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Last Updated: 01/18/2005Water War
Sam Wolf Cheney
Sam Wolf Cheney comes from a small town in Northern New Mexico, near the state capital of Santa Fe where he has lived for much of his adult life. The conflict there stems from familiar sources: struggle over scarce natural resources (primarily water); the arrival of one ethnic group into territory long held by another; a struggle between divergent cultural values; endemic poverty. Hope lies in shared responibility...
Being fortunate enough to come from a country where war and famine are known only distantly and with commercial breaks, it seems nearly unfair to discuss challenges to peace in this context. And yet I cannot say that my home, or my experience of life there, was or is truly peaceful.
I come from a
small town in Northern New Mexico, near the state capital of
widespread resentment against these newcomers.
Growing population increased resource pressure and a growing tourist industry
pressured ethnic groups to market themselves to adapt to the new economy.
By 1927, recent arrivals were
complaining about tourism and newer arrivals.
In the sixties, the hippies discovered the region—replete with cheap mountain
As the Hispanic population was most affected (the Native population being largely confined to reservations, their land therefore unavailable for purchase) the result was a peculiar dynamic in which those making the loudest protestations against the newcomers were themselves relatively new-come. The local economy, heavily based on barter, couldn’t compete with cash. The newcomers, largely Anglo, were able to buy up large pieces of land; farmers or ranchers tired of struggling to make ends meet took the bait and moved to the cities, or subdivided their land. Traditional adobe homes, requiring a great deal of labor (traditionally a community effort) but little money (building materials being mud and straw) gave way to mass-produced trailers. In the space of two generations, people with a centuries-old way of life became a racially defined underclass. With some justification, Anglo newcomers were largely blamed. Until the advent of Indian gaming (discussed below), the Native population was so marginalized that they played little role in this dynamic.
Structurally, the overt conflict is as follows. The Southwest is commonly believed to have been in a drought for nearly 10 years. However, recent climatological data indicates that until the last 12 years, the region was in an uncharacteristically wet period—for two centuries. We aren’t in a drought; we’re returning to normal. Rather than hoping for the end of the drought, we must rethink our whole lifestyle and development model.
Anglos purchasing land have sometimes gotten water rights to go along with it. With some exceptions, their water use is oriented towards what might be called “recreational” uses—landscaping, gardens, lawns, etc. When water runs short, this creates resentment among those who are really dependent upon having a certain quantity of water for their livelihood. Additionally, there are a number of wealthy investors doing their best to cash in on the “land of enchantment” by building luxurious gated communities, exclusive hotels, and golf courses—all water intensive. Anglos are the primary force behind these developments.
Though there was
once a strong agricultural tradition among Native Americans, this way of life
has largely been destroyed. Recently, many regional tribes have opened casinos
and with the enormous financial gains generated are now investing in other, more
water-intensive developments, including golf courses and luxury hotels.
ago matters came to a head. The water shortage became so acute that the “average
citizen” was deeply affected: no new plantings, watering outdoors only at night
and once per week, subsidized “low-flow” toilets to replace traditional ones,
restaurants prohibited from serving water except on request, etc. Meanwhile, a
luxury development just outside town (Las Campanas, note 13, infra) poured daily on their two 18-hole
golf courses what an average two person home would use in the course of over 30
years. In an effort to placate the populace,
the city came up with a deal to sell Las Campanas treated effluent to supply
some of their need. However, this treated effluent had previously been pumped
back into the
The end result was that a Northern alfalfa farmer (probably Hispanic) could drive from his parched fields to the capital past miles of dead trees and find parks full of dead grass. On the way, s/he would pass at least 4 emerald-green golf courses, two owned by Native Americans and two owned by wealthy Anglos who generally lived there for only a few months out of the year.
situation it is challenging to unwind all the bits of the issue and describe
what exactly are the challenges to peace. At present it is the shortage of water
which is providing fodder for discord; however, I believe that water is simply a
socially acceptable medium for negotiating the racial tensions that have mostly
lain latent for many years. As part of the equality myth of the
The challenge, then, becomes to address the underlying race issues in order that the much advertised “3 cultures” can begin to deal with the fact that they are sharing a small and delicate bit of territory. Each of the three are approaching the situation as a zero-sum game; they must get as much of the water as possible for themselves, and to hell with the rest. The result is a classic example of “the tragedy of the commons” in which all, working to exploit a resource before anyone else does, contribute to its rapid destruction. Without a dialogue addressing shared goals for the region, the three groups will continue to do their best to “get ahead” pulling them all further behind in the process.
Though going into this project I knew that it would to be challenging to find many public references to race issues, I didn’t realize that it would be virtually impossible. It is a nearly constant conversation in the region; and yet in hundreds of books about the area, years of newspaper archives, and hours on the internet I can find hardly a reference. This is, I believe, primarily due to two factors: first, the taboo nature of the subject (nationwide); and secondly, the fact of how high the tension actually runs. In the middle 90s we had a mayor who mentioned in a public speech that perhaps it wouldn’t be all bad if the Anglos’ houses burned down and were run out of town; when I was a child one independence day 4 houses owned by Anglos burned to the ground. The list of examples is endless, and highlights the reality of the tension: any public discussion of it is likely to degenerate into recriminations and a dredging up of historical injustices on both sides, further increasing tension.
