The Sword of Damocles: Pima Agriculture, Water Use and Water Rights, 1848-1921

This study identifies the historical factors that impacted Pima agriculture, water use and water rights in south-central Arizona between 1848 and 1921. Federal land and resource policies, especially federal Indian policies, impacted the dynamics of Pima agriculture and water use during these crucial years when the federal government utilized economic liberalism to open the West to homesteading and facilitate the development of the region's vast resources.

As an agricultural people, the Pima did not passively accept these policies and events. Rather, they proved adaptive, demonstrating their resourcefulness in important ways. In response to water deprivation and infringement of their water rights, the Pima reduced the amount of land they cultivated. While before 1880 they had increased their cultivated acreage and expanded their trade networks, in the years after they creatively found ways to keep land in production despite water shortages. As the water crisis deepened, the Pima abandoned their least productive lands. In the midst of great deprivation, they relocated (or abandoned) a number of villages and scores of fields in an attempt against great odds to maintain their agricultural economy. To make the most of their diminishing water resources, the Pima adapted by growing small grains such as wheat and barley, even when these crops no longer proved to be economically viable in Arizona. While not new to their crop rotation, the Pima relied almost exclusively upon these crops by the 1910s since they required considerably less water than others.

Because the Pima had prior and paramount rights to the water and were wrongfully deprived of their rights to the use of water, their water rights struggle raised a metaphorical Damoclean sword above the heads of those non-Indian farmers who used the water. This study, therefore, focuses on the history of water use and agricultural production among the Pima Indians between 1848 and 1921 and argues that without infringement of their rights to water, the Pima would have equaled and perhaps surpassed the local agricultural economy.


David H. DeJong


Jennie Joe





Arizona State Museum: 

P9791 D45s


AAT 3254700

UA Library: 

E9791 2007
College of Social and Behavioral Sciences