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Native Tribes want bigger role in regulating water withdrawls

Observer Staff

1/24/2005 12:00:00 AM

SAULT STE. MARIE (AP)-Representatives of at least 75 American Indian Tribes gathered on Nov. 22 and 23 to seek a common voice in the debate over withdrawing water from the Great Lakes.

The Tribes from the United States and Canada want a place at the table as rules are developed for diverting water outside the Great Lakes basin and withdrawing large amounts for use within the basin.

"If we're not part of the process, there are holes in it," said Frank Ettawageshik, chairman of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, based in Harbor Springs. "The bottom line is there are (Native) rights. They have to be represented."

The eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces adjoining the lake system agreed in 2001 to devise a system for protecting and conserving the waters.

A detailed plan to implement the Great Lakes Charter Annex Agreement was released in July, and the governors and premiers are expected to sign a revised version next spring.

The Council of Great Lakes Governors says its staff has "engaged in dialogue" with Tribes across the region. The plan calls for "appropriate consultation" with them before a decision is made on any water project to which the plan applies.

But Tribal leaders say that, as sovereign governments, they deserve a bigger role. John Beaucage, co-chairman of the Tribal gathering, said that consultation only came after the deal was struck. "We were not involved," he said.

Beaucage represents 42 First Nations communities located around the Lakes from Thunder Bay to Sarnia, Ontario.

Chris McCormick, grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Nations in central Canada, questioned the legitimacy of the agreement itself.

"We do not accept provincial ownership of Great Lakes water and lake beds," said McCormick.

"We have a responsibility as caretaker for the Lakes, the waters and the land," he said, adding that exclusion of the tribes from the process ignored constitutional and treaty considerations. "The Lakes are a part of us," he said.

In a letter to Tribal groups across the region, Ettawageshik said the object of the gathering was to assemble a "Tribal and First Nation Great Lakes Water Accord" that all affected tTibal entities could accept.