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Water Out of Nowhere:
Technological Solutions to a Legal Failure on Salt River Reservation, 1910 – 1939

Allotments and Cultivated Land, 1914. Courtesy the author.

In October of 1923, Supervising Irrigation Engineer, Herbert V. Clotts wrote to Superintendent E.E. McNeilly to inform him of ongoing water issues on the Salt River Reservation outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Clotts related his finding that close to thirty percent of Akimel O’Odham (historically known as the Pima, and a term still reflected by the community’s name today) water was being lost to seepage on its way to cultivated fields, exacerbating an already desperate water situation for the indigenous agriculturalists.1 He suggested that lining the irrigation ditches with cement offered an easy way to make up for lost water from the already limited supply, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs could pay the O’Odham to accomplish this task.2 For multiple government bureaucrats this plan offered—what seemed to them—a great solution to increasing water worries on the reservation. Not only would cement lined ditches make the water supply more effective, but also O’Odham men would earn a little money while improving their own resources and agricultural infrastructure.

In their finest paternalist spirit, the BIA proposed the solution to the Salt River community and set a November start date for the project. Yet, when it came time for the first day of ditch labor, no one from the O’Odham community showed up. Bewildered by such a response, BIA officials confronted some of the men who were supposed to come work that day, getting explanations that confusion about which day the project was supposed to start kept them from the jobsite. They said everyone would come tomorrow, but when the next day began the same thing happened again; no laborers appeared. This continued for over a month, as the bureaucrats and irrigation engineers from the BIA pulled their hair out trying to get the Salt River O’Odham community to “improve” their water supply for what they thought was their own benefit.

Yet, reading the chain of letters between bureaucrats that followed, one thing remains overwhelmingly clear. Akimel O’Odham laborers from the Salt River reservation utilized the wage work opportunities in the surrounding non-indigenous community in order to survive water deprivation. But more importantly, in this instance, they utilized accessibility to the labor market as a form of political and economic power, challenging the BIA to recognize extended water rights for the reservation and to negotiate higher wages for lining their irrigation ditches with cement. From their point of view, the pay offered by the BIA was far too low, considering they earned as much, if not more usually, working for farmers in the Salt River Valley. O’Odham laborers refused to show up to work on the ditches until the agency offered a higher wage.3 Even when the BIA attempted to match the rate they might earn off the reservation, laborers made the point to lower level agents that they deserved more water in the first place, and they should earn an even higher wage since they would be missing other more regular opportunities for work. Thus, the O’Odham community was able to exert some form of influence through their use of wage work, despite their increasingly restricted economic situation.

But perhaps one of the most overlooked aspects of the indigenous historical experience in the United States is wage work itself, especially in the twentieth century. Racist rhetoric of laziness aside, indigenous populations had taken part in a variety of wage opportunities since the colonial era. As colonization and capitalist production developed new orders and strictures across the country, wage labor became increasingly important for native survival and agency. As Martha C. Knack and Alice Littlefield have written, “Native people did not wait for government agents to direct them to wage opportunities; rather, they perceived those openings and sought them out.”4 As traditional land use, or hunting and harvesting opportunities became more and more confined, indigenous participation in wage labor continued to play a significant role in confronting colonization and the spread of capitalist modernity.

Some of the earliest studies exploring the importance of wage work discuss indigenous efforts to confront economic change and adapt, but as scholar William Bauer’s work points out, they have left out fundamental questions concerning the work experience and its meaning. Much more than simple adaptation to economic change, “the transition to wage labor also included social and cultural innovations.”5 Both Bauer’s work and the research of fellow historian Colleen O’Neill have highlighted these innovations, finding that indigenous populations participated in wage labor to maintain control over their lives and identities, creatively using culture and employment to “rework modernity” in the process.6

The case of the Akimel O’Odham’s quiet refusal to show up for work on the ditch-lining project highlights not only the importance of wage labor, but also its creative use as a form of political and economic control in their dealings with an inept and unsupportive federal bureaucracy. While the BIA tried many schemes to deal with an increasingly deficient water supply, the O’Odham challenged them over and over again to support their expanded water rights. However, rather than uphold the doctrine of reserved water rights (the idea that creation of a reservation implied a secured water right to that land, and the basis for indigenous water rights across the American West) as guaranteed through the more than decade old Supreme Court decision in Winters v. The United States, the BIA chose to uphold the status quo of prior appropriation water doctrine in Arizona and privilege settler water rights over those of the O’Odham. The bureau’s reliance on limited technological solutions in order to supplement the meagerly quantified water right that did exist on the Salt River Reservation, constituted one of the greatest social, economic, and legal failures in a sea of colonial bankruptcies caused by US expansionist policies and national consolidation.    

