One of the enduring consequences of the encounter between the people of the United States and the Indigenous population of North America has been the contest over the right to land and the resources that are present on that land. One case is of the Zuni Indian Tribe of New Mexico, which highlights the contest and struggle between the property and cultural rights of Indigenous peoples in competition with the economic and developmental interests of newcomers from the United States. For much of the twentieth century, the Zuni people’s rights were disregarded and disrespected. This injustice was made evident through the degradation of important cultural heritage and religious sites from the disruption of their traditional water supply. The significance of the case of the Zuni people is the success they have earned in reaching a settlement with their neighbors, the state of Arizona, and the federal government in reaching a settlement to restore their traditional water rights and protect the lands central to their cultural and religious identity.
The Zuni are a federally recognized tribe that lives in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona. According to archaeological evidence, the Zuni have resided in their homeland for over three thousand years, transitioning from small farming villages into large pueblos in the mid thirteenth century. The Zuni homeland is an arid region, receiving on average around ten inches of precipitation a year, making water significant for survival as well as for religious and cultural practices.
In 2003, the Zuni Indian Tribe Water Rights Settlement Act was signed into law. This law is an agreement between the Zuni people, the state of Arizona, and the United States government that formally protects the Zuni sacred religious site, Zuni Heaven, a wetland degraded by the loss of water from dam and irrigation projects to the main tributary of Zuni Heaven, the Little Colorado River. The agreement and legislation established state and federal funding for the Zuni to acquire water rights to rehabilitate their religious and cultural site. This successful legal and legislative measure is significant in its effect of protecting Zuni customs and traditions and protecting their rights, identity, and status, all while presenting a positive example of Indigenous communities working with the United States government to redress wrongs of the past. In 2003, Theresa Rosier, the counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, spoke before the House Committee on Resources defending the Settlement Act. Rosier noted the effective manner in which the settlement guarantees tribal water rights while also managing scarce water resources responsibly.
There are some concerns over the settlement the Zuni agreed to. There is some feeling of objection to the economic and transactional nature of settlements like these as antithetical to traditional Indigenous identity. Some opponents of the settlement worry that the settlement of a specific quantity of water obtained will limit the ability of the tribe to develop in the future. This is a valid point of contention; however, in the specific case of the Zuni settlement, the water rights secure the rehabilitation of an important religious site and are not primarily used for economic development.
The case of the Zuni Indian tribe water settlement is a promising example of an Indigenous community actively pursuing and securing its rights to homeland, culture, religious traditions, and the resources they need to survive and thrive as a people. The Zuni people worked with their neighbors and with local, state, and federal government to reach an agreement that is essential in securing and strengthening their identity as a people through the establishment of firm legal safeguards to their rights of their homeland. In a hearing before the Committee on Indian Affairs in the United States Senate, the importance of maintaining the sacred Zuni Heaven site was explained by a Zuni religious leader Edward Vicenti. He said, “it is very important to me and to our people, because it is a place that, after we, in this lifetime- that is a place that we all go to reside in spiritual form.” In their efforts, the Zuni people have shown a great example for Indigenous people asserting and defending their rights and traditions. The Zuni have shown that despite the unjust history of relations between Indigenous peoples and the United States, it is possible for the two to work together in good faith and achieve successful resolution.
Coburn, Kelly M, Landa, Edward R, Wagner, Gail E. “Of Silt and Ancient Voices: Water and the Zuni Land and People.” National Center For Case Study Teaching In Science, accessed February 25, 2017, http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/files/zuni.pdf
Mills, Barbara J, Ferguson, T.J. 1988. “Preservation and research of sacred sites by the Zuni Indian tribe of New Mexico.” Human Organization 57, no. 1: 30. Bibliography of Native North Americans, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017).
Senate Committee on Committee on Indian Affairs, Zuni Indian Tribe Water Settlement Act, 107th Cong., 2d sess., 2002, S. Hrg. 608
Stern, Charles V, Kim, Samuel. “Indian Water Rights Settlements,” Congressional Research Service, accessed April 5, 2017, https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc807161/m2/1/high_res_d/R44148_2015Aug14.pdf
US Department of the Interior, Statement of Theresa Rosier before the House Committee on Resources, April 1, 2003, http://www.bia.gov/cs/groups/xocl/documents/text/idc008138.pdf
 Barbara J. Mills and T.J. Ferguson. 1988. “Preservation and research of sacred sites by the Zuni Indian tribe of New Mexico.” Human Organization 57, no. 1: 30. Bibliography of Native North Americans, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2017).
 Kelly M. Coburn, Edward R. Landa and Gail E. Wagner, “Of Silt and Ancient Voices: Water and the Zuni Land and People,” National Center For Case Study Teaching In Science, accessed February 25, 2017, http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/files/zuni.pdf
 US Department of the Interior, Statement of Theresa Rosier before the House Committee on Resources, April 1, 2003, http://www.bia.gov/cs/groups/xocl/documents/text/idc008138.pdf
 Charles V. Stern and Samuel Kim, “Indian Water Rights Settlements,” Congressional Research Service, accessed April 5, 2017, https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc807161/m2/1/high_res_d/R44148_2015Aug14.pdf
 Senate Committee on Committee on Indian Affairs, Zuni Indian Tribe Water Settlement Act, 107th Cong., 2d sess., 2002, S. Hrg. 608