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.”

The Cabello family guards a channel on their plot with a pitchfork, lest tumbleweeds clog the canal. They’re among dozens of new growers in the last 15 years. Tomás Karmelo Amaya

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.

The sprawling civilization of the canal-building Huhugam—the Pima name for their ancestors, meaning “our people who have come before”—reached its pinnacle in the 15th century. Exactly what happened to it after that, however, is a mystery. Some evidence points to a protracted drought; other data, from the study of geological layers, suggests a series of massive floods destroyed large sections of the canal network. Pima oral tradition holds that a class rebellion overthrew the society’s elite. Whatever the reason, Huhugam culture experienced a precipitous decline, and desert winds eventually covered over their canals with sand, dirt and weeds. Gone, too, were their monumental four-story buildings, ball courts and villages, buried by the very desert soil that once sustained them.

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This article is a selection from the March 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

1959 excavation of ancient canals
An archaeological excavation of ancient canals in 1959. The site, along the north bank of the Gila River, was also once part of a Pima village. Richard Woodbury / Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona

The historic Pima farmed on a smaller scale than their ancestors, but their crops still fed much of what is now southern Arizona. But beginning in the late 19th century, the tribe endured decades of hunger, discrimination and a scourge of homesteaders and profiteers who diverted tribal water to quench the needs of booming new settlements.

Now, after more than a century, water has returned to the reservation. The Pima have gone from water impoverishment to water wealth, and the reservation now has rights to more water than anywhere else in Arizona, despite the region’s worst drought in 1,200 years. This profound change in the Pima’s fortunes represents a long-sought triumph over an ongoing historical injustice.

The Gila River begins as snowmelt in the thickly forested Black Range of western New Mexico. Near the extraordinary Gila Cliff Dwellings, built by the Mogollon people nearly 1,000 years ago, three forks come together to form the river’s main stem, which flows west through 649 miles of cactus-studded mountain desert before emptying into the Colorado River near Yuma, Arizona, just north of the Mexican border.

A flash-flood river, the Gila overflows its banks during wild spring runoffs and summer monsoons, then recedes and sometimes dries up. Its path runs through the Gila River Indian Community, which was established in 1859 and today is home to some 14,000 Pima and Maricopa people, who formed a confederation with the Pima in the 19th century. Farther east, the river splits into the Little Gila, which once flowed for about 15 miles before it rejoined the main stem. Historically, the land in between these two forks—known as the “island lands”—was prime Pima farmland.

Reviving an Ancient System of Agriculture

State-of-the-art irrigation is transforming the traditional lands of the Gila River Indian Community.

Prehistoric Canal System
PREHISTORIC CANAL SYSTEM: Huhugam irrigation networks spanned south-central Arizona. In the Middle Gila River Valley, at least 13 separate networks, covering more than 130 miles of canals, fed dozens of villages. Map by Guilbert Gates; Sources: Journal of Arizona Archaeology 2010, Volume 1, Number 1: 5-20, © 2010, Arizona Archaeological Council, Re-Drawing map of Hohokam Canals, Middle Gila River Valley, M. Kyle Woodson
Modern Irrigation Project
MODERN IRRIGATION PROJECT: Today, 207 miles of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project's main channel are complete. Another 250 miles of "laterals" will irrigate individual farms, delivering water to nearly 150,000 acres. Map by Guilbert Gates; Sources: Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, Main Stem Reach Designations & General Localities Construction Status Drawing; Google Maps

On a chilly spring morning between the Superstition and Sacaton mountain ranges, outside Phoenix, Kyle Woodson, an archaeologist, climbs into a narrow ditch as deep as he is tall. Woodson is the director of the Cultural Resource Management Program for the Gila River Indian Community. For 25 years he has studied the ancient canals of the Huhugam. He examines a dip in the layers of dirt on the wall of the trench—a cross-section of the remains of a canal that once ran through here. “There was no other place in the Southwest with as much fertile and irrigable land,” he says. With him is Wesley Miles, also an archaeologist, who is Pima. Together they conduct ground and aerial surveys using drones, aircraft and satellite imagery as part of an ongoing, multi-decade effort to create a detailed map of the network of canals that once carried water from the Gila onto planted fields.

The main arteries of the ancient canals, both here and near the Salt River to the north, were typically 25 feet across (though some were much larger) and eight to ten feet deep. Each was hand-dug with wood and stone tools. These arteries, which dropped a foot or two feet per mile, carried water to smaller canals that distributed it across the fields, and then to “laterals” that carried water to individual family plots. The canal system covered hundreds of square miles. Much of modern-day Phoenix was built atop ancient canal networks. The ruins of Pueblo Grande, a sprawling city that represents Huhugam culture at its peak, lies next to Sky Harbor Airport.