However, such growth was always mediated by the presence of indigenous populations, especially in Arizona, but even further by another active agent in the territory, the environment.7 While settlers and speculators sought to turn the desert of Central Arizona into a green oasis—biblical mandate or otherwise—they had to deal with cyclical flooding and drought punctuated by Apache and Yavapai raiding economies, and in the latter case, they often relied on the protections of the Akimel O’Odham and their allied neighbors, the Piipaash (Maricopa). Yet, by the 1880s, the Salt River Valley, near the newly minted city of Phoenix, was being touted as “the most fertile and productive in the territory.”8 The increasing agricultural production, a direct result of O’Odham and Piipaash water deprivation, helped fuel the budding urban area of Phoenix and the agricultural fields of the surrounding valley, especially after railroad lines made it possible to carry products to markets across the country.9 Yet, the imperfect and limited nature of desert rainfall, as well as cycles of intense drought and overwhelming floods, prompted area boosters to develop new solutions to their seasonal worries. Seeking out the ultimate technological panacea to the failures of nature, as they saw it, a growing movement began to support the construction of a dam and reservoir site on the tempestuous Salt River at its junction with Tonto Creek, just outside the Salt River Valley. The initial idea, despite many fits and starts surrounding the funding and feasibility of the project (what essentially boiled down to debates about private capital vs. federal funds), would eventually become the first Bureau of Reclamation project, the Roosevelt Dam, in 1902.10

Roosevelt Dam Negative. From National Archives DC-RG75-Irrigation Division-Reports and Related Records-Box 48. Courtesy the author.

Although they would continue to get worse, water problems had already surfaced for the Akimel O’Odham on the Salt River Reservation by the time initial construction plans went into action. Having dealt with water deprivation due to settler diversion along the Gila River in the 1860s, a group of O’Odham farmers moved up north to lands along the Salt River and began to clear fields in order to continue their previously successful surplus agricultural production. Much older tensions with Apache warriors and raiders intensified during the latter groups’ adoption of horse culture from the Spanish in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Forcing tighter consolidation of O’Odham and Piipaash villages along the Gila River for safety’s sake, by the time US settlers began to arrive in the second half of the 19th century, the O’Odham’s increasingly desperate situation forced some to forgo safety concerns and spread back out amongst lands which had previously been part of their land tenure. And in 1879 the federal government officially recognized those O’Odham farming families, when Rutherford B. Hayes established the Salt River Reservation by Executive Order on June 14 of that year.

Nevertheless, in 1885 a private water development company finished another project that would impact the indigenous community for years to come: the Arizona Canal. Since the project ran directly through their land, O’Odham farmers received a legal water right to 500 miner’s inches, even though supplemental diversion of the Salt, which ran to the south of the reservation, continued to take place. But continued settler and speculator development soon prevented their ability to buttress their agricultural economy through such autonomous means. Water in the Salt River Valley was already becoming scarce, and a whole complicated mess of hierarchical legal rights was being established and enforced by non-indigenous water users in the area. By 1903, an agency farmer reported that while the Pima currently had 2,748 acres of land under cultivation, the amount of available water from the Arizona Canal right could only properly irrigate 1,500 acres.11 The attempt to spread the water too thin ended up affecting the crops’ maturity and ultimately their size. Once again O’Odham livelihoods were under attack from water deprivation, but this time on the Salt River.

