Indianz.Com > News > ‘We’re still here’: Native film depicts struggles as Navajo Nation heads to U.S. Supreme Court
‘We’re still here’
Native film depicts struggles as Navajo Nation heads to U.S. Supreme Court
Monday, March 20, 2023

WASHINGTON, D.C. — With the Navajo Nation headed to a showdown at the U.S. Supreme Court, one Native filmmaker is drawing attention to the struggles Indigenous peoples face around the world as they work to protect their lands and resources.

Speaking at the National Museum of the American Indian on Sunday, Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso said her family has been negatively impacted by resource extraction on the Navajo Nation. Through a lease that was approved by the federal government, the world’s largest coal company made billions of dollars from a mining site on the reservation.

“We succeeded in the fact that we’re still here, because it’s been a resistance has been happening for sixty, seventy years — including my entire family,” Manybeads Tso said after she screened her film, Powerlands, as part of the 2023 Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.

Powerlands doesn’t just focus on the Navajo Nation, the largest reservation in the United States. As director of the film, Manybeads Tso took the project to Indigenous communities in Mexico, Colombia and The Philippines, where resistance falls among familiar lines of marginalized peoples fighting against large and powerful entities.

“We are working against this huge monolith of corporations and governments that are really trying to not necessarily help us,” Manybeads Tso said at the NMAI.

Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso
Film director Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso speaks at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., following a screening of Powerlands during the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital on March 19, 2023. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In the film, Navajo families whose lives have been disrupted by Peabody Energy’s operations speak in particular about the degradation of water on their homelands. For decades, the corporation operated two mines on tribal land in the northeastern part of Arizona that extracted millions of tons of coal every year, sending it to a power plant, where electricity was generated to benefit millions of consumers in communities far away from the reservation.

But even though Peabody has shut down operations after filing for bankruptcy protection in 2016, Manybeads Tso pointed out that the corporation has left a major mess on lands belonging to the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. A huge metal slurry that consumed large amounts of water on the reservation is among the legacies of resource development.

“Mining corporations are not required to clean up after themselves,” the filmmaker asserted. “So that big green pipe that is like literally massive and gigantic will be there until — it goes away on its own?”

By the conclusion of Powerlands, which also covers the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline that was resisted by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe over water protection issues, Native youth come together to warn future generations about the harmful impacts of resource development. They are seen painting a water tank on the Navajo Reservation with artistic messages that let people know that the water is not safe to drink or use.

The screening of the film comes as the Navajo Nation is once again seeking to hold the U.S. government accountable to its trust and treaty responsibilities when it comes to natural resources. On Monday morning, the highest court in the land will hear a long-running dispute over the tribe’s right to water from the Colorado River.

And just like the struggles presented in the Powerlands, the tribe is up against some of the most powerful interests in the country. Not only are the states of Arizona, Nevada, California and Colorado trying to protect their ongoing extraction of water from the Colorado River, the federal government has so far refused to finalize a water allocation for the tribe in accordance with treaties signed in 1849 and 1868, which guaranteed the Navajo people a homeland where they could live forever.

“Read as the Navajos would have understood them, the specific provisions in the treaties guaranteeing the Navajos a permanent homeland and help with agriculture are agreements that the United States will provide the Nation adequate water,” attorneys for the tribe told the U.S. Supreme Court in a February 1 brief.

“Those provisions establish a meeting of the minds on the hallmarks of a fiduciary relationship over the Navajos’ water rights and impose an enforceable duty on the United States to consider the Navajos’ water needs and make a plan to meet them,” the brief continues.

Buu Nygren
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren examines treaty materials featured in an exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., on February 8, 2023. Photo: Navajo Nation Office of President and Vice President

The Navajo Nation has gained significant support in its quest to force the Department of the Interior, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, to come up with a plan to ensure the tribe receives adequate water from the Colorado River. Dozens of tribal governments, along with historians, law professors and other experts, are urging the Supreme Court to respect and affirm a precedent known as the Winters doctrine, whose name comes from an Indian water rights case decided way back in 1908.

“Since its inception, the Winters doctrine has continued to ensure the continuing vitality of the historical promises of the United States to reserve livable homelands for tribal nations by securing the water rights necessary to fulfill the purposes of those reservations,” a brief signed by nearly 40 tribes, plus the National Congress of American Indians and the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, reads.