Kyle Woodson
Kyle Woodson, an archaeologist, has mapped ancient Huhugam canals for 25 years using satellite and aerial photography and remote sensing techniques. Tomás Karmelo Amaya
Prehistoric canal structures dating to around 1200 near Sky Harbor Airport. Phoenix was built close to the Huhugam village of Pueblo Grande.
Prehistoric canal structures dating to around 1200 near Sky Harbor Airport. Phoenix was built close to the Huhugam village of Pueblo Grande. Tomás Karmelo Amaya
Pima granary
A Pima granary, circa 1900, with two large storage baskets. C.C. Pierce / California Historical Society Collection / USC Digital Library

For centuries the Pima lived in permanent villages scattered throughout the region. Their dwellings were one-room homes called kiik. Families owned small fields up to three acres in size and separated by fences made of sticks and brush. There were water masters, or canal managers, who tended the flow and received a portion of the crop in return. The canals were carefully and strategically planned, taking advantage of topographic and geologic features. For example, beneath the river bottom near Pueblo Grande is solid bedrock, a feature that propelled water with tremendous force onward as it left the Gila, speeding its flow 16 miles to the main canal.

In all, the Huhugam engineered the most extensive canal civilization in the Americas, at least as advanced as the famed canals of Peru or of the Aztecs or Maya. “It’s not just the canals, which are amazing,” says Woodson. “It’s the whole package of technological, social and political adaptation to the desert that allowed them to live here for over a thousand years.”

Illustration of Huhugam farmland
An artist’s rendering of irrigated Huhugam farmland. After the Gila River was diverted, in the 19th century, Pima farmers curtailed the growing of traditional foods. Michael Hampshire, courtesy Pueblo Grande Museum, City of Phoenix

Artifacts discovered among Huhugam ruins show a highly developed society that made intricate shell jewelry, obsidian points and especially fine baskets. For Miles, the site is more than a historic marvel. “As a member of the community, it’s not a discovery for me,” he says. “It’s a remembering. It’s staying in touch with my ancestors.”

In the 17th century, an Italian-born Jesuit missionary named Eusebio Kino traveled through the area, ushering in the era of European settlement. Kino brought cattle, horses, black-eyed peas, garbanzo beans, wheat and fruit trees, enabling the Pima to expand and diversify their agriculture. The tribe took to wheat especially, growing it in winter to balance the summer crops. Wheat could be stored for long periods and was a top trade commodity. As far back as the 18th century, the Pima grew surplus yields and became known for their agricultural prowess.

By the 1850s, the number of travelers moving through what is now southern Arizona increased dramatically. Tens of thousands of fortune seekers streamed through Pima territory headed for the gold fields of California. The Pima, who welcomed migrants, were known as “Good Samaritans of the desert.” Young Pima men would head southeast into the grueling stretch of desert between Tucson and Pima and Maricopa villages to assist pioneers overwhelmed by heat and thirst. Travelers were also welcome in the villages themselves, where the river provided shady, cool oases lined with cottonwoods, willows and mesquite.

The Pima raised wheat and corn, and made flour for the burgeoning market. The villages were known as the “granary of Arizona.” Between 1860 and 1864, the Pima quadrupled their production of grain. Pima and Maricopa farmers had more than 14,000 acres under cultivation.

The end of the Civil War brought another wave of fortune seekers who saw how productive the desert soils were and stayed in Arizona. In 1877, Congress enacted the Desert Land Act, allowing Western settlers to claim 640 acres as long as they improved it. In order to “prove up” their claim, many farmers dug canals, diverting water from the Gila.

What the Desert Land Act and the settlers ignored was the question of whom the water belonged to and had long sustained. Western water law in Arizona held that those who first used water for beneficial ends owned permanent rights to it, a principle called “the doctrine of prior appropriation” or “first in time, first in right.” While the Pima and Huhugam had irrigated the Gila for centuries—a claim known in water law as “time immemorial”—federal water law required that claims be registered with the General Land Office in Arizona. The Pima, assuming their “prior use” rights would be protected, never filed a claim. After centuries, how could anyone dispute their tribal birthright?

By 1880 there were so many users that the flow of the Gila was in serious decline. Soon there wasn’t enough water even for household purposes, and many Pima moved away. But the final blow was yet to come.

At his office in Sacaton, just south of Phoenix, David DeJong, tall and rangy, with white hair and a sparse white beard, dons a straw cowboy hat, grabs a couple of water bottles and strides outside into the desert heat. “Jump into the pickup,” he says. DeJong, a historian of American Indian law and policy with a special expertise in water issues, has for 17 years been the director of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, the tribal agency building the massive irrigation system bringing water back to the people.

