"Damming Zion: Race, Religion, and Environmental Stewardship on the Colorado Plateau, 1800 to 1980."

“…sanctity influenced regional infrastructure and details how the Mormon Church actively transformed the physical and cultural landscapes of the region. ”

Team Members/Contributors

Erika Marie Bsumek University of Texas, Austin Contact Me

About this sabbatical grant for researchers

"Damming Zion" demonstrates that as federal infrastructure projects grew and the Mormon Church increased its political and ideological dominance in the four corners region, federal Indian policy and federal land use policies became inextricably intertwined. Embedded within this history are themes of spirituality, sanctity, stewardship, and colonization – all of which were deeply influenced by competing religious ideologies. From the 1700s to the 1840s, equestrian Navajos and Utes viewed the land itself as sacred, migrated seasonally, linked worship to such migration, and established small-scale irrigation techniques to maximize the scarce resources they needed to survive. By 1850, Mormons had come to view the region as their “Zion” and sought to sustain themselves by irrigating on an ever-increasing scale in order to be self-sufficient. Preserving family and community sometimes came at great cost for local Paiutes as parents often had to sell one child to non-Indians (usually Mormon settlers) in order to feed the rest of their family. By the 1860s, after their imprisonment by the federal government, Navajos re-settled on a reserve bounded by their four sacred mountains that encompassed part of their ancestral homeland and struggled to find sufficient water for their livestock and worked to preserve their culture and religion in the face of settler colonialism. By the early twentieth century, the population living off the region’s dominant river, the Colorado River, had grown significantly and Mormon residents pressed the federal government to initiate large-scale water storage projects to support economic growth. Hidden within this plan, were faith-based directives to convert and "civilize" American Indians, whom the Mormons viewed as "Lamanites." By the 1940s, Mormon politicians drew upon doctrine and sought to “terminate” the government’s trust responsibilities toward American Indians and to construct massive dams in order to "reclaim" the region's water.