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Navajo water case highlights treaty battles

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a water case that is shining a light on tribal rights under centuries-old treaties between the federal government and Native American tribes.

The facts of the case go back to two treaties the Navajo Nation signed in 1849 and 1868. The second established a reservation in the Southwest as the tribe’s “permanent home” — a promise the Navajo Nation says includes a sufficient supply of water. The federal government says no treaty or law forces it to address the tribe’s general water needs.

The two treaties are among 374 between tribes and the U.S. that were ratified by Congress over nearly a century. Treaty-making with tribes ended in 1871. The documents covered everything from education and health care for Native Americans to hunting and fishing rights but often had provisions specific to certain tribes.

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected before the justices recess in June. A decision in favor of the Navajo Nation would send the case back to a lower court. Tribes across the country are watching for an interpretation of the tribe’s treaty and the federal government’s obligation to assess a diminishing resource.

Tribes broadly have said their own treaties haven’t been fulfilled or honored over decades.

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