What is needed—though I fear not likely—is a forum at which individuals from all three cultural communities, as well as individuals from the numerous other affected groups, could together begin to address a new question. Thus far the discussion about water has been focused by each affected group on meeting their needs, and at best finding a compromise. Litigation is frequent. This public discussion has not, however, focused upon learning what everyone does agree on. Even a few simple things would be a start: everyone is likely to agree that all should have access to clean water for drinking/sanitation/etc; everyone is likely to agree that there should be some public parks for kids to play in. A forum encouraging people to look at the struggle from this angle would be the beginning of a dialogue which could lead further than any of the hostile and aggressive public meetings currently held about water issues have. Another positive aspect of such a dialogue would be that it would bring members of the different cultural communities together, hopefully in a less confrontational way. Currently, there is an extraordinarily limited about of mixing between the cultures. I feel awkward because despite having grown up in an area predominantly Hispanic I can count on one hand the number of Hispanic friends I have; however, most of my Anglo friends can’t count any. I didn’t have a single Native friend until a girlfriend began working for a Native American College.
While in many ways the whole situation appears intractable, I believe there are at least a few reasons for optimism. First (obviously a mixed blessing) the water situation has reached a critical stage; people will be forced, within a few years, to begin making challenging decisions and coming up with creative solutions. Second, though in many ways the underlying racial conflict is very old, it has also reached very significant proportions only in the last several decades as the number of Anglos has grown enough to both precipitate a crisis and also to necessitate a serious engagement with the situation. Children now are growing up in a more racially balanced environment; it is clear that the Anglos are here to stay (of course, Hispanic or Anglo parents may transmit their resentment to their children, perpetuating the conflict). Last, hopefully the influx of money to the various tribes through gaming, focused heavily on scholarships and the betterment of tribal conditions, will have a positive impact in the near future. Unfortunately, as the bulk of the gambling customers are lower-income Hispanics, this may also prove to be a further point of contention as power between those groups shifts.
Ultimately, only a sincere effort from members of all groups concerned to resolve their differences and address shared goals and challenges will have a positive impact. It remains to be seen how these interconnected communities will chose to address their own situation: refusing to address it in a meaningful way in order to validate their blaming of other groups; or accepting a shared responsibility for both the problems and their solutions.
 This was a war begun April 25, 1846 and ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Roger Lee, “The Mexican-American War” The History Guy, Available at http://www.historyguy.com/Mexican-American_War.html
 Hunter Clarkson (founder of “Indian Detours”, chauffeured and guided automobile trips), August 29, 1925, cf. Marta Weigle, “Southwest Lures: Innocents Detoured, Incensed Determined” Available at http://digital.library.arizona.edu/jsw/3204/lures/lures.html. Hereafter referred to as Weigle.
 Mabel Dodge Lujan is often credited
with having started this movement: “Mabel
Dodge Sterne came to
 “When that Dodge woman showed up, that’s when
it all started going to hell.” Kathleen Modrowski, Professor at
 “The tourism industry took a third world
place and mystified it as the ‘Land of Enchantment’ and it stuck, but there is a
disconnect between that and the reality…” Sylvia Rodriguez discussing her
community seminar, “Tourism and Power in the Land of Enchantment” July 10, 2001,
Also see Weigle.
 “I learned that
 The hippies were not known for their subtlety, and can hardly be said to have tried to enter new communities gracefully. They were responsible for my arrival in Northern New Mexico (I was born on a commune) and also, through a propensity for nudist colonies and tie-dyed “happenings” which tended to block traffic and scare the cows, played a part in setting the stage for racial tension.
 The American Indian Movement as a
formal movement was created in 1968 in
 A personal vignette: in high school I (Anglo) was cornered by a group of local boys who said they were going to kick my ass because the gringos were taking all their land. I pointed out (unwisely, perhaps) that they had taken all of the Indians land, and got thrown against a wall for my trouble. “That was different!” shouted one of the boys.
 According to John Fleck, “Drought Reigns in New Mexico History” The Albuquerque Journal, 1997, “…[N]ew research suggests the past two centuries have been the wettest period of the past 1,500 years in New Mexico…the past 20 years have been the wettest period of all, with rainfall 23 percent above the long-term New Mexico average…the implication…is that the farms, cities, and irrigation networks of the modern Southwest were built on rivers swollen by unusually wet weather.” Available at http://www.abqjournal.com/2000/1mill5-27.htm
Also, “Since 1996, the illusion that
Most communities annually elect a
“mayordomo” who is responsible for making sure that everyone gets the water they
are supposed to get and no one takes too much. This becomes an extremely
political position. Gustav, a farmer in the town of
 Las Campanas, the best known and most
controversial of these developments, notes on their website that Santa Fe, while
“…rich in tradition and history…[and] the
oldest capital city in the United States…home to Pueblo Indians for more than
1,000 years…most importantly, it is home to the community of Las Campanas.”
