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Navajo Nation tussles with new trust 'philosophy'

The Supreme Court's recent trust ruling has forced the Navajo Nation to undertake a comprehensive review of its economic, resource development and infrastructure initiatives, a top official said on Wednesday.

Arvin S. Trujillo, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources, reported that a number of projects aimed at improving the quality of life and stabilizing business on the tri-state reservation are being reanalyzed. Tribal officials are worried that agreements with third parties, an issue in the court's decision, could hurt the tribe, he said.

"It has a major impact because of the liability aspect," he said in an interview.

Trujillo brought the same message to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. At a hearing on two energy development bills, he called on lawmakers to ensure that promotion of tribal sovereignty doesn't come at the expense of the federal government's trust responsibilities.

"We're beginning to see a new philosophy emerge," he said of the Supreme Court's March 4 ruling, which observed that "the ideal of Indian self-determination is directly at odds with [government] control" over tribal resources.

One project at stake, Trujillo said, involves bringing electricity to rural residents of the reservation. Although the tribe is rich in minerals, these resources traditionally have been exploited to serve consumers throughout the West instead of tribal members.

"You provide power to people in Los Angeles but can't get it for people who live next door," remarked Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.).

The Supreme Court ruling, in fact, centered on a coal mining agreement that has supplied power to Arizona, Nevada and California for more than 30 years. The tribe said it lost at least $600 million because the Department of Interior approved a less than favorable deal but the justices rejected the claim.

The tribe has hoped to reverse that history with a series of new development projects. But as a result of the ruling, a multi-million dollar deal for a high voltage transmission line powered by Navajo coal is being reviewed, Trujillo said.

David Lester, executive director of the Colorado-based Council of Energy Resource Tribes (CERT), said the federal government has an obligation to ensure that tribes are on a "level playing field" with an energy industry armed with its own agenda. "The companies have no obligation to put on the table all the information they know," he told the committee.

"If we have a fair negotiating table, then the tribe can negotiate very fair deals," he said. "But who's monitoring to ensure that the deals are actually being fulfilled and are in operation?"

"That's a trust responsibility."

Navajo Nation Decision:
Excerpts | Syllabus | Opinion [Ginsburg] | Dissent [Souter]

Relevant Links:
Navajo Nation - http://www.navajo.org

Related Stories:
Trust ruling clouds energy bills (3/20)
Pundits got it right, mostly (3/19)
Navajo Nation fallout considered (3/7)
Swimmer can't recall Navajo involvement (02/13)
Navajo 'deception' gets Supreme Court hearing (12/03)
Peabody sides with Bush administration on trust (09/04)
Legal tactics land Peabody in hot seat (7/22)
Hopi Tribe disputes Peabody water study (8/30)
Court rules Navajo Nation owed money (8/14)
Peabody defends water usage (3/26)

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