The Nedee Bikiyaa’s organic garden located on the White Mountain Apache reservation in Eastern Arizona is an example of Native teachings concerning complexity achieved through simplicity.

As a symbol, the garden represents a return to food sovereignty and traditional beliefs about how to live in harmony with creation. As a health intervention, the garden is an example of the logical next phase of nutrition education for a population suffering high rates of diabetes and other ailments resulting from the loss of traditional food systems. As a program, the garden provides valuable behavioral health impacts by increasing cultural awareness and pride in valuing traditional knowledge.  As an organization, the garden represents the creation of social capital to restore tribal connections and cooperation.  As an enterprise, the garden provides market-oriented activities to promote social entrepreneurship.

Ndee Bikiyaa translates as the People’s Farm from Western Apache language. The farm includes grain production and a growing organic garden. While the economic and social objectives of Ndee Bikiyaa are important, possibly the most significant impact of the garden is to increase the amount of water being utilized by the tribe to protect their future sustainability regarding state and federal water allocation rights.


Water Fall on the White Mountain Apache Reservation

Many people imagine Arizona as a desert covered in cacti and barren yet colorful rock formations. What they do not know is that the Mogollon Rim marking the Colorado Plateau runs through the region and rises as the White Mountains. The White Mountain Apache Tribe’s homeland is the source of water for much of populated areas of the SouthWest.

The US government has legally treated Indigenous nations as domestic dependent nations in a relationship that Chief Justice Marshall in the  case Cherokee Nation v. Georiga (1931) described as being like that of a “ward to its guardian.” The practical result of this status is that the federal government retains the power to allocate resources and in extream cases terminate reservations.

Tribal nations of Arizona are concerned with the growing scarcity of water and the unrestrained growth of non-native demands on their limited water. This could create a crisis situation where historical precedent and treaty obligations are again forgotten.

Congress passed the Colorado River Basion Act in 1968 and authorized The Central Arizona Project (“CAP) to construct systems of pumps, canals, and laterals bringing over 1.4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water supplies to central and southern Arizona, including Phonix and Tuscon. The municipal, industrial and agricultural demands by non-natives have exceeded the water made available by the CAP and represent a significant threat to native nations. (1)


Crops harvested from the People’s Garden

By choice or chance, the federal government also destroyed much of the White Mountain Apache centuries-old irrigation systems and relocated tribal members away from agricultural lands to model communities designed for assimilation into urban areas away from the reservation.

A critical legal precedent for defending the future viability of the reservation is the “federal reserved rights doctrine.” The principle was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1908 in Winters v. the United States.  “In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court found that an Indian reservation (in the case, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation) may reserve water for future use in an amount necessary to fulfill the purpose of the reservation, with a priority dating from the treaty that established the reservation. This doctrine establishes that when the federal government created Indian reservations, water rights were reserved in sufficient quantity to meet the purposes for which the government granted the reservation.” (2)

The federal reserved rights doctrine provides reservations with a senior claim over other parties in water disputes as long as they can verify that the water use is in agreement with the recognized purpose of the reservation. For the White Mountain Apache, agriculture is critical because the expressed purpose for the formation of the reservation was to maintain a livelihood as farmers.  Thus, the amount of water reserved was that sufficient to irrigate all of the “practicably irrigable acreages” (PIA).

The Colorado River Compact of 1922 has brought state governments into the water managing process with the federal government. The federal government represents the First Nations in the informal process with the states for resolving water issues.  This means that the tribes have to depend on an executive branch of the federal government to advocate for Indigenous rights. That has not always worked out well for tribal people.


Peppers growing in the garden

Today, tribal members feel it is critical to irrigate as much reservation land as possible and to stimulate a return to gardening and farming to demonstrate their livelihood as farmers. It is plausible that the participating states in the Colorado River Compact could establish ratios based on current use through the  McCarren Amendment, which returns substantial power to the states with respect to the management of water and thus could deny the Apache use of the water that originates 0n their ancestorial homeland.

The Highland Support Project networked the Ndee Bikiyee farm with Tempe, Aldersgate, and New Creation United Methodist Church to install an irrigation system for the organic garden managed by Clayton Harvey. Jo Costin and Michel Keller provided valuable consulting services in the construction of a solar well house and the completion of a passive solar greenhouse.

The purpose the project is to assist the farm increase the production of healthy crops to ensure food security, sovereignty and establish water rights into the next century.





Bringing Irrigation line into garden from well


Setting foundation for well house


Brain Digging footings for well house during wind storm



Plant start getting ready to transplant


Mike Henry inspecting finished insulation job.


Brian Blevins mixes a load of stucco to insulate the passive solar greenhouse



Well House completed


Green House Insulated and Stuccoed


Crown Dancer bless the site during 2016 Harvest Celebration at the Garden



Ben Blevins