- Stealing the Gila: The Pima Agricultural Economy and Water Deprivation, 1848-1921
Thanks to the song "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," the violation of the water rights of central Arizona's Pima Indians is well known. David H. DeJong gives this story the serious scholarly treatment it deserves in Stealing the Gila: The Pima Agricultural Economy and Water Deprivation, 1848-1921. Rather than acting as enforcer of the Pimas' water rights, as it was bound by treaty to do, DeJong argues that the U.S. federal government has instead conspired to steal the Gila River from the tribe.
DeJong's history begins by noting the thriving agricultural economy of the Pimas during the Spanish colonial period. Chroniclers marveled at the Pimas' large fields of wheat and other crops. Because of their ability to beneficially alter the environment to obtain a reliable water supply—DeJong claims "[i]ncreased and widespread flood irrigation flushed salts out of the soil and kept the land productive" (13)—the Pima were usually able to bring in harvests two seasons a year. The Pimas' economic and agricultural success continued into the American period. Throughout the 1850s, the Pimas acted as "Good Samaritans of the desert," providing migrants across the southern trails to the California gold fields with food and water. Also during the 1850s, however, the influence of the U.S. federal government became an enduring reality for the tribe as Congress recognized the Pima Reservation on both sides of the Gila River in 1859. Although the reservation was established to protect the Pimas' rights to land and water, federal authority worked heavily against the tribe in the following decades.
Federal policies, such as the Homestead Act of 1862 and the Desert Land Act of 1877, were crucial in luring non-Indian settlers to central Arizona. Impingements on the Pimas' water rights resulted when these settlers established themselves upriver on the Gila and wastefully diverted water away from the Pima Reservation. [End Page 215] By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Pima agricultural economy had collapsed, and the tribe was reduced to starvation, poverty, and dependence on federal assistance.
The Pimas recognized their dilemma, traveling to Washington, D.C., to protest their treatment. Officials with the Indian Service also recognized their plight but never summoned the courage to challenge the water rights of non-Indians. The concepts of "prior appropriation" and "beneficial use" had become firmly established in western U.S. water law by the early twentieth century and worked against attempts to protect Indians. Instead of challenging these concepts, federal officials, irrigation advocates, and politicians used the much publicized plight of the Pimas to help secure support for federal irrigation projects such as the National Reclamation Act of 1902. Federal irrigation projects were supposed to help both the Pimas and their neighbors but only reinforced the unequal distribution of water in central Arizona.
DeJong's book is mostly successful in providing a succinct, detailed case study of an important issue in the United States' relations with its "domestic dependent nations." However, there are a few problems. The book's brevity prevents DeJong from developing certain themes; his treatment of ecological changes in the Gila after the late nineteenth century is one example (while noted, the treatment seems somewhat underdeveloped). Most frustratingly, DeJong does not delve much into the Pimas' relations with other Indians. The nature and history of their relations with the Maricopas, with whom the Pimas share the Salt River Indian Reservation and who merit several mentions in the book, is never really explained. Nevertheless, Stealing the Gila makes a valuable contribution toward understanding the history of the control of water in the American West.