A’AGA: Something to be told or talked about

By Billy Allen


As I’m writing this, a lead article in the “Casa Grande Dispatch” newspaper is titled: “GRIC Threatens to End Its Approval” of the Arizona Drought Contingency Plan.


A Jan. 31 deadline has been imposed forcing action to address the use of Lake Mead/Colorado River among various stakeholders. The “threat” that GRIC has made is in response to Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers’ proposed changes to state laws to help Safford area farmers, who according to Bowers, have been “scratching it out” with water from the Gila River.  


Don Pongrace, attorney representing the Community, countered Bowers: “These people are not scratching out an existence. They’ve been stealing water from the community since 1870.” 


Our Governor Lewis, Community Council, and attorneys for our community are acting as “water warriors” to safeguard our interests, while continuing our history of aid and assistance to newcomers on our land.  


Land. Jeved.  When our reservation was first surveyed and established in 1859, much of our traditional jeved was left out. The eastern boundary was set just east of Blackwater. Antonio Azul protested, informing authorities that our traditional lands stretched from the Pinal Mountains near Globe on the east, to near present-day Gila Bend on the west. That protest didn’t matter – one of the provisions for the GRIC reservation was that it could not exceed 100 square miles. 


From about the 1850s, O’otham and Piipaash/Maricopa were a key source of supplies for immigrants and migrants traveling through the American Southwest. In 1865, the Superintendent at Sacaton wrote the O’otham and Piipaash had an excellent crop and found a ready market with the troops, miners and settlers in the area.  


In 1867, a railroad surveyor was told that there were only two areas in Arizona and New Mexico territory where travelers were assured of absolute safety: Zuni Pueblo and O’otham land along the Gila/Akimel. Due to our military effectiveness against raiding Natives, we provided an island of safety.


According to a Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1869, settlers knew that by keeping close to us they were protected, “by the vigilance and bravery of the Pima and Maricopa Indians.” 


O’otham and Piipaash warriors were like security guards for the settlers, but over time we became dissatisfied with settlers up the river from us. When these settlers moved in just beyond our eastern boundary, their crops and livestock were raised with water diverted from the Gila/Akimel. By taking that water, they were putting the hurt on the O’otham who provided security.  In essence, they were biting hands that protected them. 


General O.O. Howard as Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs called a meeting of O’otham and Piipaash headmen about the lack of water in 1872. Antonio Azul told him two dams up river, off the reservation, limited water flow to the O’otham and Piipaash. When asked what could help bring more water down the Gila/Akimel, Azul replied, “Our remedy is rain.” 


One possible option was to ask the Mexican settlers to allow water to run for six days. Azul believed the Mexicans would honor that request because according to Mexican law, hoarding water upstream was not allowed.


(Land south of the Gila/Akimel had been Mexico and only become part of the United States less than twenty years before.) O’otham and the Mexican ranchers usually worked things out – no confrontations had been reported. General Howard asked what if no water was released? The O’otham replied they would cut the dam to let the water out. The general said the U. S. government would not let that happen. 


Antonio Azul was asked if there would ever be enough water in the Gila. Azul replied, “It is impossible. Sometimes the river is dry; and now there are many dams above, and the country is full of ditches that are taking away the water.” Our water is still being taken away and in our lifetime our water has never flowed freely in the Akimel. 


O’otham and Piipaash probably knew this long before Ben Franklin said, “When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”  Another saying that comes to mind is “Once burned, twice shy.”  We got burned when the reservation boundaries were set up.  We don’t want to get burned again. It’s good that Governor Lewis and his team aren’t being shy about fighting for this Drought Contingency Plan.


Information was also taken from People of the Middle Gila by John P. Wilson. Gila River Indian Community Anthropological Research Papers, Number 6.