Today Chairwoman Maria Cantwell (D-WA) held a legislative hearing to address water and lands rights that are essential to the Blackfeet Nation of Browning, Montana, and the Sandia Pueblo of Bernalillo, New Mexico. The hearing examined the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act of 2013 (S. 434) and the Sandia Pueblo Settlement Technical Amendment Act (S. 611).
"At the core of the principals of tribal self-governance and self-determination is the ability of tribes to exercise jurisdiction over their lands and their resources," said Cantwell. "Often legislation is necessary to ensure that tribes can exercise those rights."
The Committee heard testimony from the Department of the Interior, the State of Montana, and the Blackfeet Nation on their views of the Blackfeet Water Rights Settlement Act of 2013 (S. 434). The bill, introduced by Senators Max Baucus (D-MT) and Jon Tester (D-MT), would settle a longstanding water dispute between the Blackfeet Nation and the State of Montana, and would ratify an agreement that the two parties have reached.
The Committee heard from Shannon Augare, Councilman for the Blackfeet Nation, which has over 16,000 members, half of whom live on the reservation. "Safe and clean drinking water supplies are vital for the growing population on the Reservation, and water is critical to our economy which is heavily dependent on stock raising and agriculture," Augare said. "The Blackfeet Reservation's location along the eastern Rocky Mountain Front makes it the home of abundant fish and wildlife, which depend directly on the water resources of the Reservation to support them and allow them to thrive."
The Committee also heard from Jay Weiner, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Montana. "The State of Montana and the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council agree that this is a fair and equitable settlement that will enhance the ability of the Tribe to develop a productive and sustainable homeland for the Blackfeet People," said Weiner. "This settlement is the product of over two decades of negotiations among the parties, which included an intensive process of public involvement." Weiner continued: "The compact promotes development for the benefit of the Blackfeet Nation while protecting other water uses."
Witnesses from the Department of Agriculture and the Pueblo of Sandia testified on the Sandia Pueblo Settlement Technical Amendment Act (S. 611) at Wednesday's hearing. The bill, introduced by Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), would make a technical amendment to the T'uf Shur Bien Preservation Trust Area Act to accomplish the transfer of 700 acres of land to the Pueblo of Sandia that was intended to happen when Congress passed the original Act in 2003. The bill would clarify the valuation of the lands and require the Department of Agriculture to complete this transaction within 90 days of the Act's passage.
The Committee heard from Stuart Paisano, Councilman of the Pueblo of Sandia. "The Pueblo hopes that with the passage of this technical amendment, the land exchange that Congress authorized over 10 years ago in the T'uf Shur Bien Preservation Trust Act will finally happen," Paisano said. The Sandia Mountains have special cultural and spiritual significance to the Pueblo. Completion of the land transfer would ensure their preservation for members and future generations.