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Cowboys, Indians, and Lawyers; a documentary film

Review by Phil Doe

Water -April 2006 -Colorado Central Magazine

Cowboys, Indians, and Lawyers – A documentary film by Julia Dengel

I DROVE DOWN TO Durango in early March to see the premier of a documentary at the Durango Film Festival. The film, by Julia Dengel, is entitled Cowboys, Indians, and Lawyers. The film’s promo literature says it “follows the fortunes of two enemy camps as they struggle over the fate of the free-flowing Animas River.” This is the river that developers have struggled for over 40 years to harness, as they self-servingly term it. This harnessing is known more commonly as the Animas-La Plata project (A-LP). It will cost the beleaguered American taxpayer over $500 million by government estimates, but that doesn’t include interest or any of the inevitable cost overruns that come with enterprises of this nature.

At one level the promo is accurate enough, but for me, as one who has long opposed the project, the film was an immersion into a whir of events and people from the recent past.

As I came out of the theatre, I reflected on what had most deeply affected me about the film. One thing kept surfacing, Henry David Thoreau’s famous observation that, “In wildness is the world saved.”

I don’t know if Julia Dengel knows Thoreau’s words, but I suspect she does. Her film suggests she does. The film has an elegiac quality about it which Thoreau would thoroughly embrace.

What Miss Dengel truly regrets, I judge, is the destruction of river, land, community, and a way of life she came west to find. The sources of this destruction are the appetites of a few men with money and power. The money is mostly public money gained by creating local taxing entities called water conservation districts. It is used to relentlessly persuade, even buy, I suppose, public officials at every level of government. The manifestation of their gargantuan appetite is the project being constructed at Durango’s doorstep.

JULIA DOESN’T LECTURE US about villainy in her tableau. She just lets the locals tell their tale. Only after you leave the theatre does the great sadness that comes from great loss begin to turn to anger.

I thought about the film footage of Indian “activist” Sage Remington who argued over the shape of the project, but never over its justification. Though the film doesn’t include it, his preferred alternative was a cash payment of $400 million to the Tribes. It was only after all Indian costs were forgiven, easily in the $400 million range, and a cash sweetener of another $100 million added, that his objections slowly slackened. Duplicity and greed are not the province of any one culture, as most of us know.

I thought about the self-indicting footage of Sam Maynes, Indian lawyer, water lawyer, and power broker. Indeed he was that rare creature, a lawyer for all sides at the same time as long as the price was right, a down home Jack Abramoff, if you will. Maynes is a character straight out of Bleak House, Charles Dicken’s relentless indictment of the legal profession.

I thought about the corporate press in Colorado with its unexamined mantra of honoring sacred treaties to Indians who had gone centuries without water. They knew full well this claim was a wicked lie. As Miss Dengel’s documentary clearly illustrates, the Indians were brought in latter-day to save the project from a just burial. There is no treaty. There is simply a backroom agreement to save the project by wrapping it in an Indian blanket.

The claim that the Indians were without water is equally fanciful. The Attorney General documented in testimony before Congress that the Indians already had over 150,000 acre feet of water from previous federal water projects and endeavors. In fact, they control an amount equal to one-half the water allocated to the entire state of Nevada under the Colorado River Compact. Well over 1,000,000 people live in Nevada. The Utes number about 3000 people.

But mostly I thought about Congress and its bottomless perfidy in allowing this monstrosity to gain form and destroy the things Miss Dengel and her vast tribe love about southwest Colorado. Now there is villainy.

The film’s footage of Ben Campbell standing before the Senate and telling members that the Indians had been waiting centuries for water and that this would be the first treaty ever honored by the United States is indelible. (But there is no penalty for a member lying to other members on the floor of the Senate I’m told.)

Equally indelible is the footage of Tom Delay teasing members of the House — as if it were a game — to vote for the project because it was supported by a newly elected member of the House and they needed to make him feel welcome. And so it was done, and done without debate.

But, Julia’s film portrait of what happened is not the end of the story. Nor is the ending already written. The Indians, the developers, and their lawyers still need a water right to fill Nighthorse Reservoir. Surprised?

We, the Citizens Progressive Alliance, are objectors to their claims for an A-LP water right, insisting that the essential requirements of state law be satisfied before the water court in Durango honor their claims. The law requires they be able to demonstrate beneficial use of the water and that the use be economic, and that it benefit the common good. Speculation in a water right is forbidden under state law. And quite frankly speculation seems to be their only game and claim.

But we have the right to object, and object strenuously, for it is our water that they intend to take. The rivers belong to the people of this state.

We, the Citizens Progressive Alliance, have been in court for four years trying to get an answer to two simple questions. What is the water to be used for? And what is the basis for the Indian claims? To date we have received nothing. In fact, we have been told by the state and the feds that they would give us nothing. To this they’ve been true, if nothing else.

But a day of reckoning is coming. A trial is set on April 17 in Durango, and another trial is scheduled for August. Come see your legal system in action, as we once again try to expose the ugliness behind the mask that is A-LP.

In the meantime, Cowboys, Indians, and Lawyers poignantly documents the struggle over A-LP — for those who’ve lived it and those who’ve not yet been touched by it.