Then, in 1905, with the dam construction underway and tensions running high throughout the entire valley, two water users from the settler community brought a friendly lawsuit to court to find out the exact amount of water they, along with other users, would be entitled to upon the completion of the massive reclamation project. Due to increasing water issues on the Salt River Reservation, the federal government filed a cross-complaint on behalf of O’Odham residents, and the case ultimately culminated in the 1910 Kent Decree. Detailing the history of irrigation in the valley, it upheld the doctrines of beneficial use and prior appropriation, dividing all lands into a hierarchical system based on appropriation date. While upholding the priority right of the Salt River reservation to 500 miner’s inches, he also acknowledged its limits, increasing their priority right to 700 miner’s inches.12 However, by holding up appropriative rights, based on quantified amounts of a limited water supply, the decision provided no room for expansion of O’Odham agriculture beyond 2,500 acres, or even the population of the community itself.13

Two years earlier, in the Winters decision, the United States Supreme Court upheld the “principle that creation of an Indian reservation automatically if impliedly creates a federally sanctioned water right for the reservation.”14 Undermining the principle of prior appropriation, the court held reserved rights could not be lost through non-use, and further, that water did not have to be quantified, so as to leave room for expanding use on the reservation.15 Even so, despite such a strong legal precedent, the BIA did not attempt to challenge the Kent Decree’s maintenance of prior appropriation and quantification of O’Odham water rights. By not effectively supporting reserved rights on the Salt River Reservation, the bureau essentially supported state water law and local greed over federal litigation and indigenous rights. By 1913, the issue had become a bit of an institutional moot point anyway, as the BIA officially minimized the impact of the Winters decision. Interpreting the rights as temporary and transitional, and applying only to unallotted lands, the BIA ensured the miserable failure of its federal policy goals intended to transform indigenous communities into radically individual and self-sufficient private property owners.16 Critiques of the horrible system of forced assimilation and the gospel of self-sufficiency aside, without strong official support for reserved water rights, the allotment system’s failure would become even more drastic, especially in places like the Salt River Reservation.  

Although allotments elsewhere would be much larger (typically 160 acres for heads of household, eighty acres for single people over 18, and forty for children), O’Odham allotments at Salt River consisted of five acres with an assured water right, five acres with a possible water right, and twenty acres of grazing land. This plan encountered fierce resistance from O’Odham community members who engaged in political action by holding nightly meetings to discuss and oppose the plan, contending “they should have water for the entire ten acres, and that they ought to have more land.”17 Yet, by 1913 allotted agricultural lands equaled 7,440 acres, already almost three times the amount of land that could be adequately watered under the Kent Decree’s 700 miner’s inches. Furthermore, the BIA did not even come close to guaranteeing five irrigated acres on each allotment, leaving 1,220 acres without proper irrigation.18

However, the reservation community did not let their water situation ever go unchallenged for very long. The meetings would continue, as O’Odham farmers formed the Salt River Improvement Association, meeting often to discuss water rights issues and develop political strategies in dealing with them. Often a thorn in the side of BIA officials, government bureaucrats did little more than explain to the group that their hands were tied or ignore their demands altogether. Yet, faced by these strictures, the members of the Salt River Reservation community increasingly turned to another form of survival: wage labor in the surrounding community. While it may not have been preferable in any way to their own autonomous agricultural ventures, the story that began this article points to ways in which wage work gave O’Odham people greater agency when dealing with government bureaucrats or the effects of colonization and water deprivation. In a complex milieu that nevertheless often wished to see their indigenous identities disappear, selective use of wage opportunities along with standing up for their water and land rights allowed O’Odham families to maintain their community and fight against the vanishing policy of the U.S. with what historian Tom Holm calls the “resiliency of peoplehood.”19 While such arguments for the role of agency remain a relatively aged fact in the fields of indigenous history and studies, the notion bears repeating until these narratives become firmly established in mainstream historical and contemporary consciousness. Indigenous populations have never been passive victims and have actively shaped the outcomes of historical processes in countless ways.

