust claim appeared first on Buffalo’s Fire.

How Arizona stands between tribes and their water

This story is the first in a series about the Colorado River. See the rest, as well as other great reporting from High Country News by signing up for our newsletter.

The Navajo Nation has for years been locked in contentious negotiations with the state of Arizona over water. With the tribe’s claims not yet settled, the water sources it can access are limited.

The hospital tried tapping an aquifer, but the water was too salty to use. If it could reach an agreement with the state, the tribe would have other options, perhaps even the nearby Little Colorado River. But instead, the Dilkon Medical Center’s grand opening has been postponed, and its doors remain closed.

For the people of the Navajo Nation, the fight for water rights has real implications. Pipelines, wells and water tanks for communities, farms and businesses are delayed or never built.

The Dilkon Medical Center. There hasn’t been enough clean water to fill a large tank that stands nearby, so the hospital sits empty.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News and ProPublica

ProPublica and High Country News reviewed every water-rights settlement in the Colorado River Basin and interviewed presidents, water managers, attorneys and other officials from 20 of the 30 federally recognized basin tribes. This analysis found that Arizona, in negotiating those water settlements, is unique for the lengths it goes to in order to extract concessions that could delay tribes’ access to more reliable sources of water and limit their economic development. The federal government has rebuked Arizona’s approach, and the architects of the state’s process acknowledge it takes too long.

The Navajo Nation has negotiated with all three states where it has land — Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — and completed water settlements with two of them. “We’re partners in those states, New Mexico and Utah,” said Jason John, the director of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. “But when it comes to Arizona, it seems like we have different agendas.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1908 that tribes with reservations have a right to water, and most should have priority in times of shortage. But to quantify the amount and actually get that water, they must either go to court or negotiate with the state where their lands are located, the federal government and competing water users. If a tribe successfully completes the process, it stands to unlock large quantities of water and millions of dollars for pipelines, canals and other infrastructure to move that water.

“We’re partners in those states, New Mexico and Utah. But when it comes to Arizona, it seems like we have different agendas.”

But in the drought-stricken Colorado River Basin — which includes seven states, two countries and 30 federally recognized tribes between Wyoming and Mexico — whatever river water a tribe wins through this process comes from the state’s allocation. As a result, states use these negotiations to defend their share of a scarce resource. “The state perceives any strengthening of tribal sovereignty within the state boundaries as a threat to their own jurisdiction and governing authority,” said Torivio Fodder, manager of the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Governance Program and a citizen of Taos Pueblo.

While the process can be contentious anywhere, the large number of tribes in Arizona amplifies tensions: There are 22 federally recognized tribes in the state, and 10 of them have some yet-unsettled claims to water.

Federally recognized tribal reservations and trust land in Arizona

*Congress has not yet ratified the treaty that would create a reservation for the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe out of land that is currently part of the Navajo Nation. Boundaries of reservations and trust land are from the 2018 U.S. Census.
Lucas Waldron/ProPublica

The state — through its water department, courts and elected officials — has repeatedly used the negotiation process to try to force tribes to accept concessions unrelated to water, including a recent attempt to make the state’s approval or renewal of casino licenses contingent on water deals. In these negotiations, which often happen in secret, tribes also must agree to a state policy that precludes them from easily expanding their reservations. And hanging over the talks, should they fail, is an even worse option: navigating the state’s court system, where tribes have been mired in some of the longest-running cases in the country.

Arizona creates “additional hurdles” to settling tribes’ water claims that don’t exist in other states, said Anne Castle, the former assistant secretary for water and science at the U.S. Department of the Interior. “The tribes haven’t been able to get to settlement in some cases because Arizona would impose conditions that they find completely unacceptable,” she said. 

Neither Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican who left office in January after two terms, nor his successor, Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs, responded to requests for comment on the state’s approach to water-rights negotiations. The Arizona Department of Water Resources, which represents the state in tribal water issues, declined to answer a detailed list of questions.

