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The Pima and Maricopa Return to Their Roots

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The Gila River, a tributary to the Colorado, has long been home to the Pima and Maricopa tribes. By the late 19th century, the central Arizona natives had built a powerful agricultural economy based on irrigation. The non-Indian population at the time, which included settlers, the military, mining districts near Prescott, and even the Mexican army presidio in Tucson, all counted on Gila River Indian produced food and fiber crops. For roughly 30 years, the Pima and Maricopa were as economically viable as their non-Indian neighbors.

All of this changed rapidly and disastrously for the Natives. Immigrants settling upstream began depriving the Pima and Maricopa of water. Then came the years of drought, further depleting their crop output as well as their native woodlands and grasslands. Well water became too salty to drink or feed crops. After years of prosperity and cooperation, the tribes fell into poverty.

When the U.S. government in the 20th century intervened on their behalf, they offered food the tribes had never had as a part of their diets. Sugar, flour and lard became staples of their new diet. The loss of their irrigation agriculture meant they now had to rely on their neighbors, and these new foods created a horrific rate of diabetes among the tribes. Foods like fry bread, typically considered classic Native American fare, were actually introduced to the tribes by the military, and are an example of an unhealthy product lacking in insulin. Had the tribes accepted their state of affairs the continuation of their culture and the outlook for their health would have been bleak, but they fought back.

In the 1980s, a Supreme Court decreed water settlement was eventually reached between the tribes and the government. The Pima-Maricopa Irrigation Project built 2,400 miles of canal, pipeline and laterals to irrigate nearly 150,000 acres of tribal land. The tribes have finally begun to return to their sustainable farming roots, lowering their rate of diabetes and conserving their rich history and culture.

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