David DeJong
David DeJong, director of the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project, was instrumental in restoring the Pima’s water rights. “There’s a strong desire to farm in the community.” Tomás Karmelo Amaya
In addition to open channels, the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project uses underground pipelines to expand capacity, avoid obstacles and reduce evaporation.
In addition to open channels, the Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project uses underground pipelines to expand capacity, avoid obstacles and reduce evaporation. Tomás Karmelo Amaya

We head out of town and eventually turn off onto a dirt berm that runs along a concrete channel as wide as a highway. This is the main channel of the Pima Maricopa Irrigation Canals. It is 34 feet wide on the bottom, 88 feet across at the top and 11 feet deep. It carries 2,000 cubic feet of water per second. The completed main canals in this network are now 207 miles long and will run 250 miles when finished. Total cost: “Right around a billion dollars,” DeJong says. There will be another 250 miles of laterals on individual farms, just like the Cabellos’ ditch.

DeJong drives until we reach something called the Ashurst-Hayden Diversion. The Gila River used to flow past here and onto the reservation. But in 1889, the Florence Canal Company began diverting the Gila’s remaining flow to sell to farmers. “It was the final nail in the coffin,” DeJong says.

The river, once a perennially flowing ribbon of life filled with fish and shellfish and lined with vast riparian forests, became a ghost of what it had been. With few crops left, many remaining Pima people migrated elsewhere. Others survived by chopping down a mesquite bosque, or riverside forest, and selling it for firewood. Then, in 1891, a deadly famine took hold that lasted until 1904. “These were years of starvation,” says DeJong.

Exactly how many people died is unknown. During construction of the new irrigation project, excavators found a number of burials, including the remains of many children aged 4 or 5.

Nineteenth-century Arizona anthropologist Frank Russell observed that scores of people, especially elders, died because they were too proud to beg for food. “They were a wealthy people who had always been able to provide for themselves,” says DeJong. “Now they couldn’t.”

But the Pima never gave up their quest to restore the gifts the Gila once provided. The struggle has been long and labyrinthine, and it has been persistently burdened by a lack of resources.

In the 1920s, the Coolidge Dam was built 100 miles upriver from the reservation, making water available for irrigation again. In 1935, a court in Tucson decided to split water rights between the Pima and non-tribal farmers. The Pima were crestfallen that the decision didn’t grant them priority access to the water, but the decision signified a long-sought acknowledgment of their claim—and it was a first step that would slowly build momentum in their favor.

Coolidge Dam
The construction of the Coolidge Dam, in the 1920s, returned some water to the Pima—a small but important step toward restoration. Library of Congress

In the 1940s, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission in an effort to settle all claims by tribal nations against the federal government. During the claims process, the Pima, with the help of Henry F. Dobyns, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Arizona, began amassing historical evidence for a tribal claim of “first in time, first in right.” Included were accounts by Spanish missionaries and gold-seeking forty-niners describing extensive Pima farms along the Gila.

But for decades the fight went nowhere. It wasn’t until 1983 that Congress allowed Native American tribes to hire their own attorneys, rather than rely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs to represent them. The person who took over the Pima’s fight for its water rights was one of the tribe’s own—Rodney Lewis, the son of a Pima Presbyterian minister, who’d been educated at the University of California, Los Angeles law school and was the first Native American admitted to the Arizona State Bar.

Still, the tribe lacked the financial resources necessary for a serious legal effort. Then, in 1994, the reservation opened its first casino, and revenue poured in. A year later, armed with a range of expert testimony, the Pima and Maricopa threatened to file a lawsuit in state court seeking 2.1 million acre-feet of water—the entire flow of the Gila and Salt rivers, due to them, they argued, by their time immemorial rights.

The fight took nearly a decade, but in 2004, Congress passed the Arizona Water Settlements Act, which granted the Pima and Maricopa the rights to 653,500 acre-feet of water a year—the largest Indian water settlement in American history. (Because the Gila hasn’t reached anywhere near that level of flow in many years, the water is sourced primarily from groundwater and from the Colorado River.) The Gila River Indian Community also received more than $850 million in federal funds to build the massive new irrigation system, an effort led in part by the community’s governor—Stephen Roe Lewis, Rodney Lewis’ son.

After a century of water theft, though, skepticism on the reservation ran deep. When DeJong met with Pima elders to tell them the good news, he recalls, “I would get comments like ‘We’ll never see the water come back’ or ‘It’ll just go off reservation again.’” DeJong asked a community member to explain the settlement in O’odham, the Native language. After he did, the interpreter shook his head and said, “They don’t believe me either.”

But in 2009, an 8.5-mile-long canal was built in the midst of the community, on tribal land, and the pessimism began to lift. “We started to see growers come out of the woodwork,” DeJong recalls. “It was real. They could see the canal and the water in it.”