Nevertheless, this agency cannot and should not be overly romanticized by any means. Indigenous populations like the Akimel O’Odham at Salt River Reservation dealt with, and continue to deal with, a terrible amount of strictures and structures resulting from a history of settler colonialism and its military apparatus, institutional bureaucracy, and policy failures. Even though O’Odham people historically challenged their water situation through political organization, utilized wage opportunities to the best of their abilities, or promoted their own cultural beauty and worth through thoroughly amazing craft production (basketry in particular), they still had to deal with a great deal of awfulness from many directions, but especially from the BIA itself.20

The limits to O’Odham agency are best related through the conclusion of the ditch lining story and the surrounding wage dispute. Galled by indigenous intransigency against the first wage increase, and the further, but not at all unreasonable, demands of Akimel O’Odham laborers for more money, the BIA agents in charge issued a threat. If no one showed up to work the next week, they would truck in Apache laborers to accomplish the cementing project. People from the O’Odham community were on the jobsite the next day. Although the BIA might have found certain paternalistic sympathies for this community that had typically been friendly and helpful to the settler community in the surrounding area, those concerns did not translate into a dynamic support for their federally mandated water rights. Instead, they focused on limited technological solutions such as the simplistic ditch lining scheme, and, increasingly, the pumping of groundwater to supplement the 700 miners’ inches from the 1910 Kent Decree.

Groundwater use on the Salt River Reservation created tensions starting in the 1920s. In 1925, the non-indigenous Salt River Valley Water Users’ Association (later called the Salt River Project), who controlled the reclamation district, built three wells on the right of way of the Arizona Canal in order to provide more water to its own users.21 The pumping of this water had the effect of lowering the water table, and it was reported in 1926, “practically every well within the reservation has been effected (sic).”22 It seemed even underground water on the reservation was unsafe from settler appropriation. Yet, the BIA, in a rare moment, prevented the SRVWUA from maintaining operation of the wells in 1927.23 In 1929 the situation changed back again due to a severe drought. The BIA and the Water Users’ Association entered into a contract to pump from these same wells for a limited period of five months, with part of the water going to the Salt River Reservation for domestic uses.24 Although O’Odham people received a limited benefit from this scheme, the situation was quite troubling insofar as the settler community expected a spirit of mutual cooperation between the two communities when times were bad for everyone. However, when indigenous water resources remained low, most other times the surrounding community did little to help them with their situation, and, in fact, most had always prevented a reestablishment of their water supply through their own lobbying efforts with government officials. Obviously, aquatic mutualism in its colonial context was not a two way street.

Yet, by the 1930s tensions again increased over another proposed technological water solution on the Salt River Reservation. In 1933 the BIA dug three wells to pump groundwater and supplement the limited O’Odham water right.25 The decision encountered much resistance from the reservation community, who warned the BIA that pumped groundwater could have negative effects on the soil and damage their limited agriculture even more. Maintaining their right to river flow and not groundwater, members of the community challenged the use of the wells.26 Writing to the new Commissioner of the BIA, John Collier, in 1934, O’Odham leader Jose King expressed the fear that groundwater use on the reservation could establish a dangerous precedent and the community would ultimately be forced to depend entirely upon wells for their water supply. King—who had been actively involved in politics for quite some time and had even worked with Yavapai activist and physician Carlos Montezuma’s followers—hoped to find a sympathetic ear in the new commissioner. Referring to their reserved water rights he stated, “We believe we have vested rights into the rivers here for gravity water sufficient for all our needs, notwithstanding the Kent Decree, and that the wells of our reservation should only be used in emergency and during shortage of gravity water.”27 In his reply, Collier attempted to explain that the pumping of water offered a temporary solution until the “Verde River project” (what would become Bartlett Dam) had been completed. However, due to continuing tensions and O’Odham refusals of the BIA’s temporary technological schemes, the wells remained unused.28 It would take until almost the end of the decade for the Salt River Reservation to see any further water rights extended their way. With the construction and completion of the Bartlett Dam in May 1939, they finally had access to more fresh running irrigation water. Though it was a much larger and more helpful technological solution than the BIA ever previously advanced, the recognition of Akimel O’Odham reserved water rights was a long way off.29  

Tractor grading new irrigation ditch. Courtesy the author.

