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Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa, shown here in a file photo, said he is hopeful a water-rights settlement can be reached after meeting with tribal and federal government officials on the issue. (Cronkite News Service photo by Beth Easterbrook)

WASHINGTON - Navajo and Hopi leaders were in Washington this week meeting with federal officials and lawmakers over what steps, if any, can be taken to revive a $350 million water-rights bill that stalled this summer.

At issue is a complex proposal to settle the tribes' claims to water from the Little Colorado River. The vehicle for that agreement was Sen. Jon Kyl's bill, which would have built three drinking water projects on the reservations in exchange for the tribes relinquishing future water-rights claims in the basin.

The Arizona Republican's bill initially had support from leaders of both tribes, but was rejected by tribal councils this summer in the face of strong opposition from tribal members who called it a violation of Native sovereignty.

But on Wednesday, Navajo President Ben Shelly, Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa and other tribal leaders met with Kyl, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn, in what Salazar called a "historic" meeting to find a path to an agreement.

"It is my hope that over the coming days and weeks that we may work together to finalize the details of a settlement that will deliver critical water, infrastructure and economic development to the Navajo and Hopi people," Salazar said in a prepared statement.

And though the Hopi Nation identified "some differences" at the meeting, Shingoitewa said Thursday he is hopeful a settlement can be reached.

"We are here on behalf of the Hopi to hopefully bring ‘wet water' to our … lands," Shingoitewa said.

The meeting drew an angry reaction from an organizer of a Hopi grassroots group that opposes the Kyl bill.

Ben Nuvamsa called Shingoitewa's Washington meeting a breach of both the tribe's constitution and a June 15 resolution that requires the tribal council to confer with the people before negotiating a new deal. Nuvamsa, a former Hopi chairman, said the council did not notify anyone about Wednesday's meeting.

"This was all done secretly," Nuvamsa said.

Shingoitewa said the meeting was not secret and that participants talked about the settlement and not just Kyl's bill, S2109, which is what the resolution addressed.

Kyl said in a prepared statement Wednesday that he thinks an opportunity to work on a "collaborative solution" that would bring drinking water infrastructure to the tribes still exists.

"I believe that the needs of the Navajo and Hopi people are far too great for the parties to simply wait for the state courts to issue a paper water decree," Kyl's statement said.

Kyl, who introduced the bill this spring with fellow Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, is running out of time to pass a measure. He did not seek re-election and will retire from Congress at the end of this year.

Salazar said in his statement that Wednesday's meeting was a productive one that would "lay the groundwork for a fair and mutually beneficial agreement that the two tribes, the United States and the state parties can agree on." He said any deal would respect the sovereignty of the tribes.

But to Nuvamsa, the cultural, spiritual and physical survival of his people depends heavily on the decisions made in any water-rights agreement. He said he has called an emergency meeting between village leaders, tribal leaders and concerned members to demand an explanation from Shingoitewa.

And he said there is no chance he is going to stop resisting negotiations on the bill.

"Even if I have to pursue litigation," Nuvamsa said.

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