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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
Earlier, Utter said Peabody used surface water without a permit between
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."