Still, what remained overwhelmingly clear about the history of water rights and their development on the Salt River Reservation are the BIA’s continued reliance on unjustified notions of inevitable civilizational progress and its twin with the split personality, the scientifically rational planning of nature. Despite a history of Akimel O’Odham surplus agriculture and a consistent demand from the community themselves that their identity and farming practices had a right to not only survive, but thrive, the BIA, functioning under the supposition that indigenous identity would melt away into society and the marketplace, undermined the one avenue available to this end: reserved water rights. Their focus on technological solutions not only minimized the legal precedent of the Winters decision, but it mirrored the larger system of reclamation infrastructure and ideology which had demanded technocratic engineering of the Salt River Valley in the first place. In a modern impulse to perfect nature and make it as productive as possible, either through spiritual or conservationist principles whose mandates dovetailed nicely, the settler population changed the environment of the area forever and severely limited indigenous water supplies in the process. Yet, if a technological solution failed to live up to its promises or O’Odham people suffered, there was no turning back. Another fix was sure to solve the issue.30

Modifying nature, however, was not singular to the dominant culture of U.S. expansion and settler colonialism, either. As a number of works have demonstrated, indigenous populations utilized their complex cultural ideas and the technologies available to them to create ideal circumstances in their surroundings and imbue those relationships with meaning from the very beginning.31 The most significant problem of settler environmental engineering was its logic of supremacy. It not only declared dominance over the natural environment of the area, fundamentally shifting relationships in the ecosystem, it also justified resource appropriation and maintained asymmetrical power relations with colonized indigenous populations like the Akimel O’Odham.32 In the case of the Salt River Reservation, federal officials attempted and failed at various technocratic solutions to water issues and blatantly ignored the conclusions of the highest court in the nation. Such ineptitude and great judicial failing left O’Odham people in a desperate economic situation, which they attempted to mitigate through their use of politics and wage opportunities. They knew where their water had gone and the legal mechanism available to restore them, but the BIA and its bureaucrats kept hoping for water out of nowhere.



