Police presence high at Navajo water meetings

Apr 20, 2012

Standing-room only crowds met Navajo President Ben Shelly this week as he hosted three public hearings on a proposed settlement of tribal claims to the Little Colorado River.

The hearings are a chance for Navajos to express their views on a bill by Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl.

But not everyone felt their voices were heard.

Navajo Police SWAT teams watched from nearby rooftops as residents filed into the Tuba City Chapter House.

More than 200 people packed the meeting hall with another 60 outside protesting.

President Shelly called the meetings to educate the public about a proposed settlement of Navajo and Hopi claims against the Little Colorado River.

In exchange for waiving those claims, the Navajo would receive more than $300 million in water development projects.

But Bellemont resident Bill Betoney says Navajo Police made him leave a public hearing in Ganado Thursday because his T-shirt urges Navajos to reject the legislation.

 “I said, ‘Why are you violating my freedom of speech?’” Betoney recalls. “He said, ‘They don’t want any negative ads in the building.’ And I said, ‘If I wore a T-shirt that said I’m in favor of 2109, would you still remove me?’  He said. ‘That’s not the point,’ and I said, ‘Thatis the point.’” 

President Shelly’s press secretary Erny Zah confirmed that police are not allowing anyone with signs – including T-shirts -- inside the building.

He says Navajo tradition calls for all sides to be respected.

 “We also need to have that fundamental basic K’e with one another. If my shirt is offensive, then I’m violating that basic traditional teaching and we don’t want that type of environment. We want everybody to feel safe.” 

Zah says police are at the meetings to protect the public and to ensure that both sides are heard.

Meetings will continue next Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, beginning at 4 p.m., in Leupp, Teesto and Ft. Defiance, Arizona.