Boulder Dam and the Navajo Reservation

In general the history of hydroelectric dams in the United States has involved the transfer of wealth from the nation’s poorest people, American Indians, to the nation’s wealthiest people, industrial capitalists. In the name of progress, industrialization, and manifest destiny American Indian nations have had their lands, water rights, fishing rights, and sacred sites taken from them. The case of Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam) on the Colorado River is different in that it did not directly impact the Navajo Reservation, but it indirectly led to the destruction of the traditional Navajo economy, and the creation of poverty and economic inequality among the Navajo.

In 1922, the seven Colorado River Basin states negotiated a compact which divided the water of the Colorado River water among themselves. Archaeologist Brian Fagan, in his book Elixer: A History of Water and Humankind, writes:  “The era of industrial water management was truly under way, for the benefit not of small farmers but of large agribusinesses.”

While the Indian tribes in the region had a legal right to this water, the tribes were not invited to the negotiations and any possible water rights which Indians might have were purposefully ignored. The negotiations were chaired by Herbert Hoover.  In 1928, Hoover, who was then Secretary of Commerce, secured from Congress the authorization for the Colorado River Project which included the construction of Boulder Dam (later renamed Hoover Dam). The dam was to protect and promote agribusiness ventures in California’s Imperial Valley and to provide water to Los Angeles.

A glance at the map suggests little connection between Boulder Dam and the Navajo, as the dam is located far to the west of the reservation. However, in 1929 the United States Geological Survey reported that the major contributors to Colorado River silt were located on the Navajo Reservation. The Navajo Reservation was therefore seen as a major threat to the Boulder Dam as silt from the reservation would pile up behind the dam and destroy its usefulness. American government officials at this time were firmly convinced that overgrazing caused gullying which resulted in silt. The solution in their minds was obvious: stop overgrazing by the Navajos on their reservation and save Boulder dam.

In the 1930s, the United States, in the midst of the Great Depression, elected a new President who then appointed John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Unlike most of his predecessors, Collier had worked on Indian reservations, understood Indian cultures, and felt that Indian people should have a say in their own destinies. He felt that forced assimilation was wrong and that previous Indian policies had resulted in the creation of Indian poverty. He told the Indians:  “We believe that your Indian heritage is just as practicable and good, and just as much needed by America as is the Anglo-Saxon heritage or the German heritage or the Scotch or Irish or Norwegian heritage.”

The situation with Boulder Dam and the Navajo would, however, provide Collier with his greatest challenge and his actions in dealing with this challenge would make a mockery of the many fine words he spoke about American Indians.

Part of the problem stemmed from an economic misunderstanding. Long before the European invasion of North America, the Navajo had been farmers and they acquired sheep, goats, and horses from the early Spanish settlements in New Mexico. By the twentieth century they had a basic subsistence economy in which their farming and livestock provided them with the basic necessities of life. Their primary participation in the larger cash economy was through traders where they could trade wool blankets and other items for cash or goods.

The American government, however, viewed agriculturalists, including the Navajo, as a part of a larger industrial agricultural system in which people raised products, such as sheep, which were then sold to provide them with the money with which they could buy basic food and supplies. From this viewpoint, only Navajo sheep had economic value and goats and horses were economically worthless as there was no market for them. What the Americans failed to understand was that the Navajo ate goats and horses and that these animals provided them with the food they need to survive to tough times.

In 1931, for example, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held hearings on the Navajo Reservation. The Senators used the hearings as a forum to lecture the Navajo on market economics. While agency personal testified that the Navajo had few surplus horses and the Navajo testified about the fact that goats are essential to their subsistence, Senator Burton K. Wheeler admonished the Navajo to get rid of their horses and goats.

There were also political misunderstandings. The Navajo had never had a tribal council: each of the many small bands and outfits were felt to be autonomous. Historically, the American government has always preferred dealing with dictatorships rather than democracies and has therefore established governments which it could easily manipulate. The Navajo Tribal Council was not a Navajo institution, but had been established by the American government to agree with all American actions and to give these actions, primarily the transfer of wealth and  resources from the Navajo tribe to American businesses, the superficial appearance of having been done with Navajo approval. Many of those appointed to the Council by the American government were highly acculturated Navajo who tended to be wealthy, bilingual, and Christian.

In 1933, John Collier, in his role as Commissioner of Indian Affairs, met with the Navajo Tribal Council to discuss stock reduction. He told the Navajo that overgrazing was resulting in erosion and that there would have to be a reduction in stock. He told the Council:  “This reservation, along with the other Indian reservations along the Colorado River, is supplying much more than half of all the silt which goes down the Colorado River, which will in the course of a comparatively few years render the Boulder Dam useless and thereby injure the population of all Southern California and a good deal of Arizona also.”