Today, the tribe holds traditional ceremonies when it opens a new section of the irrigation system. “We had an elder broadcast the seed in a traditional manner,” DeJong says. “The growers want to keep that connection.” Governor Lewis told me, “Respecting water is in our blood; being water protectors is in our DNA. We are being visionary in how we bring technology in and meld it with our traditional history and values.”

During construction of a pipeline section known as Canal 14, engineers arranged for precious water to be released and provided to growers.
During construction of a pipeline section known as Canal 14, engineers arranged for precious water to be released and provided to growers. Tomás Karmelo Amaya
Downstream of a new pipeline that turns away from a major road, water is discharged into an open channel canal, which goes on to feed individual garden plots.
Downstream of a new pipeline that turns away from a major road, water is discharged into an open channel canal, which goes on to feed individual garden plots. Tomás Karmelo Amaya

In the pickup, DeJong pulls up to a huge yellow machine flanked by a few men working alongside it. Wet concrete noisily pours out, laying down the walls and sides of a laser-leveled canal. The result will be a channel that steadily drops about a foot and a half per mile, to allow gravity to carry water 13 miles across the desert. The concrete lining is expensive—$4 million to $7 million per mile—but it ensures that as much as 70 percent of the water isn’t lost to seepage in the ground.

Young farmers like Camille and Cimarron Cabello can now call for water in ways their ancestors could not have imagined. “They can get on their smartphone and say, ‘I need a head of ten cubic feet per second for 24 hours,’ and boom, they get it,” DeJong says. The Pima pay nothing for Gila River water or for the pumping—both are covered by the federal government. To recruit new farmers, a tribal agency finds available land and helps farmers obtain leases, level the fields, pay for starter crops, and dig a new canal.

Camille Cabello with her 4-year-old son, Cowboy.
Camille Cabello with her 4-year-old son, Cowboy. The family depends on an irrigation channel to grow oats and alfalfa. Tomás Karmelo Amaya
A cotton field belonging to Gila River Indian Community grower Brian Davis
A cotton field belonging to Gila River Indian Community grower Brian Davis. Tomás Karmelo Amaya
newly harvested tepary beans, grown by Ramona Farms, are a sign of revived interest in heirloom crops.
Newly harvested tepary beans, grown by Ramona Farms, are a sign of revived interest in heirloom crops. Courtesy Ramona's American Indian Food

One of the most successful Pima farming stories is the 4,000-acre Ramona Farms, owned by Terry and Ramona Button, who were among the first to re-establish large-scale farming on the reservation. They grow wheat, alfalfa and cotton, and 400 acres of organic heritage crops. The Pima have very high rates of Type 2 diabetes, which Stephen Roe Lewis attributes to generations without traditional foods. Ramona, a nurse and member of the community, has seen firsthand how disease has ravaged the people’s health. She and her husband decided to plant seeds that her grandfather had stored, including tepary beans. They also planted the ancient strain of Pima wheat. “When you cook the tepary beans, it smells like the first rain in the desert,” Ramona told me.

Water that appears in the desert quickly becomes an oasis, and in one place, where a large aquifer has been refilled, the Gila has surged back to life. “We were shocked,” DeJong says. “Within a year all of the native vegetation came back. Now we have 200 or 300 acres. Eight different braids of the river have come back, wildlife have come back, birds have come back. It’s been incredible.” Many in the tribe come here to gather traditional foods and materials for basket making.

Tribal member Yolanda Elias recalls riding in a wagon dozens of miles to find cattails, willows and other plants to make traditional Pima basketry. “Now we don’t have to leave the reservation.” They can also gather wild foods, like mesquite beans and spinach.

After we finished our tour of the project, DeJong drove me to a spot where we could view one of those happy twists of fate that time now and then provides. The channel that the Florence Canal Company once used to siphon off the last of the Pima’s water has been repurposed to bring Gila River water back to the reservation. Some of the water is also filling an aquifer for storage. “When I see water come down the Florence Canal, that says something to me,” DeJong says. “It’s one of the ironies of history.”

The Pima, now water rich, are joining growing efforts to conserve water. The region is in the grip of a mega-drought, the worst in 1,200 years, according to researchers who have analyzed tree ring data. Lake Mead, a Colorado River reservoir that is the source of water for 25 million people, is at a historic low. To stave off Lake Mead’s dropping to critically low levels, the Pima have agreed to leave a portion of their water allotment in the reservoir for at least the next three years in exchange for federal compensation.

It has been said that justice delayed is justice denied. Perhaps the return of Gila water to the Pima people disproves that maxim. In spite of the desiccation gripping the Southwest, which some researchers believe could indicate a permanent aridification of the region, the Pima have plans for an agricultural future that would see young Pima farmers create a modern-day version of the lifeway of the Huhugam. “The community could play a major role in the food economy of this region,” Governor Lewis says. “We want to be Arizona’s breadbasket again.”

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