Dubious Dam: A Conversation with Erika Marie Bsumek

By Tom ZoellnerFebruary 11, 2024

Dubious Dam: A Conversation with Erika Marie Bsumek

The Foundations of Glen Canyon Dam: Infrastructures of Dispossession on the Colorado Plateau by Erika Marie Bsumek

THOUGH IT IS less than 60 years old, the Glen Canyon Dam, near the Utah-Arizona border, is like a Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the Southwest, a contested edifice that inspires all kinds of veneration and lamentation.

There’s an established way to tell its story, with a focus on the rip-roaring environmentalists who challenged it and the agency heads who built it. But in her original new book, The Foundations of Glen Canyon Dam: Infrastructures of Dispossession on the Colorado Plateau (2023), Erika Marie Bsumek bypasses that potted history for a more startling intellectual account of the dam as an outgrowth of 19th-century Anglo visions of the desert—mainly represented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormons—and their fatal clash with the agricultural practices of the Navajo, also known as the Diné people. The result is a wholly new look at one of the biggest engineering achievements of the 20th-century Southwest—and one of its biggest debacles.

This interview was conducted over email.


TOM ZOELLNER: Why did you come at the story this way, bypassing the usual cast of bureaucrats and their environmentalist foes?

ERIKA MARIE BSUMEK: I don’t think I bypass the usual players as much as I try to reconstruct the world that existed before their arrival on the scene in the 1950s. Most people who are even vaguely familiar with the history of the dam know a little about David Brower and Floyd Dominy or about the actions of men like Stewart Udall and Wayne Aspinall. But how many people know about the role Navajo leaders such as Sam Ahkeah, Paul Jones, or Raymond Nakai played in regional politics and infrastructural development? How many people know about their attempts to balance Navajo ideals and beliefs with the fact that residents on the reservation needed water, electricity, and financial stability? How many people realize that the Navajo Nation borders not just the dam but also almost 200 miles of Lake Powell’s shoreline? This book is my attempt to recenter the history of the dam and contextualize it in terms of the extensive development of the region’s complicated history.

You spend a lot of time on Mormon agriculture, even though the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no official role in building the dam. Why did you think that was important?

To write the history of the region without discussing either Indigenous history or the history of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and their arrival in the region just didn’t make sense to me. Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos inhabited the Colorado Plateau long before the LDS settlers arrived. In many ways, the presence of those Indigenous communities gave Brigham Young the confidence to think that settlement across the region was possible. Young, for instance, sent scouts to look for proof that the region could be settled. The existence of Indigenous communities, and their infrastructure, provided that proof. Not surprisingly, exploratory missions to present-day Southern Utah and Northern Arizona gave way to permanent LDS settlements in the region. Those white settlers took Ute and Paiute lands, making it more difficult for Indigenous communities to survive. LDS settlers then built upon and expanded Indigenous irrigation systems in order to build and fortify their own agricultural communities. So, if we think of the Glen Canyon Dam as a piece of regional water infrastructure, recounting the history of the cultures that were in the region before the dam is critical for understanding this place, the Colorado Plateau. Later, several important regional politicians and experts, who happened to be the descendants of LDS settlers, initiated a new phase of regional growth. They felt that it was their right—and their mission—to help “make the desert bloom” and their communities grow. Glen Canyon Dam rises directly from those impulses and stands, in part, as a monument to Indigenous dispossession and white settler philosophies.

Why was Rainbow Bridge a key factor in all this?

We can see the clash of Indigenous and white/LDS settler mentalities if we zoom in on Rainbow Bridge. Rainbow Bridge was a sacred space for many of the region’s Indigenous people. Navajos even fought to protect Rainbow Bridge from the waters of Lake Powell both before and after the dam was complete. A group of eight elders from the area closest to the dam even filed lawsuits to stop the reservoir’s waters from inundating Rainbow Bridge, a protection stipulated by Section I of the Colorado River Storage Act. The court case Badoni v. Higginson (1977) is complicated, but Navajos lost their lawsuits for three reasons. First, the court stated they did not have a contemporary legal claim to Rainbow Bridge. That was true, but I show in the book that when Rainbow Bridge was declared a national monument, Navajos’ claim to the area was stripped without their consent. Next, in 1974, the Utah district court contended that Navajo ceremonies held at Rainbow Bridge were not religious because they were not “recognized by the Navajo Nation” as a whole nor were they conducted by “formally trained” religious leaders. Using the idea of an “organized religion” such as that of Christian religions as the gold standard, the court denied Navajo religious claims. Finally, after Navajos appealed the 1974 decision, the 10th Circuit Court simply ruled that the water needs of the greater society “outweighed” Navajo religious interests as represented in the case. I analyze the Badoni rulings to demonstrate how different forms of dispossession were built upon each other. Settlers dispossessed Indigenous people of their lands and resources, using religion to justify their actions. The government created national monuments without Indigenous input. Both of these prior forms of dispossession could then be called upon to justify a rejection of Navajo claims. So the foundation of Glen Canyon Dam is not just one of cement; it is also one of religious settlement and legal wrangling that continued to erase Indigenous claims on the region even after the dam was built.

You say that Native people need to have a greater voice in the future of the Colorado River, especially regarding diversions. Yet many on the reservation distrust the politics of their tribal council, and they have opinions that run the spectrum. What does that empowerment look like in pragmatic terms?

I cannot speak for Indigenous Nations or communities. So, in my opinion, in part, it looks like the government and policymakers, environmentalists and religious leaders, acknowledging their role in the dispossession of Indigenous lands and resources. It looks like recognizing that white settlers took resources from Native communities in order to build their homes—and the federal and state governments backed such efforts. So, that same logic, that having a home in the region means having access to water, should be extended to the region’s Indigenous people today. Indigenous people have an enormous stake in emerging water policy debates—through treaties and their continued inhabitation of the region. At the very least, representatives of the 30 tribes with both quantifiable rights and cultural claims to the Colorado River need to be at the table during such discussions. And those rights need to be taken seriously.

Was the dam a mistake?

The dam exists because of, and represents, a specific history. We need to face that history head-on. The thinking that gave us Glen Canyon Dam represented specific advancements in engineering and technology—but building the dam came at a cost for both humans and nonhumans. Some of those costs were hidden; others, like ecological harm, were predicted. Yet I firmly believe we can learn from history. In the 1950s, American society put too much faith in some of the philosophies that led to the construction of the dam, especially the ideas of techno-optimism, unbridled consumption of resources, and growth. Now we need solutions that address the fact that the widely populated region needs water. And I don’t think that solution is building more dams. It might even mean having fewer of them and using our resources more wisely. As a society, we need to consider how to conserve, care for, and distribute resources fairly and justly.


Erika Marie Bsumek is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Indian-Made: Navajo Culture in the Marketplace, 1848–1940 (2008) and the co-editor of Nation-States and the Global Environment: New Approaches to International Environmental History (2013).

LARB Contributor

Tom Zoellner is an editor-at-large at LARB and a professor of English at Chapman University. He is the author of eight nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Uranium, The National Road, Rim to River, and Island on Fire, which won the 2020 National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Bancroft Prize in history.


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