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Old 07-09-2004, 11:12 PM   #1
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Settlement to help Zuni Tribe protect its 'Heaven'

Indianz.Com. In Print.
URL: http://www.indianz.com/News/2004/003319.asp


Settlement to help Zuni Tribe protect its 'Heaven'
Friday, July 9, 2004


A water rights settlement finalized on Thursday gives Zuni Tribe the ability to protect one of its most sacred sites, officials said at a signing ceremony.

Tribal leaders joined federal and state officials in Washington, D.C., to mark the end of a long battle over water rights in eastern Arizona. The tribe, based in New Mexico, asserted claims on the Little Colorado River more than 20 years ago.

But rather than keep the dispute tied up in the courts, officials said they worked to find a solution that respects the tribe's religious rights. The $26.5 million package, signed into law by President Bush a year ago, will protect the final resting place of the Zuni people, said a tribal leader.

"They are the most important lands from time immemorial," said Wilford Eriacho, chairman of the tribe's water rights negotiating team.

The place is known as Zuni Heaven. Located about 50 miles from the main reservation in New Mexico, tribal members make regular pilgrimages to the area, considered a window into heaven. Tribal ceremonies and culture revolve around Zuni Heaven, which provides water, animals, plants and other materials needed for religious activities.

Yet Zuni Heaven has been missing a crucial ingredient for much of the 20th century -- water. Tribal history, photos and other documents show water was once plentiful there. But dams upstream and other diversions have dried up Zuni Heaven, threatening he very existence of the site.

The tribe hopes to reverse course by restoring the area to a wetlands state. While Zuni Heaven may never be returned to its original condition -- when elders recalled waist-deep, swift-moving streams -- the tribe sees the deal finalized yesterday as a "good step forward," said Eriacho.

"The water rights settlement will start to ease the hearts and minds of the Zuni people," he said at the Department of Interior.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the agreement helps the tribe and non-Indian water users by clearing up all unresolved issues related to the tribal claim. She said it was an example of how the federal government can work in partnership with tribal and state governments.

"It's important to protect and restore a sacred area," she said. "We need to have traditions that are long-standing and for our cultures to remain vibrant. Today's event has great significance for the cultural and natural future of the Southwest."

Under the settlement, the tribe can purchase up to 3,600 acre-feet of water in addition to existing rights at Zuni Heaven, which has been held in trust since 1984. The tribe also draw up to 1,500 acre-feet from particular wells.

The federal government is responsible for $19.2 million of the settlement, with the state of Arizona providing $1.6 million and Salt River Project, a power and water utility, will contribute $1 million. The money will create the Zuni Indian Tribe Water Rights Development Fund to provide for restoration activities and to purchase additional water rights from willing sellers.

Get the Bill:
Zuni Indian Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act of 2003 (S.222)

Relevant Documents:
Senate Testimony | Hearing Video

Related Stories:
Bush signs Zuni water settlement into law (6/25)
Zuni water rights settlement victim of sparring (06/05)
Congressman's first bill is for N.M. tribe (01/31)

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