 As of Fall 2003 13 of the states 22 tribes have established gaming venues. Since 1988, annual revenue from tribal gaming has grown from $100 million to $12.7 billion nationwide. Monica Abeita, state Tourism Department’s Indian Tourism Program Manager, says “The tribes have faced chronic poverty for generations, but gaming is finally providing a way to turn things around.” Many tribes have used the windfall to establish scholarship programs for tribal youth and made other major investments in their own communities. “Tribes Hit the Jackpot” Kevin Robinson-Avila, New Mexico Resources, Fall 2003, pdf available at:
 “…tribes are diversifying their entertainment venues to attract more tourists from other states. Five of the tribes have built golf courses…some pueblos… are turning their entertainment venues into complete ‘tourist destinations’…” Ibid.
 “Question: So all treaties have been breached? Yes!” “Frequently Asked Questions” Robert Strongrivers, available at http://members.tripod.com/pointingbird/lostfeatherintl/id42.htm
 One of the complications arises from the fact that while the state is responsible for most water issues, Native (reservation) water rights are managed by the federal government. Commodification, p 17.
 A popular bumper sticker at this time read “I’ll stop watering my garden when Las Campanas stops watering their golf courses.”
 Due to the dry conditions, Piñon trees have lost a normal resistance to
an endemic beetle, and begun to die in massive numbers. Justin Stockdale,
director of recycling and “green” waste for
 Though there isn’t space here to give
a full treatment to this subject, essentially what I mean is the tendency of
dominant discourse (academic, media, and pop-cultural) to avoid the race issue
and the reality that the nation was founded upon racist principles. Working in a
bookstore recently I discovered that many purported histories of Native America
made no mention of smallpox (thought to be responsible for the deaths of up to
90% of the pre-Columbian population of the Americas and was used as a biological
weapon by the US and Canadian governments); many histories of the US have no
entries for Indians (or Native Americans) in their indices. All school textbooks
 Of course as with all generalizations, however accurate, there are exceptions. As one of the only Anglo families living in my town while I was growing up, we were also one of the poorest—with the paradoxical result that I was as a child threatened by people upset about Anglos buying land that my family could never hope to afford.
 “Get a real feel for the city on an open-air
trolley tour…embark on a walking tour that follows in the footsteps of the
city’s three cultures…” Personal Discovery tours (1 week, $2200) available at http://www.tauck.com/docs/jx_f.htm; “
 The fire department was somehow unable to make it in time (in a town with three streets) and it was ruled an unfortunate accident due to fireworks.
 As some towns surrounding
 City council meetings on water-related subjects often run until two or three in the morning and involve a great deal of shouting.
 It is not an exaggeration to say that
nearly all of the Anglos I meet in Santa Fe are, for one, from somewhere else;
but also that they are always surprised to find that I’m actually from the area
as they have never met anyone “from” there before. I generally quip that there
aren’t many of us left; the reality is that there are lots of “us” left, but the
majority have been forced by rising property taxes into trailer parks and cheap
apartments on the “wrong” side of town. There is even a hierarchy among working
class groups like waiters; the tourist restaurants downtown, expensive and
therefore with good tips to be made, generally have all-Anglo wait staff and an
all-immigrant kitchen staff; cheaper restaurants and fast-food places have local
Hispanic staff. Though I don’t have a source to back this, I spent the better
part of a decade working in and managing a number of restaurants in
 John and Maggie Muchmore, currently
working on a book about
Cheney, Sam Wolf 2000 Where’s the Education in My Experience? Unpublished thesis.
Erickson, Lori, 2004 “Magical Santa Fe” in Drive: The Magazine from Subaru, Available at: http://www.drivesubaru.com/Win04_RoadTrips.htm
Fleck, John 1997 “Drought Reigns in
New Mexico History: The
Freire, Paulo 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed. NY: Continuum
Hahn, Emily Times and Places, 1971. Pinnacle Books, NY. Cf Weigle.
Lee, Roger “The Mexican-American War” The History Guy, Available at http://www.historyguy.com/Mexican-American_War.html
McCord, Richard, “The Different City” available at http://www.sfaol.com/mccord/different.html;
Robinson-Avila, Kevin 2003 “Tribes
Hit the Jackpot”,
Strongrivers, Robert, Frequently Asked Questions, available at http://members.tripod.com/pointingbird/lostfeatherintl/id42.htm
Weigle, Marta “Southwest Lures: Innocents Detoured, Incensed Determined” Available at http://digital.library.arizona.edu/jsw/3204/lures/lures.html.
Zinn, Howard 2003 A People's History of the
“La Acequia” from the New Mexico Acequia Association website, available at: http://www.acequiaweb.org/
“Understanding and Responding to the Commodification of Water” 2003 Amigos Bravos/Somos Vecinos Commodification Project, Review Draft. Available at http://www.amigosbravos.org/projects/ABCommodificationofWater.pdf
Website of the Taos National Society of Watercolorists, available at: http://www7.taosnet.com/watercolor/taosnm.htm.