Shirley Wesaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, lives near the not-yet-open Dilkon Medical Center. She eagerly watched as it was built, anticipating a time, after it was completed in June 2022, when her elderly parents would no longer have to spend hours in the car to see their doctors off the reservation. But Wesaw is familiar with the difficulty accessing water in the area. Shared wells are becoming less reliable, she said. It’s most difficult during the summer, when some of her relatives have to wake up as early as 2 a.m. to ensure there’s still water to draw from a community well.

“When it’s low, there’s a long line there,” Wesaw said, “and sometimes it runs out before you get your turn to fill up your barrels.”

JB Stetson shows his grandson, Steven Begaye, how to haul water near Dilkon, Arizona.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News and ProPublica

Pipe dream

One impact of Arizona’s negotiating strategy was particularly evident at the outset of the pandemic.

In May 2020, as the Navajo Nation faced the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country, the tribe’s leaders suspected that their limited clean water supply was contributing to the virus’ spread on the reservation. They sent a plea for help to Ducey, the governor at the time.

More than a decade earlier, as the tribe was negotiating its water rights with New Mexico, Arizona officials inserted into federal legislation language blocking the tribe from bringing its New Mexico water into Arizona until it also reaches a settlement with Arizona. John, with the tribe’s water department, said the state “politically maneuvered” to force the tribe to accept its demands.

 A multibillion-dollar pipeline that the federal government is building will connect the Navajo Nation’s capital of Window Rock, Arizona, to water from the San Juan River in New Mexico. But without a settlement in Arizona, the pipe can’t legally carry the water. The restriction left the tribe waiting for new sources of water, which, during the pandemic, made it hard for people to wash their hands in communities where homes lack indoor plumbing.

First image: Jason John, director of the Navajo Nation Department of Water Resources. Second image: The Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project pipeline east of Window Rock, Arizona.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News and ProPublica

“For the State of Arizona to limit the access of its citizens to drinking water is unconscionable, especially in the face of the coronavirus pandemic,” then-Navajo President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer wrote to the governor. Nez and Lizer included with their letter a proposed amendment that would change a single sentence in the law. They asked Ducey to help persuade Congress to pass that amendment, allowing enough water for tens of thousands of Diné residents to flow onto the reservation.

Arizona rejected the request, according to multiple former Navajo Nation officials.

The Department of Water Resources did not provide ProPublica and High Country News with public records related to the state’s denial of the Navajo Nation’s request for help getting its water to Window Rock. Hobbs’ office said it could not find the communications relating to the incident.

Land and water

Nearly half of the tribes in Arizona are deadlocked with the state over water rights.

The Pascua Yaqui Tribe has 22,000 enrolled members, but limited land and housing allow only a third to live on its 3.5-square-mile reservation on the outskirts of Tucson. A subdivision still under construction has just started to welcome some Pascua Yaqui families on to the reservation. But the new development isn’t nearly large enough to house the more than 1,000 members on a waiting list. More than 18,000 additional acres of land would be needed to accommodate the tribe’s future population, according to a 2021 study that the tribe commissioned.

But Arizona has used water negotiations with tribes to curtail the expansion of reservations in a way no other state has. 

It’s state policy that, as a condition of reaching a water settlement, tribes agree to not pursue the main method of expanding their reservations. That process, called taking land into trust, is administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and results in the United States taking ownership of the land for the benefit of tribes. Alternatively, tribes can get approval from Congress to take land into trust, but that process can be more fraught, requiring expensive lobbying and travel to Washington, D.C.

The policy will force the Pascua Yaqui “to choose between houses for our families and water certainty for our Tribe and our neighbors,” then-Chairman Robert Valencia wrote to the Department of Water Resources in 2020. “While we understand that our Tribe must make real compromises as part of settlement, this sort of toll for settlement that is unrelated to water is unreasonable and harmful.”

Despite the construction of new homes on the Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s reservation, there is still a long waiting list of members hoping to move there.
Russel Albert Daniels/High Country News and ProPublica

For tribes across Arizona and the region, building homes and expanding economic opportunities to allow their members to move to reservations is a top priority.