  1. It should be noted that Salt River Reservation was founded with two distinct tribal communites; both the Akimel O’odham who lived north of the Salt River (often referred to as Salt River proper) and the Xalychidom Piipaash (Halchidhoma/Maricopa) who lived south of the river (referred to as the Lehi district or community). While both are part of the same historic reservation (today the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community) their histories and water concerns, despite very many areas of overlap, are a bit more distinct from one another. This article discusses Salt River proper and the concerns of Akimel O’Odham people there, while the larger dissertation work will include information about Lehi District, Fort McDowell Reservation to the North, and Gila River Reservation to the South, as well as the trajectories and influences of various Apache communities in Arizona.
  2. Herbert V. Clotts, Supervising Engineer to E.E. McNeilly, Superintendent, Los Angeles, CA, Oct. 16, 1923. Water Rights File 3 (1/1/1920-12/31/1923); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 1; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel
  3. See E.E. McNeilly, Superintendent to H.V. Clotts, Scottsdale, AZ, Nov. 3. 1923.; Herbert V. Clotts, Supervising Engineer to E.E. McNeilly, Superintendent, Los Angeles, CA, Nov. 6, 1923.; Herbert V. Clotts, Supervising Engineer to W.M. Reed, Chief Engineer, Lost Angeles, CA, Nov. 6, 1923.; & Notice To All Indians of the Salt River Reservation, Superintendent, Dec. 20, 1923.; Water Rights File 3 (1/1/1920-12/31/1923); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 1; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  4. Martha C. Knack and Alice Littlefield, “Native American Labor: Retrieving History, Rethinking Theory,” in Native Americans and Wage Labor: Ethnohistorical Perspectives, ed. Alice Littlefield and Martha C. Knack (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 14.
  5. William Bauer, “‘We Were All Migrant Workers Here’ : Round Valley Indian Labor in Northern California, 1850-1929,” The Western Historical Quarterly 37, No. 1 (Spring 2006): 44.
  6. See Colleen O’Neill, Working the Navajo Way: Labor and Culture in the Twentieth Century (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005).
  7. Thomas Sheridan makes the great point about the role of indigenous power shaping much of the early history of the lands that would become the state of Arizona, but also notes that the environmental conditions are always an ever-present and active agent even if it is in the background of most people’s consciousness. Thomas Sheridan, Arizona: A History - Revised Edition. (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2012).
  8. Bradford Luckingham. Phoenix: The History of a Southwestern Metropolis. (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1989), 27.
  9. Ibid., 29.
  10. Sheridan makes these points similarly but a good discussion of the technical issues and political processes to get the dam built is in, Karen Smith, The Magnificent Experiment: Building the Salt River Reclamation Project, 1890-1917 (University of Arizona Press, 1986).
  11. Reports Concerning Indians in Arizona, 1903; Salt River Indian Reservation Excerpts from Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1892-1903); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 1; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  12. Judge Edward Kent, Hurley v. Abbott decision and decree, 1910; Salt River Indian Reservation Kent Decree, No. 4564 P.T. Hurley v. C.F. Abbott 3/1/10; Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 1; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  13. The Salt River community has always protested the quantification of their water rights by the Kent Decree, and over the years it has been a source of litigation and contestation. See John A. Folk-Williams, What Indian Water Means to the West: A Sourcebook. (Santa Fe: Western Network, 1982), 37-38.
  14. Lloyd Burton. American Indian Water Rights and the Limits of Law. (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 21.
  15. Ibid.
  16. McDonnell. The Dispossession of the American Indian., 75, and Daniel McCool. Command of the Waters: Iron Triangles, Federal Water Development, and Indian Water. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 116.
  17. Annual Report, August 31, 1911; Allotments p. 9, Camp McDowell (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1011, roll 6); Camp McDowell School, 1910-12; Superintendents’ Annual Narrative and Statistical Reports From Field Jurisdictions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1907-1938), RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.  
  18. C.A. Engle to C.R. Olberg, Jan. 17, 1917; Water Rights File 2; Irr. Water Rights; PAO BWR; RG 75; NARA Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.; & Annual Report, 1920; Industries, Section IV, p. 2, Salt River Indian School (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1011, roll 124); Salt River, 1913-21; Superintendents’ Annual Narrative and Statistical Reports From Field Jurisdictions of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1907-1938), RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.        
  19. Tom Holm, The Great Confusion In Indian Affairs: Native Americans and Whites in the Progressive Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005).
  20. My academic advisors, Rebecca “Monte” Kugel and Cliff Trafzer, have intermittently told me that people refer to the BIA as either the “Bureau of Inept Affairs” or the more colloquial, “Bossing Indians Around.” Both are fitting at any given point, and also point to indigenous agency/power through humor as well.
