This Native American Tribe Is Taking Back Its Water


February 16, 2023

Cradling her 4-year-old son, Cowboy, Camille Cabello watches tumbleweeds blow across an emerald green field of newly sprouted alfalfa toward a small canal. Water spills over the canal’s side, glistening in the brilliant Arizona sun.

Not far away, her husband, Cimarron, his head covered in a western hat, guards the stream with a pitchfork. As the tumbleweeds roll into the water, he fishes them out. “On a windy day like this we have to stay out here,” Camille says, a dust devil spiraling skyward in the distance behind her. “If we don’t get them out of there it will clog the canal and cause problems.”

This desert tableau is at once modern and ancient. Modern because the arrow-straight canal, lined with concrete and designed with turnouts that divert water to flood the field, is the last leg of a state-of-the-art irrigation system here on the Gila River Indian Community, an Indian reservation in southern Arizona. Ancient because Camille is a member of the Akimel O’odham, or River People, also called Pima. For centuries her ancestors practiced irrigated agriculture across this vast desert, digging hundreds of miles of canals that routed water from the Gila and Salt rivers onto planted fields of maize, beans and squash, the “three sisters” that fed a huge swath of prehistoric America.


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