After 157 years, Montana tribes want their water 

It's a warm spring afternoon at the Nkwusm Language Institute, in Arlee, where Pat Pierre teaches Salish. At 83, Pierre, a big man with white hair and deep smile lines, is a respected Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai elder intent on transmitting tribal history and culture to his students. "I need to get my knowledge to them," he says.

Pierre is one of the few fluent Salish speakers left on the Flathead Indian Reservation. He grew up speaking it in his hometown of Camas Prairie, not far from here.

Pierre looks out the window and points northwest, toward Perma. When he was a kid, he fished there, on the banks of the Flathead River near Perma's Painted Rocks. The water was so clear, he recalls. The fish were massive. "Big suckers, like that," he says, holding his hands about a foot apart.

Camas Prairie lies at the center of what for thousands of years has been Pend d'Oreille territory. Pierre's grandfather and great-grandfather fished all across present-day Montana, Idaho and into eastern Washington. Fish were central to their culture. So were waterways. They were supposed to be protected, reserved for their use. Today, tribes could finally be on the verge of defining those rights.

click to enlarge Pat Pierre, one of CSKT’s water compact negotiators - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

In 1855, under the terms of the Hellgate Treaty, Salish, Pend d'Oreille and Kootenai tribal leaders ceded about 23 million acres of land to the U.S. government. In exchange, the government set aside the 1.3 million acre Flathead Reservation for their "exclusive use and benefit." They were promised the right to take fish in all the streams running through and bordering the reservation in perpetuity. In 1910, Congress opened the reservation to homesteading by non-Indians. Today, they outnumber American Indians there by more than 2 to 1, which has led to conflicts over water rights.

The Hellgate Treaty also guaranteed the tribes' right to fish in their traditional places, which extend well beyond the Flathead Reservation. It recognized that the Salish, Pend d' Orielle and Kootenai people have always drawn sustenance from the water.

"It's as important to us as the earth, the air," Pierre says. "Water to the Indian people is a very sacred substance. It's medicinal. Water, cold water, is used for healing broken bones, healing naked bodies. It's used for so many things by our people."

The trick is in quantifying just how much water the tribes are entitled to. To do that, hydrologists are at work now, measuring historic and current stream flows in area waterways and charting reservation water use. Tribal, state and federal negotiators are using that data to craft an agreement that will shape how people on the Flathead Reservation, in communities like Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius, use water.

That agreement, called a compact, also seeks to define off-reservation fishing rights, which extend across western Montana and could end up giving the tribes a significant role in protecting waterways there. Courts across the northwestern U.S. have found that states have a responsibility to keep rivers and creeks healthy enough to sustain fisheries so that aboriginal fishing rights have meaning.

click to enlarge The Pablo Canal, part of the Flathead Irrigation District - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

With more people wanting access to water in the region for a variety of uses, such as irrigation, drinking, fishing and recreation, and a finite supply, water compact negotiations can be emotionally charged. On one side are the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, who want to protect the water they have and ensure that the waterways that line Montana like veins remain healthy enough to sustain coming generations of Salish, Kootenai and Pend d'Oreille people. On the other side is the state, which must represent the interests of irrigators, city planners, developers and all other users of Montana's water. Some fear the CSKT's claim will mean less water for them.

The effort to forge a compact has officially been underway since the early 1980s. Now, though, pressure is on to nail down a deal. The Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission, a state agency authorized to negotiate water rights agreements with tribal and federal governments, is slated to dissolve in July 2013. The CSKT is the only tribal government of seven in Montana that has yet to quantify its claims.

If negotiators aren't able to arrive at an agreement, all parties face what could be a costly and protracted legal battle that could leave no one satisfied.

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