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By Paige Huntoon
Photos & Multimedia by Matt Riley

Generations ago, the Crow people, the Apsáalooke, came from a "land of many lakes" to settle near the waters of the Yellowstone and Bighorn rivers. Water was the lifeblood of the tribe, the source of all being.

One-hundred and sixty years ago the first Fort Laramie Treaty with the United States set the Crow Reservation boundaries, reserving for the tribe 38.5 million acres of towering mountains and rushing waters. As more white settlers moved west, more treaties cut into the reservation, leaving it at about 2.5 million acres, guarded by the Big Horn, Pryor, and Wolf Teeth mountains and nourished by the Bighorn River.

But the Crow have never had clear claims to their water, though the first petitions to the U.S. government to clarify their rights were filed as far back as 1868. On a recent, cold March day, Dale Old Horn uses a microphone to amplify his already booming voice to translate into Crow language the Water Rights Settlement passed by Congress and signed into law in December by President Obama.

For the first time, the Apsáalooke will have a guaranteed right to the water that is the lifeblood of their reservation.

Truman Jefferson's tap water is loaded with iron and sulfur compounds, forcing him to use bottled water for cooking and drinking.

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By ratifying the Water Rights Settlement, the Crow tribe waives all previous water claims and is given a guaranteed and quantified amount of water. The compact will eventually give the tribe full water adjudication rights within the boundaries of the reservation. Before the reins are completely passed to the Crow tribe, though, the settlement must be approved in the Montana Water Court, and the tribe must create a water code to set guidelines on how to handle allotment.

With the settlement comes $461 million in federal to improve water infrastructure on the reservation and to develop more hydroelectric power from Yellowtail Dam. The primary goals of the tribe are to improve irrigation and water quality in rural parts of the reservation with the settlement money.

Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle explains that the money won't be given to the tribe in one lump sum. Funds will be requested, and the U.S. Treasury will release them to the tribe via the Bureau of Reclamation or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as water projects take shape.

"We want to be… able to capitalize on the water and be in control of our own destiny."
Cedric Black Eagle

Old Horn, the translator of the Water Rights Settlement into Crow, and the Crow tribal historic preservation officer, says getting clean water to rural areas of the 3,000 square-mile reservation has been a challenge.

"We have to contend with hard water all of the time," he says. "It ruins our pipes, it ruins our water heaters, it ruins the washers. I'm always concerned about what kind of kidney stones it might produce in a human being."

Better quality of life is what the Crow people hope the settlement brings, and in the wake of the vote to ratify it, people like Truman Jefferson are optimistic that change will happen.

Jefferson lives on the land where he grew up, just outside of Lodge Grass. He can remember as a child going to the now-dry river bed just about 50 yards from his house to get water for washing clothes.

Truman Jefferson remembers when his mother would ask him to fetch drinking water from the stream that ran through their property. The settlement will guarantee tribal members' water rights.

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"The river was right there at that time. It changed channels," he says.

The old outhouse his family used is still standing by an old tree on the other side of the house. He grows hay on his land to sell to neighbors, using water from an irrigation ditch, water that without this settlement he's not guaranteed. As a boy and a young man, Jefferson never thought too much about that.

"No one really knew about the water rights," he says. "In fact, I didn't even know about it until about three years ago when they were really starting to talk about the water rights."

The river ran through his land, so he and his family used its water. Now, though, he's glad the Crow people's rights are recognized and guaranteed.

The land Jefferson lives on is a bit different today than it used to be. The original house burned down a few years ago, and Jefferson and his wife now live in a cozy modular home. The inside is warm on this chilly spring day. It's decorated with country-style décor, with woven baskets and Crow paintings hung on the wall.

In the living room, he has a picture of his grandfather, Robert Yellowtail, and himself, dressed in war bonnets. Jefferson speaks of Yellowtail with a solemn and reverent tone. His grandfather was one of the most respected and influential leaders in Crow history. A lawyer, Yellowtail fought constant attempts to further diminish Crow lands and to restore land already taken from the tribe. He successfully lobbied Congress to give Indians the right to vote—a law passed in 1924—and became the first Indian superintendent of the tribe.

Yellowtail Dam at the southwestern edge of the Crow Reservation was built between 1961 and 1967. It was fiercely opposed by Robert Yellowtail, a former tribal chairman and longtime Crow leader. The recent settlement gives the tribe exclusive rights to develop new hydroelectric power in the afterbay dam just below Yellowtail.

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Jefferson still has the war bonnet his grandfather wore, though he keeps it in storage in Sheridan to prevent it from being soiled or stolen. His mother had a complete traditional outfit belonging to White Man Runs Him, a Crow scout who served under Gen. George Custer. Another family member got it, and he believes it was pawned, which he says "made me sick."

Jefferson is a happy person who likes to laugh and crack jokes. He has a pleasant demeanor even when expressing his frustrations. He grins mischievously as he tells a story about helping his adopted brother in Wyoming, who portrays Buffalo Bill. Jefferson was asked to play the part of Sitting Bull, and he agreed on the condition he didn't have to do anything too silly. However, during an interview with members of the Swedish press, Jefferson couldn't resist pulling a little prank. His brother was talking about Gen. Custer when Jefferson interjected to remind his brother not to forget "our friend Colonel Sanders." He caught on quickly and agreed, saying Colonel Sanders killed off all the "prairie chickens." To this day, Jefferson laughs at the thought of the Swedish journalists taking his joke seriously.

Hundreds of people gather to eat and socialize at a rally in Crow Agency before voting to ratify the Water Rights Settlement Act, which guarantees the tribe a quantified and confirmed right to use of water on their reservation.