The Pueblo of Zuni was the first tribe to agree to Arizona’s land requirement when it settled its water rights with the state in 2003. The Zuni had hoped to take into trust more land they own near their most sacred sites in eastern Arizona, but that will now require an act of Congress. Since the Zuni settlement, all four tribes that have settled water rights claims with Arizona have been required to agree to the same limit on expansion, according to ProPublica and High Country News’ review of every completed settlement in the state.

In a 2020 letter, the Navajo Nation’s then-attorney general called the state’s opposition to expansion “an invasion of the Nation’s sovereign authority over its lands and so abhorrent as to render the settlement untenable.”

The Interior Department, which negotiates alongside tribes, has agreed, objecting on multiple occasions in statements to Congress to Arizona’s use of water negotiations to limit the expansion of reservations. In 2022, as the Hualapai Indian Tribe settled its rights, the department called the state’s policy “contrary to this Administration’s strong support for returning ancestral lands to Tribes.”

Tribes in Arizona often wait decades to secure water rights

Seven federally recognized tribes in Arizona have filed but not settled any of their claims to water rights. The settlement process can take decades and wind through courts and Congress.

Note: Dates for the chart reflect the first year a tribe filed a claim for comprehensive water rights, known as Winters rights, after the 1908 Supreme Court decision that ruled reservations have inherent water rights meant to support a tribal homeland. In some cases, those rights are recognized through a court ruling, in others through an out-of-court settlement. Some tribes’ Winters rights, like the Tohono O’odham Nation’s, have only been partially settled. Data provided by Leslie Sanchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Lucas Waldron/ProPublica

Tom Buschatzke, director of the state’s Department of Water Resources, explained the reasoning behind Arizona’s stance to state lawmakers, noting it’s based on Arizona’s interpretation of a century-old federal law that Congress is the only legal avenue for tribes to take land into trust. “The idea of having that tribe go back to Congress is so that there’s transparency in a hearing in front of Congress so the folks in Arizona who might have concerns can get up and express those concerns and then Congress can act accordingly,” he told the Legislature, adding that the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ process, meanwhile, puts the decision in “the hands of a bureaucrat in Washington, D.C.”

The Department of Water Resources has even gone outside water-rights negotiations to challenge reservation expansion without an act of Congress. When the Yavapai-Apache Nation filed a trust land application with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2001, the department fought it, according to documents obtained via a public records request. The department went on to argue in an appeal that the trust land transfer would infringe on other parties’ water rights. A federal appellate board eventually ruled in favor of the tribe, but the state’s opposition contributed to a five-year delay in completing the land transition.

Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio has watched non-Indigenous communities grow as he works to secure land and water for his tribe. “They put the tribes through the wringer,” he said.

Pascua Yaqui Chairman Peter Yucupicio said that the process to secure land and water puts tribes “through the wringer.”
Russel Albert Daniels/High Country News and ProPublica

Arizona’s demands

No one has defined the terms of water negotiations between Arizona and tribes more than former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Before entering politics, he was a longtime attorney for the Salt River Project, a water and electric utility serving parts of metro Phoenix. During that time, he lobbied for and consulted on state rules that force tribes to litigate water disputes in state court if they’re unable to reach a settlement. After landing in the Senate, Kyl and his office oversaw meetings where parties hashed out disputes, and he saw his role as that of a mediator. He helped negotiate or pass legislation for the water rights of at least seven tribes.

“I wasn’t taking a side,” Kyl told ProPublica and High Country News, “but I was interested in seeing if they could all reach agreements.”

Tribes, though, often didn’t see him as a neutral party, pointing especially to his handling of negotiations for the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. He was shepherding a proposed settlement for the tribes through Congress in 2010 when he withdrew support, saying the price of the infrastructure called for in the proposal was too high to get the needed votes. A 2012 version of the tribes’ settlement also died after he added an extension to allow a controversial coal mine to continue operating.