“Guided by that mandate, the United States’ trust duties to tribal nations motivates federal actions to make good on those promises,” the tribes and tribal organizations argue in the February 8 document.

Spiritual leaders from the Navajo Nation are also weighing in. The Diné Hataalii Association, a non-profit that represents more than 200 medicine women and men on the reservation, explains why developing a water plan for the Colorado River is so important to the tribe and its citizens.

“In Diné culture, binding agreements between parties create implied directives—much like the Winters doctrine recognizes an implied right to water for federal reservations,” the February 8 brief reads.

“Put another way, it is not enough to promise something — ‘leaders are required to . . . [actively] seek solutions to problems,’ such as securing water resources,” it continues, quoting from Roman Bitsuie, a traditional practitioner on the reservation. “Diné believe that ‘every word is powerful, sacred, and never frivolous,’ and that every provision of an agreement must be given force and effect.”

Despite the many voices in Indian Country advocating for the trust and treaty obligations of the U.S. government, the Navajo Nation has been allocated just 30 minutes to present its side of the case on Monday morning. And the tribe will have to wait for its turn at the oral argument.

According to the Supreme Court’s calendar, Frederick Liu, an assistant to the Solicitor General at the Department of Justice, will argue first at the hearing for an allocated 15 minutes. He is representing the Department of the Interior, whose leader has touted the Biden administration’s commitments to tribal water rights — just not necessarily the ones promised to the Navajo Nation.

“Water is a sacred resource, and water rights are crucial to ensuring the health, safety and empowerment of tribal communities,” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, who is the first Native person to lead the department with the most trust and treaty responsibilities, noted in a February 2 press release.

Appearing next for another 15 minutes will be Rita P. Maguire, a water law attorney based in Arizona. She is representing the state governments whose Colorado River allocations could be reduced once the Navajo Nation’s share is quantified.

Finally, attorney Shay Dvoretzky, who is based in Washington, D.C., will get those 30 minutes on behalf of the Navajo Nation. Indian law arguments, however, tend to go longer than scheduled — and the water case is the only one on the calendar for Monday’s session of the Supreme Court.

The last time the Navajo Nation went before the Supreme Court, incidentally, was in connection to Peabody Energy’s coal mining operation. The tribe had argued that the Department of the Interior, which was then led by then-Secretary Don Hodel during the Ronald Regan era, breached its trust responsibilities by approving a lease with a less-than-favorable royalty rate after being lobbied by a close associate who happened to be working for Peabody.

The Supreme Court, at the behest of the George W. Bush administration, rejected the tribe’s claim in 2003. A follow-up case went against the tribe in 2009.

However, the Barack Obama administration later settled a closely-related trust accounting lawsuit with the tribe for $554 million.

In the prior cases, as with the current Colorado River dispute, the tribe had won at a lower court, only to see the high court reverse the victories. This time around, state governments and the Biden administration are seeking to overturn a favorable ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court granted the state petition, Arizona v. Navajo Nation, and the Biden petition, Department of the Interior v. Navajo Nation on November 4, 2022. The cases were consolidated in advance of Monday’s oral argument.

Still, the questions presented are different. While both focus on the trust obligations of the United States, the state petition also asks whether the Navajo Nation’s efforts to secure water from the Colorado River would “infringe” upon their rights.

The Supreme Court argument is due to begin at 10am Eastern. It will be broadcast on C-SPAN will also carry a livestream at Another stream can be found on PBS NewsHour.

9th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision
Navajo Nation v. Department of the Interior (Filed April 28, 2021 / Amended February 17, 2022)

U.S. Supreme Court Documents
Question Presented: Arizona v. Navajo Nation
Question Presented: Department of the Interior v. Navajo Nation
Docket No. 21-1484: Arizona v. Navajo Nation
Docket No. 22-51: Department of the Interior v. Navajo Nation

Tribal Supreme Court Project Documents
Arizona v. Navajo Nation (
Department of the Interior v. Navajo Nation (

Related Stories
U.S. Supreme Court adds more Indian Country cases to docket (January 24, 2023)
Filed Under
More Headlines