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The kitchen in Jefferson's house is small and has a makeshift island with what looks like a wooden buffet in the middle, propped up on one side by a phone book and a cookie tin. Casserole dishes line the top of the cabinets. The table is tall and round. Various bills and pieces of mail form a small pile on one side.

The most noticeable object in the kitchen, though, is the water cooler next to the sink. Jefferson bought the stand at a grocery store in Hardin. It holds refillable plastic jugs his family needs because their water is not good to drink. After his well was drilled the water looked fine. But let it sit for a few hours and it takes on a yellowish hue and bits of red minerals settle in the glass. "Who in the heck's going to drink this stuff?" Jefferson asks.

He looks over at two bottles of water filled just a half hour earlier. They both have bits of red sediment floating in them. According to Old Horn, who has studied the tap water on the reservation, what is floating in the water are ferrous oxide particles. While not harmful, it may make the water taste bad.

The Water Rights Settlement will fund better water infrastructure, which will yield better water quality for more people on the reservation.

"Most of us have the luxury of turning on your tap water, and being able to drink that tap water. It's not like that here," Black Eagle says.

Not only will the tribe build new water systems, but it will also upgrade existing systems in towns across the reservation.

The Tribal Legislature is creating a water code, a set of standards to be administered by a new Tribal Water Resources Department.

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The settlement "creates the mechanism to have safe drinking water, and I think a lot of our Crows feel that that's really a significant part of this settlement; that they will be able to have safe drinking water," Black Eagle says.

For people like Jefferson, that means no more water coolers and bottled water. And the water they bathe in, wash clothes and dishes in will be cleaner and more sanitary.

The tribe will also explore development of a hydroelectric power plant on the lower bay of Yellowtail Dam. Black Eagle and Old Horn believe this plant could be one way to bring the tribe out of its long-standing economic slump. In 2005 the Bureau of Indian Affairs estimated the unemployment rate on the Crow reservation to be 46.5 percent. "We've been in poverty for many years," Black Eagle says. "We want to be…able to capitalize on the water and be in control of our own destiny."

Old Horn agrees, and hopes that projects like the municipal water system and the hydroelectric plant stimulate business on the reservation.

"I see this as gateway legislation to industrial growth on the Crow Reservation. With industrial growth, the economy rises," Old Horn says.

Dale Old Horn, left, translates the settlement into Crow. Tribal Chairman Cedric Black Eagle, right, says it will open the door to economic recovery for the tribe.

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Bighorn County Electric Co-op, which provides electricity on the reservation, gets its energy from the Bonneville Power Administration, a federal agency that markets wholesale electric power from dams across the West, including Hungry Horse and Libby dams in Montana. The co-op also buys electricity from the Western Area Power Administration, some of whose power comes from the Yellowtail Dam.

For Old Horn, using power from other parts of the state seems ridiculous with the presence of Yellowtail Dam on the reservation.

"Here's the Yellowtail Dam…producing electricity that is being shipped off to the west coast," he says with exasperation.

However, a Western Area Power spokesman says it's unlikely that would happen. Doug Hellekson, contracts and energy services manager for the association, says WAPA, a division of the US. Department of Energy, would only sell power outside the region if it had excess power in a high water year. Otherwise, the power goes first to non-profit organizations like cities and towns and electric co-ops, based on amounts negotiated in contracts.

The Yellowtail Dam's history is a contentious one for the Crow people. Construction of the dam started in 1961 after heated debates between factions of the tribe over whether to allow the dam to be built on the Bighorn River, and whether to sell or lease 12,000 acres necessary for its construction to the federal government.

In a cruelly ironic twist, the dam was named after Robert Yellowtail, Jefferson's grandfather. As tribal chairman, he was vehemently against selling the land and flooding the sacred Bighorn Canyon. For 10 years Yellowtail tried to go against the force of the federal government, but when threatened with termination of the reservation and the tax-free status for Native Americans, he was forced to negotiate with the government to allow construction of the dam. Government officials began knocking on doors, promising payments for allowing the dam to be built, and spreading rumors to turn the people against Yellowtail.

After a brutal legal battle, the Crow people voted to sell the land and the dam. The tribe was promised $5 million, but only got $2.5 million. Each member of the Crow tribe received $600. Subsequently, all the power generated by Yellowtail Dam, which created the 71-mile Bighorn Lake, is under control of the Bureau of Reclamation.

Tribal members take a break from cooking steak and tripe to watch the raising of the Apsáalooke flag at the beginning of rally to celebrate the Water Rights Settlement.

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Old Horn says that the newly proposed hydroelectric plant, which would be built on the afterbay at the Yellowtail Dam, offers the tribe an opportunity to lower the cost of energy to people on the reservation and use local power to supply that energy.

"If the Crow tribe opts to set up their own co-op, then it seems to me it would be logical to be a primary off-taker," Old Horn says.

There would be no federal government control of the proposed power plant, he explains, and the Crow tribe would receive payment if they chose to sell the power.

Jefferson hopes the projects funded by the settlement will start to happen within two years. And he's convinced the construction jobs created by the settlement will turn into maintenance and management jobs for the completed facilities. Aside from hired consultants to train employees, Jefferson is confident most of the workers will be Crow.

"Everything else, I think they pretty much can do now," he says of tribal members. "The young men around here? They're learning. They'll run the plant, and of course maintenance. There'll be some permanent jobs for tribal members." Until then, tribal members will have to be patient.

"It might not happen overnight, but now we're on the road to that…recovery that we've been searching for, for many years," Black Eagle says.

Paige Huntoon is a junior at The University of Montana School of Journalism.

Matt Riley is a senior at The University of Montana School of Journalism.