Even when Kyl wasn’t directly involved, tribes were pushed to accept concessions, including limits on how they used their water. Settlements across the basin, including in Arizona, typically contain limits on how much water tribes can market, leaving unused water flowing downstream to the next person in line to use for free.

Even when Kyl wasn’t directly involved, tribes were pushed to accept concessions, including limits on how they used their water.

And several tribes in Arizona were asked to give up the ability to raise legal objections if other users’ groundwater pumping depleted water underneath their reservation.

Tribes have also often had to trade the priority of their water — the order in which supply is cut in times of shortage, such as the current megadrought — to access water. The Bureau of Reclamation recently proposed drastic cuts to Colorado River usage, and, in one scenario based on priority, a quarter of the proposed cuts to allocations would come from tribes in Arizona.

“Some of the Native American folks had a hard time with the concept that they had to give up rights in order to get rights,” Kyl said, adding that tribes risked getting nothing if they kept holding out. “If you’re going to resolve a dispute, sometimes you have to compromise.”

Given the long list of terms Arizona typically pursues, some tribes have been hesitant to settle — which can leave them with an uncertain water supply — so the state has tried to push them.

In 2020, Arizona legislators targeted the casino industry — the economic lifeblood of many tribes. Seven Republicans, including the speaker of the House and Senate president, introduced a bill to bar tribes from obtaining or renewing gaming licenses if they had unresolved water-rights litigation with the state. The bill failed, but Rusty Bowers, the House speaker at the time, said the legislation was intended to put the state on a level playing field with tribes. “Where is our leverage on anything?” Bowers said. If tribes weren’t using the water, then others would do so amid a drought in the growing state, he said.

A vendor booth on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. The tribe has for years been locked in contentious negotiations with the state over water.
Russel Albert Daniels/High Country News and ProPublica

The state’s economic and population growth has presented tribes with other challenges: They must now negotiate not only with the state and federal governments but also with the businesses, cities and utilities that have, in the interim, made competing claims to water.

It has taken an average of about 18 years for Arizona tribes to reach even a partial water-rights settlement, according to a ProPublica and High Country News analysis of data collected by Leslie Sanchez, a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, who researches the economics of tribal water settlements. The Arizona tribes that filed a claim but are still in the process of settling it have been waiting an average of 34 years.

Chairman Calvin Johnson of the Tonto Apache Tribe — which has a small reservation next to the Arizona mountain town of Payson — remembers, as a child, watching his uncle, then the chairman, begin the fight in 1985 to get a water-rights settlement.

Still without a settlement, the tribe hopes to one day plant orchards for a farming business, build more housing to support its growing population and reduce its reliance on Payson for water, Johnson said. But, faced with Arizona’s demands, the tribe has not yet accepted a deal.

“The feeling that a lot of the older tribal members have is that it’s not ever going to happen, that we probably won’t see it in our lifetime,” Johnson said.

Turning to the courts

Tribes that hope to avoid Arizona’s aggressive tactics can instead go to court — an even riskier gamble that drags on and takes the decision-making out of the hands of the negotiating parties.

The Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians is the only federally recognized tribe in Arizona yet to file a claim for its water. It has a reservation near the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, but with only 400 members and minimal resources, it would face a daunting path forward. To settle its rights, the tribe would have to engage in court proceedings to divvy up Kanab Creek, the only waterway that crosses its reservation; bring anyone with a potential competing claim to the creek’s water; find money to complete scientific studies estimating historical flows; and then, because the waterway spans multiple states, possibly face interstate litigation before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It’s about creating and sustaining that permanent homeland,” said Alice Walker, an attorney for the band, but the path between the tribe and that water “boils down to all of those complex, expensive steps.”

Arguing before the Supreme Court on behalf of Arizona and other parties in 1983, Kyl successfully defended a challenge to a law called the McCarran Amendment that allowed state courts to take over jurisdiction of tribal water-rights claims.

“It’s about creating and sustaining that permanent homeland.”

