Fort McDowell’s 38th Orme Dam Victory Days are certainly worth celebrating. It marks the tribe’s 1981 victory over the federal government during their battle over the proposed Orme Dam. This dam would have flooded most of the Fort McDowell Reservation.
Planned for the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers, the dam would have flooded the traditional village area, including homes, four churches, a cemetery, a new gymnasium, the rodeo grounds, farms, pastures, baseball diamonds, the water supply, the ruins of historic Fort McDowell, active bald eagle nesting sites, hundreds of important archeological sites, and the last stretches of free-flowing river in Central Arizona.
Unlike the Pima Indians of the Gila River Indian Community, the Yavapai were not traditionally farmers. Instead, they migrated up and down the Verde River, hunting, fishing, and gathering.
But in 1903, the government settled them on Fort McDowell, a former U.S. Army installation. Irrigated farms had sprung up along the river to supply the fort, eventually leading to the settlement of the quiet outpost named “Phoenix”. For a few decades after the Yavapai took over the Army’s farms, they grew a modest couple hundred acres of wheat and alfalfa.
The rich river-bottom land along the Verde River was the basis for the productivity and stability of the community.
With limited financial resources, community members engaged in an opposition movement. The community voted 144 to 57 in a 1976 referendum to not sell their land to the federal government for the dam site. In all, they fought for ten years to preserve their home.
After consulting with the Fort McDowell Tribal Council and the Governor’s Advisory Committee, Interior Secretary James Watt announced the dam would not be built on November 12, 1981.
As part of the settlement, the Yavapai received a $13 million low-interest loan from the Bureau of Reclamation (the same agency that tried to flood their reservation) to expand its farm from 700 to 2,000 acres.
Today, the tribe has and over 30,000 citrus trees and more than 50,000 pecan trees, one of their most profitable crops. The farm’s manager at the time, Harold Payne, said, “The trees will produce for 100 years if they’re cared for properly. They’ll provide revenue for two generations.”
The tribe has gone on to insist that the Salt River Project, which manages the Verde River, keep the water high enough to sustain wildlife habitat, especially for bald eagles that nest in the cottonwoods along the river during the winter.
The Orme Dam Victory Days celebration takes place on November 15-18 at the Fort McDowell Rodeo grounds, located 3 miles north of Shea on Highway 87. Admission is free for all events with a $10 parking fee. Attendees should bring their own chairs.
The three-day event includes:
- All-Indian rodeo
- Intertribal Powwow
- Yavapai Village, a showcase of cultural performances from various tribes of the Southwest
- Authentic native food vendors
- Arts & crafts vendors
For more information, visit https://www.fmyn.org/event/orme-dam-victory-days-2019/.