  21. Report on History of the Salt River Indian Reservation, 1972; History of the Salt River Indian Reservation; Irrigation Water Rights; PAO BWR (1892-1950); Box 3; RG 75; NARA Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  22. Supervising Engineer to Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Los Angeles, CA, Nov. 4, 1926. Water Rights File 4 (1/1/1924-12/31/1927); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 1; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  23. See Charles H. Burke, Commissioner of Indian Affairs to C.C. Cragin, General Superintendent and Chief Engineer, Washington DC, Mar. 21, 1927.; & Charles H. Burke, Commissioner of Indian Affairs to Dr. C.H. Ellis, Washington DC Sep. 14, 1927.; Water Rights File 4 (1/1/1924-12/31/1927); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 1; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  24. Josiah M. Dixon, First Assistant Secretary to C.C. Cragin, General Superintendent and Chief Engineer, Washington DC, June 18, 1929.; Miscellaneous Correspondence (6/18/1929-12/21/1937); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 2; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  25. Report on History of the Salt River Indian Reservation, 1972; History of the Salt River Indian Reservation; Irrigation Water Rights; PAO BWR (1892-1950); Box 3; RG 75; NARA Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  26. Memorandum-Re: Paradise-Verde Request that Indian Lands on the Salt River Reservation be excluded from participation in the proposed gravity project. W.M. Reed, Apr. 30, 1930.; Miscellaneous Correspondence (6/18/1929-12/21/1937); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 2; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.; & Annual Report 1929, Industries, p. 2; Phoenix Indian School (National Archives Microfilm Publication M1011, roll ?); Phoenix Indian School, ?; Superintendents’ Annual Reports of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (1907-1938), RG 75; NARA Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  27. Jose King, Chief of the Tribe to John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Scottsdale, AZ, May 31, 1934.; Federal Project 210 Salt River General (9/26/33-6/12/1937); Irrigation Water Rights; Phoenix Area Office Branch of Water Resources (1892-1950); Box 2; RG 75; National Archives and Record Administration Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  28. John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs to Jose King, Washington DC, Mar. 5, 1934.; Federal Project 210 Salt River General (9/26/33-6/12/1937); Irrigation Water Rights; PAO BWR (1892-1950); Box 2; RG 75; NARA Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel. For disuse of wells see: Report on History of the Salt River Indian Reservation, 1972; History of the Salt River Indian Reservation; Irrigation Water Rights; PAO BWR (1892-1950); Box 3; RG 75; NARA Pacific Region, Laguna Niguel.
  29. It is important to make a clarification here. Reserved water rights and their recognition remained the impetus behind the community’s legal struggle for almost another fifty years, concluding with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community Water Rights Settlement Act of 1988. While the settlement certainly provided a much greater amount of water than the reservation ever previously possessed, it still quantified the amount to be given to the community each year. One of the key aspects of the Winters imperative in contradistinction to the settler legal doctrine of prior appropriation was the lack of quantification so as to provide room for growth of production and populaitons. However, to sidestep the nasty legal battle that most certainly would have cost lots of time and money, the reservation community decided to pursue mediation and settlement, which included quantification of their water supply. William H. Swan, Norman H. Starler, and Kenneth G. Maxey’s discussions of the act provides a great background to the legal issues and their history as well as the problems posed by quantification and mediated settlements. See William H. Swan. “The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Settlement: An Overview,” as well as Norman H. Starler and Kenneth G. Maxey, “Equity, Liability, and the Salt River Settlement,” in Indian Water in the New West. Thomas R. McGuire, William B. Lord, and Mary G. Wallace eds. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1993). A quick summary of Arizona’s settlements of indigenous water claims can also be found in Sheridan’s Arizona, 406-409.
  30. Andrew Ross makes a similar point in his work on Phoenix about the impetus for the Bureau of Reclamation and its projects as well as contemporary thinking when it comes to water issues. For a good discussion of contemporary water concerns and their historic roots in the area see his first chapter, “Gambling at the Water Table,” in Bird On Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). For his more specific point about reclamation ideology and techno-fixes see pages 40-41. Sheridan’s work makes the point about indigenous water concerns and how the impact of Winters is handled by the BIA and local settler politicians. Both reactions were an aspect of progressive thinking. The BIA assumed, as mentioned above, that those reserved rights would disappear with allotment, while even sympathetic politicians such as Carl Hayden thought that solving those issues meant development of new water sources and projects instead of undoing settler appropriations in the area. See Sheridan. Arizona, 224-225.
  31. Sheridan makes this point in Arizona and references the great amount of archaeological work which suggests a much slower transistion, if a clear boundary at all, between nomadic hunting lifesystems and sedentary agricultural ones. The Akimel O’Odham themselves utilized their own systems of irrigation and farming, while harvesting the great bounty of the Sonoran desert. Also, the O’Odham consider themselves descendants of the Hohokam, whose water development systems were unmatched in the historical record of North America. I first came across these concepts through Rupert Costo’s work on the California missions. His libertarian politics and polemical style of writing aside, he makes a good point about hunting and harvesting communities as a better term than hunter-gatherers, which implies simple chance and a serious lack of knowledge and planning on the part of indigenous societies. Work by Mark David Spence, William Cronon, and Richard White have also made similar points.  
  32. Detailed discussions of the impact of human ideological supremacy on the ecosystem of the Salt River Valley are not as common as those discussing the Gila River to the south. However, estimates conclude “that more than ninety percent of Arizona’s riparian areas have been lost in the past century”, while over “eighty-five percent of desert animals depend upon riparian areas for some phase of their lifecycle.” Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert. Steven J. Phillips and Patricia Wentworth Comus eds. (Tucson: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Press, 2000), 48.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American Society for Ethnohistory Annual Conference, 2012, in Springfield, Missouri. It will serve as the basis for a much more expanded dissertation chapter that deals with technology, violence, and water deprivation in central Arizona.



David Michael Buhl

David Michael Buhl was born and raised in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. He is currently a Ph.D candidate at UC Riverside.


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