“Tribes are subject to the vagaries of different state politics, different state processes,” explained Dylan Hedden-Nicely, director of the Native American Law Program at the University of Idaho and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. “As a result, two tribes with identical language in their treaties might end up having, ultimately, very different water rights on their reservations.”

Some states, such as Colorado, set up special water courts or commissions to more efficiently settle water rights. Arizona did not. Instead, its court system has created gridlock. Hydrological studies needed from the Department of Water Resources take years to complete, and state laws add confusion over how to distinguish between surface and groundwater.

Two cases in Arizona state court that involve various tribes — one to divide the Gila River and another for the Little Colorado River — have dragged on for decades. The parties, which include every person, tribe or company that has a claim to water from the rivers, number in the tens of thousands. Just one judge, who also handles other litigation, oversees both cases.

Even Kyl now acknowledges the system’s flaws. “Everybody is in favor of speeding up the process,” he said.

After years of negotiations that failed to produce a settlement, the Navajo Nation went to court in 2003 to force a deal. Eventually, the case reached the Supreme Court, which heard it this March. Tribes and legal experts are concerned the court could use the case to target its 1908 precedent that guaranteed tribes’ right to water, a ruling that would risk the future of any tribes with unsettled water claims.

The Navajo Nation, according to newly inaugurated President Buu Nygren, has huge untapped economic potential. “We’re getting to that point in time where we can actually start fulfilling a lot of those dreams and hopes,” he said. “What it’s going to require is water.”

The Navajo Nation has untapped economic potential, according to President Buu Nygren, but realizing it will require water.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News and ProPublica

Just across the Arizona-New Mexico border, not far from Nygren’s office in Window Rock, construction crews have been installing the 17 miles of pipeline that could one day deliver large volumes of the tribe’s water to its communities and unlock that potential. Because of Arizona’s changes to the federal law, that day won’t come until the state and the Navajo Nation reach a water settlement.

For now, the pipeline will remain empty.

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor of
High Country News. She writes and edits stories on tribal sovereignty and environmental
justice for the Indigenous Affairs desk from Colorado. @annavtoriasmith

Mark Olalde is an environment reporter with ProPublica, where he investigates issues concerning oil, mining, water and other topics around the Southwest.

Umar Farooq is an Ancil Payne Fellow with ProPublica, where he reports on national issues. @UmarFarooq_

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

Hay – yes, hay – is sucking the Colorado River dry

As the nation’s second-largest reservoir recedes, a once-drowned ecosystem emerges

If you want to see the Colorado River change in real time, head to Lake Powell.

At the nation’s second-largest reservoir, water levels recently dipped to the lowest they’ve been since 1968. As the water recedes, a breathtaking landscape of deep red-rock canyons that cradle lush ecosystems and otherworldly arches, caverns and waterfalls is emerging.

On a warm afternoon after the reservoir had dipped to a record low, Jack Stauss walked along a muddy creek bed at the bottom of one of those canyons. He works as the outreach coordinator for Glen Canyon Institute, a conservation nonprofit that campaigns for the draining of the reservoir and highlights the natural beauty of Glen Canyon, which was flooded in the 1960s to create Lake Powell.

“I call this the moon zone,” Stauss said, as his shin-high rubber boots splashed through cold pools and eddies. “There are ecosystems that thrive in these side canyons, even when they’ve been de-watered for just, like, four years. You start to see stuff come back on a really unprecedented scale.”

As the nation’s second-largest reservoir recedes, a once-drowned ecosystem emerges
A pontoon boat is tied up at the shore of a recently-revealed beach in one of Lake Powell’s side canyons on April 10, 2023. The evening sunlight casts a reflection of the canyon’s “bathtub rings” on the still water.
Alex Hager / KUNC

Lake Powell is already receiving a major springtime boost. Until July, snow from an epic winter in the Rocky Mountains will melt and flow into the reservoir, and portions of those side canyons will flood anew. But for a brief moment in the late winter and early spring of 2023, Powell was creeping lower by the day. The falling water levels have created a harrowing visual reminder. Climate change has put the West’s key water supply on the ropes. At the same time, the drop reveals a spectacular landscape that environmentalists have heralded as a “lost national park.”

