Navajo Whistleblower Threatened 

by Brenda Norrell
Indian Country Today staff

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - A Navajo tribal hydrologist who accused non-Indian attorneys of manipulating the Navajo Nation Council and costing the tribe billions of dollars in water rights has been threatened by an anonymous caller, then championed by the Navajo people.

Whistleblower and tribal hydrologist Jack Utter accuses non-Indian tribal attorneys of concealing mainstream Colorado River water rights from the Navajo Nation.

As Navajos pressed for answers and a joint committee of the Navajo Nation Council was convened, Utter's home was broken into and a threat left on his phone.

"You're going to be sorry that you ever wrote that article," stated the threat, which Utter reported to the FBI.

"Sorry" was not the reaction of Navajos on the western rim of the Navajo Nation, who rallied in support of Utter's exposÚ of the role non-Indian attorneys and coal-fired power plants have played in diminishing Navajo water rights since the 1950s.

Herman Tso, a Navajo in LeChee Chapter, praised Utter and said information on water rights has been denied traditional Navajos in the remote region of LeChee, Navajo Mountain and Bodaway, where the Colorado River flows.

"I believe Utter's message is a wake-up call and will probably be the only one for the Navajo Nation, and if we do not respond, simply put, we are sunk," Tso said.

LeChee Chapter passed a resolution saying the 2,700-member community is tired of hauling water and living without electricity near the banks of the Colorado River, where the Glenn Canyon Dam and Navajo Generating Station provide water and power for Southwest cities.

Urging the Navajo Nation to extend its probe of failed litigation in water rights, the resolution said, "LeChee residents have endured the hardships of having to purchase and haul water to the rural areas for home and livestock use."

Meanwhile, grass-roots Navajo groups circulated a petition titled "DinÚ Citizens Applied Sovereignty" throughout Navajoland. They are hoping to collect thousands of signatures to pressure the Navajo Nation Council to fire non-Indian (bilagaana) attorneys.

Naming three non-Indian attorneys in the Navajo Department of Justice and Legislative Services, the petition states, "In the name of sovereignty and self-determination, end the many years of bilagaana lawyer control over our government, our leaders, our lives and our destiny by firing bilagaana lawyers ...

The petition goes on to reflect Utter's statement, "Governments that bicker are easier to control."

The grass-roots petition accuses non-Indian attorneys of "keeping our citizens oppressed by manipulating our leaders and detracting their attention from the real issues ... ."

It demands a halt to intimidation of Utter and members of the DinÚ Sovereignty Defense Association, which brought Utter's letter to the forefront.

One Navajo member of the association, who asked not to be named, said the FBI questioned him after menacing notes were sent to non-Indian attorneys in Window Rock. Denying that association members are responsible for the notes, he said they would not act in such a foolish manner.

Utter released his eight-page, open letter to Navajo citizens, published in the Navajo Times, in September. Then, a joint-committee of the Navajo Nation Council's government services and resources committees held fact-finding hearings in December.

Navajo Attorney General Levon Henry and water rights attorney Stanley Pollack were subpoenaed and testified. Both denied Utter's allegations. Pollack said claims to hundreds of millions, or billions of dollars in lost water rights have no substance.

Calling Utter's statements "reckless and libelous," Pollack told the joint-committee, "I believe we are pursuing all matters with great diligence."

However, during testimony, Bennie Williams, director of the Navajo Water Code Administration, supported Utter and testified that Pollack had interfered with the work of the water administration.

"Pollack always seems to intervene in our management decisions."

The testimony frequently centered on Utter's allegation that Pollack intervened on behalf of Peabody Coal Co., which operates two coal mines on Black Mesa.

Earlier, Utter said Peabody used surface water without a permit between 1997-1999.

Williams supported Utter's comments and said that after Peabody agreed to pay back fees for surface water, Pollack intervened.

Pollack denied the allegation he stepped in on behalf of Peabody, saying instead he intervened because Peabody viewed the fees as an act of bad faith in ongoing water litigation.

Utter's letter to Navajo citizens alleges Navajos have been bilked out of water rights by attorneys since the 1950s.

Upon the advice of attorneys and the Interior Department, the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution in 1968 which agreed to limit its water claims to the Upper Basin of the Colorado River for 50 years, or the life of the new coal-fired generating station, to be built near Page.

When the Salt River Project Agricultural Improvement and Power District got ready to build the Navajo Generating System, the Navajo Council agreed to limit its water claims, primarily in exchange for Navajo preference in employment and assured coal sales.

Meanwhile, even though November and December brought threats, FBI investigations and subpoenas, it also brought some cheer in time for the holidays.

Utter was recognized with a plaque as "Outstanding Employee of the Year," by the Navajo Department of Water Resources Dec. 20.

But as co-workers and grass-roots groups congratulated and commended Utter, the seldom-used action of an exclusion order from tribal land was listed on a tribal agenda regarding the matter.

Although the joint-committee has not discussed passing an exclusion order affecting Utter in open session, a printed agenda item in November for an executive session included tribal "exclusion statutes and procedures."

However, Councilman Ervin Keeswood, chairman of the government services committee, expressed commitment to finding the truth of Utter's allegations of whether the Navajo Nation lost billions in water rights and has been victimized by its own attorneys.

"Certainly, there are many business and governmental interests which oppose the Navajo Nation gaining water rights in the Colorado River, as well as the San Juan River, the Little Colorado River, the Rio Puerco, and other river systems," Keeswood said.

Meanwhile, Utter continues business as usual as hydrologist II at the Navajo Water Code Administration.

Before finding a whistleblower, Utter was more often known as a visiting professor and author.

Utter holds a doctorate in forestry from the University of Montana, where he studied federal law and water rights. His master's degree in watershed management and a bachelor's degree in natural resources management are from the University of Arizona.

A frequent speaker at tribal programs on issues of treaties and sovereignty, he is a visiting professor of water rights law. He is author of "American Indians: Answers to Today's Questions," "Wounded Knee & the Ghost Dance Tragedy," and other publications.

Interest in the allegation of a water rights conspiracy victimizing Navajos has captured the attention of international human rights organizations, which question the role of water rights and energy corporations in the Navajo Hopi Land Dispute.

Regardless of the tensions and the threat, Utter is at work at the Navajo Water Code Administration.

Utter said in January that he has no plans to leave and is attempting to keep a low profile.

"I have not backed down from anything I have said."


(c) 10 January 2001; Indian Country Today.

Reprinted under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.