Ignoring the Past: Idaho Legislature Minimizes Significance of Indigenous Water Rights


Written by Elaine Zabriskie, CVI Legislative Fellow

There are a few ideas Americans often call on when we describe the world we want to live in – we think of a more perfect union, a government that is both by and for the people, promises of the pursuit of happiness. So many of our dreams focus on the future. However, we must also look at the past to understand whether our actions are pushing us toward our goals or away from them. When it comes to the treatment of Indigenous Tribes by both federal and state governments, it is imperative to confront the truth: our actions have contradicted our goals for peace, justice, and liberty for all.

Here’s why that truth is presently relevant:

The Idaho Legislature recently passed a joint memorial condemning new water quality standards by the EPA and citing Tribal treaties dating back to the 1800s. The memorial claims the new regulations ”would effectively establish an unrealistic and unattainable [water quality standard] for state waters that are not based on actual [fish consumption rates] but on Indian treaties approved in the 19th century.” 

While most lawyers can understand the power of precedent, this memorial disputes the validity of the treaties for two reasons: they are old, and they were written by and with Native Tribes. It is worth remembering that our Constitution is also old, that treaties with Tribal Nations are valid and important documents, and that our government – state, federal and local – have a long history of failing in their treaty obligations.   

So, what does all this mean for the conservation voter?

It means that the Idaho legislature is refusing to recognize the reality of our history. It means that HJM4 and similar legislation plays favorites, and even worse, plays into the longstanding racism that has been used to discriminate against, disenfranchise, and generally marginalize Indigenous Peoples. Finally, it means that the sponsors of HJM4 are out of touch with Idaho values.

CVI is here for Idaho’s highest goals, supporting a government that is by all the people and for all the people. We understand that the conservation movement was founded in the context of U.S. colonialism, elitism, and racism, but we are committed to repairing past failures and forging a fair path ahead. CVI stands in strong support of Tribal treaty rights, whether on or off reservation, forever. We are here for the real, collaborative work of pushing back against damaging legislation like HJM4 and pushing forward better, brighter goals.