Stauss – an environmentalist who refers to Lake Powell as “the reservoir” – invited a small group of adventurous water wonks to chronicle its historically low water levels. He ambles along through the ankle-deep water, pointing up toward the infamous “bathtub rings,” chalky white mineral deposits on the canyon walls that serve as visual markers of the reservoir’s heyday.

“It’s staggering,” Stauss said. “The scale is hard to wrap your head around. The fact that the whole time we were just hiking, we would have been underwater, is shocking.”

The high water line, set in the early 1980s, is more than 180 feet above our heads. Even last summer’s high water mark is about eye level.

Reminders of Glen Canyon’s return to some form of pre-reservoir normal aren’t always as static as the bathtub rings on canyon walls. All around our feet, the shallow water teems with life. The crystal-clear creeks are full of spindly bugs that float on the water’s surface. Occasionally, toads jump from the stream’s sandy banks. Lizards bask in patches of sun. Bird calls echo off the smooth walls and melt into a distorted chorus.

Teal Lehto, who makes short videos about the Colorado River on TikTok under the name “WesternWaterGirl,” was also on the expedition. She pushed past a dense thicket of willows as we hiked through the canyon.

“It’s really, really interesting seeing the way that the ecosystem is recovering,” Lehto said. “And then there’s a little bit of heartbreak knowing that this area is probably going to be submerged again in a couple of months.”

After spending decades under mostly-still water, these canyons are laden with heaps of sediment that settled onto on the lake’s floor. Towering, crumbly banks of sand and dirt line the bottom of each side canyon, often high enough that some of the group’s ski enthusiasts try to carve down, sliding across the loose deposits in their sandals.

As those sandy banks start to erode, they also reveal traces of human activity. Old beer cans, golf balls, and other tattered bits of unidentifiable trash poke through the sediment, leaving lasting reminders of Powell’s double-life: a bustling haven for recreation, and a key piece of water storage infrastructure.

A man with curly black hair wearing a purple sweatshirt runs through tall grass.
Jack Stauss of the Glen Canyon Institute dashes through a thicket on April 10, 2023. “It’s a scary future for water in the West,” he said. “But as far as Glen Canyon goes, it’s a pretty amazing silver lining.”
Alex Hager / KUNC

‘Nature bats last’

The group’s boat – a rented pontoon boat with plenty of space for the camera gear, camping setups and loaded coolers we’ve piled towards the back – wasn’t particularly agile. Stauss carefully piloted the craft through a “ghost forest,” where the blackened, skeletal tips of cottonwood trees are just seeing the light of day after decades underwater.

“Every time you come down here, it’s sort of a different game of steering the boat through stuff,” he said. “It’s kind of exciting, actually, like a little puzzle.”

After a slow cruise around the eerie labyrinth of treetops, Stauss leaned the accelerator back into neutral. The boat idled in front of the messy, muddy delta of the Escalante River. The river carries snowmelt about 90 miles through Southeast Utah before it runs into Lake Powell, in an area which was once the free-flowing Colorado River.

Another member of the expedition, Len Necefer, was in this same spot last year. Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation, founded the consulting and media group NativesOutdoors and holds a PhD in engineering and public policy.

“It’s constantly changing,” he said. “In a few weeks you’ll be able to motor around and go up to Willow Canyon and all that. But right now it’s in this sort of crazy zone of transition.”

The group ponders a trek out onto the delta itself but decides against venturing into the mud, where footing looks uncertain. As the boat cruised into a U-turn, Necefer posited that “nature bats last.”

“Bottom of the ninth, end of a baseball game, nature is at bat and basically has the final say on what happens,” he said.

Nature is taking its last licks in nearly every corner of the sprawling reservoir. Elsewhere, a natural stone arch, once completely submerged, is now so high above the water that you can drive a boat underneath.

