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Ceremonial and Subsistence Water Use  

Dale Whittington and Michael Hanemann

Water for cultural and religious purposes, referred to as ceremonial and subsistence (C&S) use, is a distinctive feature of many Indigenous and other communities. Whether this constitutes a legitimate claim for water for an American Indian Tribe in the United States was litigated in the context of a trial to determine the federal government’s obligation to reserve water for Indian Tribes whom it had settled on reservations during the 19th century. Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1963, the amount of water the federal government was obligated to provide was defined as the quantity of water that could be used to grow crops profitably on the reservation. In 2001, the Arizona Supreme Court adopted a new definition, for Arizona, namely the amount of water that ensured the reservation would be a permanent homeland. However, parts of this 2001 ruling were contradictory and seemed to support the profitable irrigation standard. What the Arizona Supreme Court actually meant was not put to the test until the Hopi water rights trial in 2020. The Hopi Tribe’s water rights claims included a claim for new water to replace diminishing local water supplies in order for the Tribe to continue cultivating traditional varietals of corn and other crops. Hopi agricultural practices date back at least a millennium and are a central part of Hopi culture and religion. The crops are used in cultural and religious ceremonies and are not sold commercially. The Hopi claim for water for irrigation to support C&S cultivation was opposed by the other parties to the case and was rejected by the court.