Orme Dam: The Dam that Never Was

Dori Wittrig November 6, 2020

Many hundreds of years ago, the ancestors of today’s Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation lived a nomadic life along the Verde River. They hunted and gathered food from the Mogollon Rim to the Salt River, and from the Colorado River to the Mazatzal Mountains. When European settlers arrived in search of gold, the Yavapai were forced to relocate to the San Carlos Reservation.
Today’s community of Fort McDowell was created by Theodore Roosevelt’s Executive Order on September 15, 1903. But the fight for sovereignty did not end there.
In 1910, the Office of Indian Affairs attempted to relocate the residents so the federal government could have water rights and other interests in the area. A delegation of Yavapai testified to a Congressional Committee and won.
In the 1970s, the federal government proposed the construction of the Orme Dam at the confluence of the Verde and Salt Rivers, a short distance south of the reservation’s border. If built, it would have flooded most of the reservation and their cemetery, forcing the community to abandon their remaining ancestral homeland. Tribal members were offered homes and cash settlements. In 1976, the residents passed a referendum rejecting the offer, claiming the move would effectively disband the tribe.
A difficult fight for sovereignty with limited financial resources followed. Other Indian tribes and even non-tribal people rallied behind the tribal members as they launched their opposition movement. After extensive petitioning of the U.S. government and a 3-day march from Fort McDowell to the capitol in Phoenix, the proposed dam was withdrawn.
This significant victory allowed the Yavapai to keep their community and culture intact. Each November, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation celebrates this victory with a tribal fair, pow wow with traditional dance competitions, and rodeo called the Orme Dam Victory Days (this year will be skipped due to pandemic).
The tagline on the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation website shows the determination of these remarkable people: “Never give up. Always give back.”

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