March 3, 2023
Submitted by Billy Allen
“Water is Life.” About seven years ago, that was the rally cry of Standing Rock Sioux protesting an oil pipeline that endangered their water supply. Recently signs with that slogan were carried to protest the City of Scottsdale’s decision to stop allowing its water from being hauled to people living in Rio Verde Foothills, where the median home price is $690,000. The Rio Verde Foothills residents had been paying water hauling businesses to transport water to home tanks. Scottsdale has now allowed water hauling from their system to resume while negotiations between Rio Verde Foothills, Maricopa County, Scottsdale continue. Some media sources named GRIC as a third-party water supplier for Rio Verde Foothills/Scottsdale agreement, but a tribal spokesperson denied that claim.
Paying someone to haul water to our homes wasn’t the way D5 did it “eda” or back then. Before the 1960s, there was no domestic water for the river people/Akimel O’otham. Ironic. Along with most of the reservation, Va’aki/Casa Blanca O’otham hauled water. Cars, trucks and usually an u:s kalit/wooden wagon waited in line. As kids, we had fun running along a slow moving wagon, then hanging on to “surf” the road. Once, we “raced” two loaded wagons, but then the horses decided it was a stupid idea and slowed down to a walk. True horsepower. (You can lead a horse to water, but not run with it.) We had to make sure our barrels were covered and high enough so the dogs couldn’t sneak a drink. Our school clothes were worn two or three days in a row— clean clothes allowed only after baths. Doing laundry was real work, not just pressing buttons like now. I hoisted that pail until I was pale. As youngsters we knew water’s worth.
According to our origin story, a consciousness heard the rustling of water and decided to bring forth life. Using su:dag/water the moon was created as were stars and clouds. Life’s pattern was set in a circular manner. Su:dag flooded the last world to begin anew. The O’odham niok or language uses many words evolving from su:dag. An old riverside village was called Su:tuk/full. Bedding or any cloth left out overnight on the jeved/ground would be damp in the morning: Wetcamp. Dark clay called beaver clay caused a large pond in Blackwater to turn dark. Two O’odham villages, Chukson and Ali son, which were near water, drew Spanish onto our jeved/land. Today they are pronounced Tucson and Arizona.
Another Rio Verde Foothills water cut-off protest sign: “If it can happen to us, it can happen to you.” They were warned two years ago that the cut-off was coming. Our vi’ikol or great grandparents didn’t get a warning when upstream newcomers started diverting our akimel. Keli akimel just seemed to wither until almost none reached our jeved. No water, no farms. No farms, no food. Starvation took many O’otham and survivors accepted government rations. Depression and mumkidag/sickness became widespread. O’otham farmers become wage workers, and many moved off reservation. This was a drastic cultural change. Like the bends of rivers, water rights laws, acts, and compacts can have a lot of twists and turns. We took early hits—the 1862 Homestead Act, the 1877 Desert Land Act, the 1902 Reclamation Act—and the water kept disappearing. It appeared that we were “on the ropes,” but a 1908 Supreme Court opinion involving the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana established the “Winters Doctrine” which became a driving force for Native American water rights battles. The 1924 San Carlos Act brought about construction of the Coolidge Dam, a supposed GRIC win, but it was more of a draw because non-GRIC farmers reaped more benefit. The 1935 Gila Decree seemed like a win, on paper, but upstream diversions violating the decree kept on keeping on. Milga:n settlers upstream on the Gila felt, “It is better to be upstream with a shovel than downstream with a law book.”
Countering that reasoning took very skilled, very strong legal minds.
GRIC member Rod Lewis became a soldier for our water rights. He was part of a su:dag shondal or water battalion. Another saying comes to mind: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Armed with law and history books, congressional reports, and diligent documentation, GRIC tribal attorneys negotiated the historic 2004 Arizona Water Settlement Act, a definite win for our water. But will there be a rematch? Will climate change result in changes to laws? GRIC must keep battling to protect our su:dag. Other law book toting water protectors will have to stay vigilant. The Act helped level the playing field when it comes to managing Arizona water. It allows tribes to use water as wealth. After decades of thirsty Native voices going unheard, that act announced that “We’re still here.”