Year of Award


Document Type


Degree Type

Master of Science (MS)

Degree Name

Environmental Studies

Department or School/College

Environmental Studies

Committee Chair

Bill Chaloupka


University of Montana


In 1989, in a four-to-four vote without opinion, the United States Supreme Court let stand a senior priority, reserved Indian water right for the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation. Shortly thereafter, the Tribes issued a permit requiring a minimum flow of water, known as an 'instream flow/ on the Wind River for fishery, environmental and cultural purposes. In 1992 however, a Wyoming Supreme Court majority ruled the Tribes must divert their water from its stream channel in order to use it and that the State Engineer shall administer the Tribes' water. Without means to divert, the tribes' water right has essentially been usurped.

This Big Horn III case obstructs United States policy of self-determination for Indian tribes and neglects federal principles protecting tribal sovereignty from state interference. The Wyoming court decision also permits irrigators to continue practices that prohibit biological integrity for the Wind River ecosystem and seriously limit cultural, recreational and economic values of the river. Wind River tribal leaders nonetheless opted not to appeal the decision because the U.S. Supreme Court had been acting unpredictably toward Indian rights in lieu of state rights.

In the early 1900's, the federal government promised water to both the tribes and non-Indian farmers of the Wind River Basin. Today, mistrust and apprehension surround water use in the basin. Farmers fear their livelihoods could be lost to eventual Indian water use while the tribes watch non-Indians dry up seven miles of river each year by diverting Indian water. Some say that with efficiency, plenty of water exists for both interests.

After twenty years and over $20 million, no court or agency has been able to resolve this water rights conflict. It is time for the diverse people of the Wind River to rise above their fears and respect one another in their inherent connection to each other and their river. With mutual respect, the Wind River watershed community can collectively and responsibly manage their water resources in an open, watershed council forum.



© Copyright 1997 John F. Dillon