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Montana Ag Network: Fort Belknap gains bipartisan support for water rights

Posted at 8:40 AM, Jun 19, 2023

FT. BELKNAP — For over 100 years, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people have been fighting for tribal water rights, not just on their own reservation but for the entire nation.

In 1908, Winters v. United States Supreme Court case found that when tribes are allotted a piece of land, they should be issued water rights. The Ft. Belknap Tribe is known as the “Winters Tribe” being the first people to ensure that indigenous reservations have the fair right to water. A monumental decision that still led to false promises from the federal government.

For the past four decades, Ft. Belknap tribal Chiefs have been working to retain water rights to the Milk River, that the tribe rightfully deserved through prior treaties.

“We’re finally quantifying our water rights and it’s been going on for 40 years.” Jeff Stiffarm, President of the Ft. Belknap Indian Community shared.

The Ft. Belknap Indian Community Water Settlement is the last leg of the indigenous water fight in Montana, following the CSKT Water Settlement and the Blackfeet Water Settlement.

“We're finally going to have some money for infrastructure,” added Stiffarm.

The FBIC Water Settlement has been spearheaded by Democratic Senator Jon Tester, working diligently to gain bi-partisan support from Senator Steve Daines, Representative Matt Rosendale, Representative Ryan Zinke, and at the state level, Governor Greg Gianforte.

All of them released a press release this week announcing their support.

“In the end when this is all done, it just gives predictability when it comes to water and it’s going to allow some folks to add to our economy and create some jobs. With those things happening it’s a win-win for everyone,” explained Senator Jon Tester.

The settlement will provide $1.3 Billion to improve infrastructure and economic development.

The bill would also restore tribal management of 37,562 acres of state and federal land.

The funding helps improve the efficiency of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Milk River Project furnished water for 121,000 acres of tribal and non-tribal lands.

The Ft. Belknap tribe is still awaiting a vote from the House and Senate, and then a signature from President Joe Biden.

In a press release issued by Senator Tester’s Office, they issued a list of letters from supporters of the bill:

· Blaine County Conservation District [tester.senate.gov]

· Hill County [tester.senate.gov]

· Milk River Joint Board of Control [tester.senate.gov]

· Phillips County [tester.senate.gov]

· St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group [tester.senate.gov]

· Valley County [tester.senate.gov]

The Ft. Belknap Reservation sits in Blaine County and among the supporters, Blaine County has yet to send a letter of support of the motion.

Another list of supporters was also shared:

  • Blaine County Conservation District 
  • Hill County  
  • Phillips County 
  • Valley County
  • St. Mary Rehabilitation Working Group 
  • Milk River Joint Board of Control 
  • Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council 
  • The Wilderness Society 
  • Montana Farmers Union

Senator Daines issues a video statement to MTN News saying, “After many years of effort and good faith negotiation, it is time to pass this bipartisan bill to resolve Montana's final Indian water rights settlement.”
"After several years of discussion, I'm glad to see the Fort Belknap Indian Community, farmers, ranchers, and local leaders come to an agreement that will strengthen Montana's economy," Rep. Rosendale said in Tester’s press release.

“I am proud to be a part of the Montana delegation working together and keeping our promises,” Rep. Zinke said. “A promise made should be a promise kept, let’s get this done.”

“This bipartisan bill is the result of extensive coordination between the State of Montana, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the federal government, with valuable input from local leaders, farmers, ranchers, and other water users over many years,” Gov. Gianforte said. “It’s time we get this done for the benefit of the tribes, our farmers and ranchers, and all water users in northcentral Montana.”

Even with bi-partisan and state support, there is still a lot of work left to do for the tribe. History shows that this water settlement is long overdue.

“We have trust responsibilities to Indian tribes across this country and Ft. Belknap certainly fits that mold. With the Indian water rights that case was settled back in 1908, called the “Winters case” This water settlement meets the goals of that case and meets that settlement,” added Tester.

The tribe has a lot of work that needs to be done. One major project that needs work is the Ft. Belknap Dam which is a 100-year-old water system. The dam is a concrete structure on the west-flowing heavily and steadily causing the opposite side which houses a gravitational canal. The pressure from the opposite side of the dam takes pressure from the tribe’s side, allowing for minimal flow to agriculture producers on the reservation. If the tribe chooses to fix that problem for water management, men need to immerse themselves into the water and lay planks manually to slow the flow. It’s a dangerous job, especially since the tribe only has two workers on its payroll.

“This water is everything to us. That's all we have here is our agriculture. And then we have other water sources at different parts of the reservation, and it is extremely vital for our lives.” Kristal Hawley-Fox, Water Resources Director for the Ft. Belknap Water Resources division.

“Without water, we won't survive. And all we're doing is looking out for our future generations by getting this done,” said Stiffarm, adding, “1. 3 billion. How much did Congress give to Ukraine just recently, which are not even citizens of this country? In a blink of an eye. But they have a hard time giving the first people of this nation, 1.3 billion just for our water. That's hard to fathom and hard to swallow.”

We will continue to follow this story as the bill passes through Congress and follow the updates and renovations to tribal water systems.

For more information on the Milk River Project, click here.