Book cover
Where the Red-Winged Blackbirds Sing: The Akimel O’odham and Cycles of Agricultural Transformation in the Phoenix Basin
Jennifer Bess

My wife and I were talking about Palestine and Israel one night and in a bit of melodrama I said something like “the only difference between the Israelis supporting genocide and me is that America finished it genocide so thoroughly that I don’t even know who’s land I live on.” It was a throwaway line, meant to express what I often feel in situations like this. But still, I thought about it off and on for several days.

Because it’s true. I own a home, and the land it stands on. And academically I know that land was, at some point, annexed from another sovereign people against their will. And I have no idea what they called themselves. I could probably guess at it. I have this vague awareness of the Indian communities around me. But if I had to tell you who’s land I live on, I would have to hand waive a lot of details. This realization really bothered me and so I decided to rectify it, at least a little bit.

That lead me to Where the Red-Winged Blackbirds Sing, a somewhat dry and wordy, but super-informative academic book on the Akimel O’odham, The River People, the Indigenous people my yard was stolen from, along with all of Phoenix. (I also read A Pima Remembers, which is a more intimate personal narrative, also great.)

I learned so much from this book, not just about a community of people, but about the landscape I call home, the ecological systems that were so different than they are now, about economic systems, and about cotton, mesquite, cattle and other Arizona staples.

For example, ever since I moved to the Phoenix valley in 1994, I’ve thought—assumed—that the dry river bed we call the Salt River was a normal and natural desert reality. I thought it was always a dry bed that ran with water on occasion during the rainy season. I had no idea the Salt and Gila rivers used to run deep and wide all year long. I had no idea the river valleys were lush with cottonwood, grasses, and wildlife (like the titular Red-Winged Blackbirds). In some vague sense I knew there was a history of water rights abuses, and that there was some ecological impact of our complex systems of dams. But I had no idea an entire complex valley-wide ecology was completely erased. And I had no idea the Akimel O’odham suffered 40+ years of famine when the water in these rivers was taken from them.

This is one of those situations where you learn some simple history that reshapes how you see the very world around you. I’ll never see the landscape of my own home the same way again.