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US Supreme Court upholds 19th century treaty, rejects Navajo Nation's call for water access

Giovanni Torre -

The conservative-stacked United States Supreme Court has rejected Navajo Nation claims the US government has failed to recognise the tribe's water rights.

In a 5-4 decision the court ruled on Thursday that the Nation's lawsuit against the federal government must be thrown out.

Trump-appointed Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in the majority decision that a treaty with the Navajo Nation signed in 1868 did not require the federal government to take active steps to secure water access.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, who voted with the three liberal justices against the ruling, wrote that Navajo Nation was asking the federal government to identify its water rights and not seeking dramatic further measures.

"They must fight again for themselves to secure their homeland and all that must necessarily come with it," he wrote.

The Navajo Nation seeks rights to waters in the lower Colorado River that flows along the Navajo reservation's northwestern border.

Navajo Nation president Buu Nygren issued a statement noting that while the decision was disappointing, he was heartened by the support of four of the nine justices.

"My job as the president of the Navajo Nation is to represent and protect the Navajo people, our land, and our future. The only way to do that is with secure, quantified water rights to the Lower Basin of the Colorado River," Mr Nygren said.

NBC News reports that the lack of water and infrastructure to pipe it across the more than 6.9 million-hectare reservation covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, remains a major challenge for Navajo leaders.

The tribe argued the US government has failed to keep promises and left tribe members to suffer, even as the Colorado River runs along the reservation's border and provides water for surrounding states.

Navajo professor Andrew Curley, whose research at the University of Arizona focusses in part on the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government on resources including water, told NBC News that the ruling was not a shock.

"It's not surprising that the Supreme Court, a colonial court, would side with a colonial government. The power is stacked against tribes in this scenario," he said.

The court, which has a 6-3 conservative majority, heard two consolidated appeals; one by the federal government and another by the states of Arizona, Nevada and Colorado, in addition to several California water districts.

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