This week we attended a meeting of the Four Southern Tribes Cultural Resources Working Group, hosted by the San Lucy District of the Tohono O’odham Nation and held at the San Lucy Feast House. At the committee’s invitation, we provided a brief overview of the legislation introduced by Representative Raúl Grijalva to establish the Great Bend of the Gila National Monument, and we answered attendees’ questions.
At the end of the morning session, San Lucy District Chairman Albert Manuel Jr. gave a short presentation on the San Lucy District, one of eleven districts on the Tohono O’odham Nation. Chairman Manuel shared with us another sad chapter in the history of relations between the United States government and Native Americans.
In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur established the Gila Bend Indian Reservation (precursor to the San Lucy District) by Executive Order, reserving approximately 22,000 acres of public land for tribal purposes. Several O’odham villages located along the Gila River north of present-day Gila Bend were incorporated within the reservation, including the village of Si:I Mekk, later called San Lucy. Some of these communities may have been the ancestral villages described by Padre Eusebio Kino when he visited the area in 1697.
By the early 1900s, non-Indian residents began agitating for greater access to bottomlands along the river for agricultural purposes, and conflicts ensued between Euro-Americans and Indians over water, land, and cattle. President Taft became convinced that the initial reservation was too large, so in 1909 he removed more than half of the land from tribal reservation and “restored” these lands to the public domain.
Despite the fact that Si:I Mekk was one of the larger villages on the reservation, the 1909 boundary excluded Si:I Mekk. Many people were forced to leave, though many chose to remain. In 1917, the Tohono O’odham Nation reservation was established, and in 1935, the Nation voted to support the Indian Reorganization Act. As a result, the Nation was divided into eleven districts, one of which was the Gila Bend Indian Reservation, which later became the San Lucy District of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
In the 1960s, Army Corps of Engineers built the Painted Rock Dam to provide flood control for downstream users of Colorado River water. The predicted floodwater storage pool put San Lucy Village at risk, but because the village was not on the reservation, residents would not be compensated for their homes—even though many people pointed out that Si:I Mekk was the largest village in the area and had been on the reservation until President Taft decided to reduce its size. Eventually, an agreement stipulated that the village would be relocated to a 40-acre parcel that now constitutes San Lucy Village and serves as district headquarters.
Shortly thereafter, beginning in the 1970s, a series of floods inundated much of the remaining reservation. This rendered most of the tribal land unusable, such that the initial reservation of 22,000 acres effectively was reduced to around 400 acres. Finally, in 1986, twenty years after completion of the dam, Congress authorized the Nation to acquire up to 9,980 acres of private lands as replacement reservation lands. That process is now complete, and the Nation has acquired all but a few hundred acres of the 9,980 acres of replacement land.
After lunch, Albert Manuel Jr. and vice-chair Lillian Cipriano took the group out to the historic San Lucy Village site on the banks of the now-dry Gila River. Speaking from the cement platform of the former community dance hall, Lillian and Albert shared remembrances from their childhoods in the village, which had no electricity or running water, and they recalled tending family garden plots near the river (as well various accounts of mischievous child’s behavior that you can ask Albert about the next time you see him).
Lillian spoke of the villagers’ determination to move the original village church and their long walk behind the church as it made the slow and perilous journey to “new” San Lucy Village. It was an emotional occasion for the residents; some of the elderly women fell along the walk but rose again, determined to make the entire journey to the church’s new location. Joseph Joaquin talked about attending relocation meetings held in the church by the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Indian Affairs. At that time, the church bell rang to notify villagers of the meeting, and “just like in a Mexican movie, they rang the church bells, all the people in the village came out of their homes to meet at the church.”
Today, Albert and others are slowly mapping the old village and identifying the location of various homes and the people who lived in them. As Albert and Lillian told their stories on the cement foundations of a once-vibrant small town, the past came alive, and the experience spoke to the importance of place in telling and remembering the past.
For me, it was a reminder that the social injustices visited upon Native Americans were not missteps in a distant past, but continue through the recent past. It was less than fifty years ago that Si:I Mekk was relocated, and soon thereafter that the remainder of an early tribal reservation here in Arizona was reduced in size, due to the callous attitudes and poor planning of the Army Corps of Engineers. It took twenty years for Congress to right these wrongs, and it is twenty years later that the final steps are being taken to reestablish elements of the O’odham homelands back to the O’odham.