Reclaiming the Colorado: The Differing Visions of the Bureau of Reclamation and the Chemehuevi

In 1931, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California praised plans to build the Parker Aqueduct, which would redirect water from the Colorado River to the rapidly growing Los Angeles metropole.

To the engineers and planners of the Metropolitan Water District, building a system to pipe water from the river was a no-brainer. To them, the Mojave Desert was a wasteland, and the people of Southern California needed the water after draining the aquifers that had originally provided water to the Californian population.

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 had divvied up the valuable water of the Colorado between seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming – and the district was eager to access this valuable resource.[1] This fit into American dreams of utilizing the Colorado River to sustain urban growth, create hydroelectricity, provide irrigation, and control floods. Public officials moved forward with plans to build the Parker Aqueduct alongside proposals to construct the Parker Dam. However, the public officials and engineers who devised these projects paid little attention to the Indigenous People who currently resided along the Colorado River.[2]

Map of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California showing the route of the Parker Aqueduct.
Sinclair O. Harper papers, Box 27, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The Chemehuevi, the most southern group of the Southern Paiutes, had lived in the arid Mojave Desert since time immemorial. They viewed themselves as children of Coyote and believed that Coyote had placed them in a sacred landscape. Over generations, the Chemehuevi moved across the desert landscape and developed intimate relationships with other Indigenous Peoples, sacred sites, springs, and the flora and fauna within the fragile environment.[3] American settlement challenged this way of life.

From the 1860s through the 1930s, government officials suggested concentrating various Indigenous Peoples, including the Chemehuevi, on the Colorado River Indian Reservation, which Congress established in March of 1865. This effort entailed combining the Chemehuevi and Mohave onto the reservation, despite the tension that often existed between the two Peoples. Notwithstanding American intentions, the Chemehuevi continued to travel across the desert and live upon their sacred lands. Their determination led to the Secretary of the Interior recognizing the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation in 1907 along the Colorado River and just north of the Colorado River Indian Reservation.

Nevertheless, plans to build the Parker Aqueduct and Parker Dam moved forward without consideration of the Chemehuevis’ homeland. Ultimately, the construction of the Parker Dam did not simply provide the flood control, hydroelectricity, and irrigation that planners envisioned. It flooded 8,000 acres of the Chemehuevis’ 32,000-acre reservation and displaced the Chemehuevi.[4] However, the Chemehuevi did not give up on reclaiming this land with a very different vision of community development.

Image of the Parker Dam.
Sinclair O. Harper papers, Box 27, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

The American Heritage Center provides researchers with a rich source of information to delve into the plans to develop the Colorado River. Wyoming is among the Upper Basin states that negotiated the Colorado River Compact of 1922 and continued to engage in reclamation projects during the twentieth century.

The AHC holds the papers of Sinclair O. Harper, an accomplished engineer who worked for the Bureau of Reclamation and oversaw the constructing of dams across the world, including the Parker Dam. His records reveal American visions of remaking the West through reclamation. The papers of Senator Joseph O’Mahoney further uncover American attitudes and strategies for development along the Colorado River.

Within these reclamation records, very little mention of Indigenous Peoples, particularly the Chemehuevi, exist. However, this very omission is revealing. American policymakers discounted Indigenous claims to the land and water despite Supreme Court decisions that affirmed Indigenous water rights. Regardless of American projects that displaced and scattered the Chemehuevi, they persisted.

In 1974 the United States government reaffirmed their right to the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation, and many moved back to their original homelands to reconstruct a community. The collections at the AHC provide vital insight into the process of American dispossession through the creation of public works. The records of engineers, public entities, and the Senatorial letters of Joseph O’Mahoney and John Kendrick reveal the conversations that altered the course of the Colorado River and changed the lives of the Indigenous residents. This rich archive is essential in reconsidering Indigenous aspects of reclamation projects in the West as Americans continue to debate the future of the Colorado River.

Post contributed by AHC Travel Grant recipient Mary Ludwig. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.


[1] The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, “Water from the Colorado River,” (Los Angeles: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1931).

[2] Engineer F.E. Weymouth for the Metropolitan Water District dismissed Indigenous lands as having “low value,” in The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California: Colorado River Aqueduct, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1937), p. 31. Sinclair O. Harper papers, Collection Number 2089, Box 13, Folder Colorado River Aqueduct, 1930-1962.

[3] Clifford E. Trafzer describes the origin stories of the Chemehuevi and their relationships with various Indigenous Peoples and other-than-humans in A Chemehuevi Song: The Resilience of a Southern Paiute Tribe (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

[4] “Historical Background on the Chemehuevi Tribe,” June 1981, Folder Chemehuevi Indian Tribe Historical Information, Chemehuevi Cultural Center, Chemehuevi Indian Reservation.

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