He proposed a reduction of 200,000 sheep and 200,000 goats. While there was some opposition to the stock reduction proposal, the Council did what it was told and voted 8-4 to endorse Collier’s proposal. Many Navajo, however, particularly the women, did not support the Council’s action. In Navajo culture, women owned their own sheep and felt that no one had the right to tell them what to do with their own property.

The impact of stock reduction was first felt in 1934: 148,000 goats and 50,000 sheep were sold. The prices set by the government were exceptionally low.  Not all of the goats could be delivered to the railhead, therefore some were slaughtered and the dried meat given back to the Navajo. Other goats were simply shot and left to rot; some were shot and partially cremated by soaking them with gasoline and lighting it. From a Navajo viewpoint this was an appalling waste of valuable resources. It is generally estimated that the reduction in the number of goats increased the cost of living on the reservation by about 20%.

Government officials failed to understand Navajo concepts of ownership. They simply assumed that the flocks were family owned, that is, they were owned by the male head of household. Since Navajo women owned large herds this meant that women soon found that their flocks were being credited to their husbands.

The non-Navajo conservationists advocated the reduction in goats because the animals had little market value. They did not understand that in a subsistence economy, such as that of the Navajo, goats are important as a dependable source of food: by drinking goat milk, eating goat cheese, and eating goat meat, the sheep could be bred or traded.

In 1936, Navajo women rebelled against federal government pressure to reduce the size of their sheep herds. At Kayenta, 250 Navajo gathered. While most of those present were men, Denehotso Hattie, a woman almost blind from trachoma, was the leader. She pointed her finger at the new Indian superintendent for the reservation and denounced the government plan for range management. The government had disparaged Navajo knowledge of the lands they had traditionally occupied and disregarded the women.

The United States government wanted to create the illusion that a Navajo democracy supported the herd reduction program. In 1937, seventy-odd selected Navajo headmen met and, at the prodding of the Agency Superintendent, voted themselves as the new Navajo Tribal Council. The strategy of federal government was to create a new governing body which would enact and enforce legislation to require the Navajo people to conform to grazing regulations. The new council had 70 members with each member representing a new voting district. In opposition to the Council, J.C. Morgan organized the Navajo Progressive League which vowed to form a representative council.

John Collier met with the hand-picked Council and told them they had two choices: they could approve the new regulations for stock reduction or they would be placed under the General Grazing Regulations for Indian Lands. In other words, stock reduction was going to take place in spite of any Navajo opposition.

The following year, at the request of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and without the consent of the Navajo, a set of bylaws were issued creating a new tribal council. The positions of chairman, vice-chairman, and 74 delegates were to be filled by popular vote. Jacob C. Morgan, who was opposed to Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier and to stock reduction, was elected chairman.

Rumors spread through the reservation that the federal government intended to round up all Navajo horses and shoot them, just as they had done with the goats. Many people hid their horses from government officials and refused to have them branded and counted. In some areas, federal marshals were called in to enforce compliance and suits were filed against some of the Navajo for non-compliance with horse reduction. Twelve cases involving 30 defendants were filed in the United States District Court as a way of proving to the Navajo that the federal government had the power to reduce their horse herds. Collier insisted that these actions were not a policy of coercion. In 1939, the United States District Court in Phoenix ruled in favor of the government and ordered U.S. marshals to seize the horses if they were not removed in 30 days. By the end of the year, one-fourth of the Navajo horses had been sold for $2 to $4 per head.

By the 1940s, it was clear to most Navajo that the federal government intended for them to starve and to give up their reservation. While the federal government had ordered many scientific studies of the reservation—its peoples, its ecology—the government ignored the findings of these studies. While John Collier had promised a New Deal for the Indians and an end to the old paternalism, with regard to the Navajo, the old paternalism—the government knows what is best for you—continued with more vigor than in previous administrations.

Looking back at the Navajo stock reduction program in 1949, at a time when he was no longer the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Collier noted that one of the options was:  “Go with the facts to the hundreds of local communities of the Navajo people. Educate these communities through slow, patient conference and demonstration. Vest the responsibility for launching and guiding these huge, necessary adjustments, in the local headmen, in the healer-singers, the diviners, and ultimately the heads of families.”

Collier notes that in rejecting this option they may have erred profoundly. It is interesting to note that Collier does not talk about listening to the Navajo, and particularly Navajo women, and asking for their opinions about what should be done to their land.

In the end, stock reduction did not restore the lands on the Navajo Reservation. By the 1950s, scientists recognized that gullying and siltation were not necessarily caused by over grazing and that stock reduction had little impact. Boulder Dam provided no economic benefits to the Navajo Reservation, but it destroyed a traditional economy and greatly increased poverty.