The foundations of Glen Canyon Dam: Infrastructures of dispossession on the Colorado Plateau (Bsumek, 2023)

Helen M. Ingram


Bsumek, E.M. 2023. The foundations of Glen Canyon Dam: Infrastructures of dispossession on the Colorado Plateau. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9781477303818 (hardcover)/ 9781477326589 (PDF)/ 9781477326596 (ePub) $45.00



Helen M. Ingram

University of California at Irvine


To cite this review: Ingram, H.M. 2023. Review of “The foundations of Glen Canyon Dam: Infrastructures of Dispossession on the Colorado Plateau”, University of Texas Press 2023, by Erika Marie Bsumek, Water Alternatives,

For newcomers to the history of the famous Glen Canyon Dam controversy, Erika Bsumek’s book is a good starting point; for others who already know a lot on this subject, the book is essential additional reading. It covers facts, perspectives and interpretations largely ignored elsewhere. The book tells of indigenous dispossession that was foundational to the large-scale water development that has fueled growth in the American west. The dam and Lake Powell, the reservoir created behind it, occurred on lands that the Navajo nation swapped to the U. S. government, which contains Rainbow Bridge, a natural treasure important to multiple tribes, along with other sacred sites. The book details the sins of omission and commission perpetrated by the Church of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, Mormons), scientists, engineers, public officials, and politicians that led to the displacement of Native Americans and divorced them from project benefits enjoyed by settlers.

Documentation of the passage and projects included in the Colorado River Storage Project Act (CRSP; 1956) began three-quarters of a century ago (Stratton and Sirotkin, 1959). The dam was considered an engineering feat because it inserted an exceptionally tall concrete arch plug into Glenn Canyon. It also soon became an environmental cause and poster child because it drowned a lovely canyon superbly photographed (Porter, 1963). Sold as a water storage and electrical generation project, the dam was located to facilitate the division of water flows between the upper and lower basin states. Like multiple benefit water projects before and after it, the CRSP contained a panoply of favors to a large variety of locations and interests including municipalities, irrigators, energy users, recreationists, and others, including the Navajo Nation. As water policy scholars have explained, demands of supporters were layered one upon another regardless of economic or hydrologic reason, until there was sufficient political backing to get congressional approval (Ingram, 1969). The long-term costs of such projects largely are not perceived or considered ahead of time. How benefits are distributed in the reality of implementation is often very different from legislative promises and depend largely on political power. Navajo leaders hoped that the project would bring development and tourism to “Indian Country”. In anticipation of such help, Navajo leaders acquiesced to the transfer of 53 thousand acres to be used as a staging area and construction workers’ housing, which became the city of Page, Arizona. While some construction jobs were filled by Navajo, Indigenous peoples gained very little. In fact, as massive subsequent scholarship has revealed, the dam and reservoir resulted in a cascade of consequences, mostly negative. A multi-year, multi-investigator Lake Powell Research Project funded by the National Science Foundation began assessing impacts even while the reservoir was still filling (Weisheit, 2010). While arguably Native Peoples have suffered both directly and indirectly, their sacrifice has been largely overlooked.

According to the Bsumek, there are several foundations of Native Peoples’ displacement and dispossession due to Lake Powell: religious expansion of the LDS; the influence of science and scholarship; the influence of the conservationist/environmental movement; and the limitations of laws and courts. The book covers history on the Colorado Plateau from 1840 until around 1980 and is divided into thematic chapters devoted to the instruments of dispossession. The epilogue considers the continued fight for recognition of indigenous peoples’ restoration of religion, lands, and rights.

Religion was a driving force in the colonization of the Colorado Plateau by white settlers, the justification of the appropriation of indigenous labor and resources, and the imposition of social and racial hierarchies. LDS beliefs were fundamental to conquering aridity and indenturing native peoples. Often building on ancient pueblo Indian irrigation works, Mormon settlers constructed water distribution projects that supported population growth and wealth. The position of Native Americans in LDS cannon justified paternalistic policies that enabled the adoption of indigenous children and proselytizing among the peoples they called the Laminites. “As so-called Laminites, American Indians remained part of the covenant, fated to be ‘redeemed’ by the Latter- Day Saints…By living in close proximity to the Indigenous people, not only could Mormons bring them back into the fold and help them build up Zion, but American Indian communities would help create a protective barrier between LDS settlers and their non Indigenous prosecutors” (p.25).

As Navajos, Utes and Southern Paiutes sought to retain control of their ancestral lands in face of Mormon colonization, they also had to contend with waves of government scientists who surveyed the Colorado Plateau, imposed new place names, and identified sites for future developments. Such scientists discredited while at the same time exploited indigenous knowledge. John Wesley Powell is among the offending scientists the author identifies, and she faults his river-basin approach that ignored the boundaries of human communities. Engineers, so important to the spread of government sponsored irrigation projects, were often LDS descendants who shared the values of making the deserts bloom through water development.

Bsumek blames conservationists and ecologists for supporting Native Americans only when such support furthered their own values and interests. Certainly, in the CRSP conservationists sacrificed much, including Rainbow Bridge, to save The Dinosaur National Park from inundation. However, the pattern of politics in water resources was and largely remains firmly established and clientele groups, including indigenous peoples as well as other insular minorities, get served only in proportion to the support they can bring to overall packages of projects (McCool, 2022).

While important and useful, the book has flaws. It lacks a concluding chapter that summarizes findings and places the book in relation to other literature. It focuses narrowly on indigenous peoples without placing their plight in the broader context of sustainability, infrastructure, human behavior, and environmental relationships. It indelibly adds to existing writing, however, and should inform and affect all writings about western water yet to come.


McCool, D. 2022. Command of the waters: iron triangles, Federal Water Development, and Indian Water. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Ingram, H. 1969. Patterns of politics in water resources development: A case study of New Mexico’s role in the Colorado River Basin Bill. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Porter, E. 1963. The place no one knew: Glen canyon on the Colorado. San Francisco: Sierra Club/Ballantine Books.

Stratton, O. and P. Sirotkin. 1959. The Echo Park controversy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Weisheit, J. 2010 “The Lake Powell Research Project” on the Colorado articles.


Additional Info

  • Authors: Erika Marie Bsumek
  • Year of publication: 2023
  • Publisher: University of Texas Press
  • Reviewer: Helen M. Ingram
  • Subject: Water politics, Environmental History, Water rights, Dams, Water and community, Water allocation
  • Type: Review
  • Language: English