Pima Indians celebrate return of life-giving water

After decades of campaigning, the Pima or Akimel O’odham Indians of Arizona have won back the water that was the life-blood of their society.

Akimel O’odham means ‘river people’. The river that flowed through the tribe’s territory and fed their complex irrigation systems was diverted by settlers in the late nineteenth century. Terrible poverty and starvation followed, and many Pima were forced to depend on government rations. These rations were based on three main products: white flour, lard and sugar.

The collapse of the Pima’s sophisticated farming systems, the dependence on rations and spiralling poverty led to a health disaster: the tribe has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world. More than half of the population over the age of 35 has type 2 diabetes.

But now, following the largest water-rights settlement ever in Indian country, water is flowing back into Pima territory. With it comes hope. Community farms are being established and school children are getting involved.

‘People get sick with diabetes, they’re obese, and there are heart attacks and stress because we eat an American diet now. Beans regulate the highs and lows of sugar. Okra makes you healthy. You can eat this food and feel the spirit immediately,’ says Ed Mendoza, founder of one Pima community farming project.

Read ‘Progress can kill’, Survival’s report on tribal peoples’ health.