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A new report from the Montana Human Rights Network documents the opposition of Tea Party, wise use and anti-Indian activists to a water compact between the State of Montana and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT).

The CSKT hold reserved on and off-reservation water rights under the Hellgate Treaty of 1855. These water rights have a priority date of 1855 for on-reservation uses and "time immemorial" for on and off-reservation instream flows to support treaty-reserved tribal fisheries. A compact proposed by the Montana Reserved Water Rights Compact Commission would quantify tribal water rights. In the compact, the CSKTand U.S. government agreed to forgo exercising a tribal water right "call" on non-irrigation, small groundwater, and most upstream water users. The state legislature to date has failed to ratify the compact.

MHRN’s report documents the far right mobilization that has contributed to the legislature’s failure to ratify the compact. The report illustrates the kind of coalitions arrayed against tribes seeking to exercise treaty-reserved water rights. The report highlights:

  • The central role played by the Concerned Citizens of Western Montana, a group founded in part by Terry Backs. Backs has travelled in Tea Party circles and worked with John Birchers, while the the Concerned Citizens brought anti-Obama birther Catherine Vandemoer to Montana.
  • Anti-environmental "wise use" activists opposing the compact have promoted the far right "Agenda 21" conspiracy theory and erroneously claimed that the compact violates the property rights of non-tribal water users.  The Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, a longtime property rights legal advocacy group, has joined the fray to provide legal support to compact opponents.
  • Anti-Indian activists are also part of the compact opposition. This includes activists based on the Flathead Reservation as well as national anti-Indian leader Elaine Willman of the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance. Such activists advocate the abrogation of treaties with tribes and the termination of tribal governments.
  • Far right opponents of the compact have gained allies in the state legislature.

MHRN’s report provides essential reading for understanding the coalitions arrayed against tribal treaty-reserved water rights.

Chuck Tanner

Author Chuck Tanner

Chuck Tanner is an Advisory Board member and researcher for the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. He lives in Washington State where he researches and works to counter white nationalism and the anti-Indian and other far right social movements.

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