A bridge-like mass of red and tan rock rises next to a red mountain.
Water in Lake Powell shimmers on the underside of Gregory Natural Bridge on April 11, 2023. Once completely submerged, the arch is far enough out of the water to drive a boat underneath.
Alex Hager / KUNC

At the reservoir’s marinas, receding water has thrown a curveball to Lake Powell’s powerhouse recreation industry. In 2019, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area attracted 4.4 million visitors, more than Yellowstone National Park. The National Park Service says tourism brought $502.7 million to local economies.

But the recreation area – a world-renowned hotspot for houseboaters, wakeboarders, and jet skiers – has taken a hit.

At marinas along Lake Powell, the distance between the parking lot and the shore of the reservoir has gotten dramatically longer over the past two decades.

At Bullfrog Marina, where Stauss rented the pontoon boat, what was once a gentle ramp right next to the parking lot is now a strip of concrete hundreds of feet long. Docks and buoys once moored in water dozens of feet deep now lie crooked and dusty on the desert ground.

In the past few years, the National Park Service has had to make the Bullfrog Marina ramp even longer, chasing the water as it recedes. Further upstream, the Hite Marina, once a busy put-in for boats, is stranded so far away from the water that it is now shuttered.

The silhouette of a man with a backpack and camera is reflected on a red and cream-colored wall.
Len Necefer, a member of the Navajo Nation and founder of Natives Outdoors, takes a picture in Glen Canyon on April 10, 2023. At the muddy, messy delta where the Escalante River meets Lake Powell, Necefer posited that “nature bats last.” Alex Hager / KUNC

‘Speechless’ at the Cathedral

Each hike into a new side canyon was the same. Stauss pushed the bow of the pontoon boat into the muddy shore, and the group hopped out clad with backpacks full of cameras. At each new mooring, the path was only visible a few dozen yards up the canyon before a dramatic curve obscured the route ahead.

On one hike, an extra-squishy patch of mud turned out to be quicksand. The trekkers tap danced across it, careful not to sink too deep, but egged each other on to test its limits. Filmmaker Ben Masters, a member of the expedition, wriggled around until he was waist deep and needed a hand to get unstuck.

“Indiana Jones taught me to stop resisting,” Lehto said as Masters pulled himself out of the muck.

After about a half hour of strolling, the crew got what it came for – a rare glimpse of Cathedral in the Desert.

Awe-inspiring as they are, the side canyons can blur together after a few hours of plodding through relatively indistinct curves in the rock.

This one is different.

The hikers round a corner and come upon a red-rock cavern. The group, chatty on the way in, falls silent for a moment.

Two people hike through a muddy canyon amid cream-colored rock.
Jack Stauss and filmmaker Ben Masters walk into Cathedral in the Desert on April 10, 2023. At one point, Lake Powell was so high that people could drive boats nearly 100 feet above Cathedral’s distinctive waterfall.
Alex Hager / KUNC

“I’m kind of speechless, which is really funny for me, because I always have something to say,” said Lehto, the TikTok creator. “But it is gorgeous. It’s amazing to me to imagine that this was all underwater, and it will be underwater again soon.”

The canyon tapered into a kind of dome, where only narrow slivers of sunlight peek through. In one corner, at the foot of a giant sand mound, a thin waterfall trickled from above. The rivulet snaked through a crack in the rock before it dribbled into a frigid, still pool and echoed through the cavern.

“I kind of wish there was a choir here because I think it would be really beautiful,” Lehto said. “Anybody know how to sing?”

Nobody in the group chimes in. Most are silent, staring up toward the top of the waterfall and contemplating the best way to position their cameras.

After a few minutes of silent marveling, Stauss provides some context.

Cathedral in the Desert made a brief above-water appearance in 2005, only to be submerged again until 2019. Since then, fluctuating water levels have flooded in and out of the pocket, limiting the waterfall’s height.

“People used to boat up 100 feet above the waterfall,” he said. “It’s something we’ve been waiting for for a long time. It’s another one of these markers of restoration to see Cathedral come back and to know that it’s not just a fraction of what it once was, but it’s going to be full size.”

