Historic Hearing on Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Settlement Act

Oct 26, 2021 | News

On October 6, 2021, Fort Belknap Indian Community (FBIC) President Andrew Werk Jr. testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on the “Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 2021. This is the first Congressional hearing on the act in the 20 years since the Montana State Legislature overwhelmingly approved the 2001 State-FBIC-Federal Water Compact on a bipartisan basis.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) reintroduced the the Water Settlement Act in Congress on May 27, 2021. If it becomes law, it will approve the Water Compact and finally settle the FBIC’s water rights and claims against the United States. The Act also provides approximately $600 million for investments in water infrastructure and economic development of the water; provides water to mitigate impacts on non-Indian irrigators on the Milk River; and will boost the agricultural economy of the Fort Belknap Reservation and north-central Montana for decades.

FBIC’s water rights were first recognized more than 100 years ago. In 1908, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Winters v. United States that the Fort Belknap Reservation included the water rights needed to make it a permanent homeland. This is known as the Winters Doctrine, and it protects the water rights of all reservation Indian Tribes. President Werk said, “This should be known as the Aaniiih and Nakoda Doctrine in honor of the tribes that went to court to fight for their water rights.”

The Act also would restore a portion of the tribal homelands taken through over a century of misguided federal policies. Restoration of these lands will include sacred sites, result in improved management of the lands, and ensure that the FBIC is able to manage its watershed and protect its water quality.

The hearing can be viewed here.

Patterson Earnhart Real Bird & Wilson LLP attorneys have the skills and experience needed to move Indian water settlements through Congress. To learn more about this issue and how we can assist, contact attorney Rollie Wilson in our D.C. office at (202) 434-8903.