After the fall, a rise

Standing under the Cathedral’s ceiling of smooth desert stone, Stauss pondered the future of a region where Lake Powell, and the rest of the Colorado River’s sprawling network of storage infrastructure, are due for an overhaul.

“I don’t think we should just think that the drawdown of these reservoirs is over,” he said. “I think we should use the moment to rethink completely how we store, use and conserve water across the West—and I think Glen Canyon should be at the heart of that conversation.”

A pool of water in red mud reflects the red canyon walls above.
Canyon walls at Cathedral in the Desert are reflected in a small stream on April 10, 2023. Cathedral in the Desert made a brief above-water appearance in 2005, only to be submerged again until 2019.
Alex Hager / KUNC

In some circles, Glen Canyon is a major thread in conversations about water management. Environmentalists argue that Powell should be drained and Glen Canyon should be allowed to return completely. Recreators disagree, and water managers have shown reluctance to break so sharply from the status quo.

But the Colorado River’s rapid drying has pushed the idea of draining Lake Powell from the fringe and given a semblance of legitimacy to water management ideas once considered far-fetched. The river, which supplies tens of millions across the Southwest, has faced dry conditions since around 2000. The seven U.S. states which share its water have been caught in a standoff about how to cut back on demand.

This year, deep mountain snow promises a serious boost, the likes of which have only been seen a handful of times in the past two decades. Runoff is expected to raise the reservoir’s surface by about 50 to 90 feet by this July.

But even the most cautious runoff estimates would leave the reservoir less than 40 percent full. Its levels will again begin to drop over the fall and winter.

One year of strong snow won’t be nearly enough to pull the reservoir out of trouble. Climate scientists say the Colorado River would need five or six winters like this one to rescue its major reservoirs from the brink of crisis.

The past few springs delivered relatively low runoff, leading to summers fraught with mandatory water cutbacks and emergency releases from smaller reservoirs – efforts primarily focused on keeping water in Lake Powell.

A tan-colored lizard perches on a rock almost the same color as his skin.
A lizard sunbathes in a side canyon of Lake Powell on April 10, 2023. As water retreats from the reservoir, once-submerged side canyons are beginning to harbor lush ecosystems.
Alex Hager / KUNC

Water managers are under pressure to keep water flowing through hydroelectric turbines within Glen Canyon Dam, which holds back Powell. After decades as a rock-solid emblem of the nation’s Cold War era expansion into the West, dropping water levels are threatening one of the dam’s primary functions. If water dips too low, the federal government could be forced to shut off hydropower generators that supply electricity to 5 million people across seven states.

This wet winter will ease some of that pressure, although water managers have publicly emphasized the need to avoid “squandering” the benefits of an unusually snowy year. The favorable conditions could relieve the need for emergency changes to Colorado River management, allowing the seven states which share its water to wait until 2026 for broader changes. The current operating guidelines for the river are set to expire that year, and water managers are expected to come up with more permanent cutbacks to water demand before that happens.

Amid tense negotiations and pre-2026 posturing, environmentalists like Stauss and his colleagues at Glen Canyon Institute are arguing for a future which cuts out a need for Lake Powell entirely – decommissioning Glen Canyon Dam and storing Powell’s water in other reservoirs.

A snow-capped mountain rises behind red rock mesas and a lake.
Snowy mountains loom behind lake Powell near Hall’s Crossing on April 10, 2023. The nation’s second-largest reservoir expects a big boost from snowmelt this year, but scientists say one wet winter will not be enough to turn around the Colorado River’s supply-demand crisis.
Alex Hager / KUNC

In the meantime, Stauss relished the brief glimpse at what that might look like.

“It’s a scary future for water in the West,” he said. “But as far as Glen Canyon goes, it’s a pretty amazing silver lining.”

This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Colorado River, produced by KUNC, and supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As the nation’s second-largest reservoir recedes, a once-drowned ecosystem emerges on Jun 3, 2023.

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