When rivers move borders: PhD student writes on boundaries and belonging in the Colorado River borderlands

By Meghan Chua


In 1907, Cocopah Indians who had been living in Mexico suddenly found themselves farming land in the United States. The Colorado River that marked the border between the U.S. and Mexico had moved around them.

That stretch of the Colorado River, following a roughly north-south pattern near Yuma, Arizona, shifted unpredictably across its floodplain before the Hoover Dam was completed in 1936. With each shift, the people who lived along the river had a new de facto border to navigate, alongside the less formal boundaries that already existed between their communities.

In addition to the Cocopah Indians, the Yuma Valley was also home to Yuma Indians and, beginning in the early 20th century, African American homesteaders who farmed the land.

“When the river moved around before it was dammed, it was constantly redefining the shared boundaries of the territories that each of these communities had,” said Geography PhD candidate Daniel Grant. “They’re all minority communities trying to retain their rootedness to that place.”

A fence runs along a gravel path, with trees growing along a strip of land in the background.
A border fence surrounds the former riverbed near the Cocopah Indian Reservation looking westward from the U.S. side. The Colorado River used to flow through this area until the river was dammed upstream. Cottonwoods and other vegetation still grow in the dry bed, contrasting with the surrounding desert. (Photo by Daniel Grant)

The conflicts and alliances that arose from this ever-changing landscape are the focus of Grant’s dissertation on belonging and exclusion in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands from the late-19th through mid-20th centuries.

After the U.S. and Mexico drew their modern border in 1848, both governments increasingly managed the land and water, posing increasing challenges to where Native and, later, African-American communities lived.

Grant said that settler colonialism put those communities in a position of conflict with one another. He tells the story – based on archival documents and in-person interviews with descendants of the communities involved – of a conflict between Yuma Indians and African American homesteaders. The homesteaders settled on an island in the middle of the Colorado River that had formed in 1920 after the river shifted course yet again. Hoping to protect what little territory they had left and their identity as a Native tribe, the Yuma asked the federal government for help, appealing to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to evict the homesteaders.

But there were also times of cooperation. In 1905, a water management plan caused flooding severe enough to carve out a new channel for the river, moving it and the border west from the year before. That left the Cocopah farmers under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government, which tried to deport them. But local farmers appealed the deportation, saying the Cocopah people were an indispensable source of labor in their fields.

Daniel Grant
Daniel Grant, PhD candidate in the Department of Geography (Photo by Jesse Pfammatter)

“It’s not just a story of the U.S. and Mexican governments coming in and overpowering locals,” Grant said. “It’s really a story of resourcefulness, of how local peoples who were crossed by the border then crossed the border themselves for their own ends.”

Grant said this work shows that conflicts at the U.S.-Mexico border are more complex than a binary between governments and locals. Rather, there are many boundaries that can coexist and change, regardless of the official border.

“We see that not just in the borderlands, but in all sorts of places where you have multiple stakeholders as part of a dispute. If racial identities and land are part of that, then I think it’s important,” he said. “[Understanding these complexities] could really help us think about, what does it mean when Indigenous peoples and settler peoples live in close proximity to each other and share boundaries?”

Today, descendants of those Indigenous and homesteader communities still live in the Yuma Valley. In May, Grant went to Yuma and facilitated a public presentation and discussion about the island on which the homesteaders settled. Some of their descendants were at the presentation.

Grant is now spending the summer in Mexico, with support from a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Award, to dig through a few more archives that will help him illustrate what was happening at the time on the Mexican side of the border. He also received a Mellon/American Council for Learned Societies Dissertation Completion Fellowship to finish writing his dissertation this upcoming academic year.

For Grant, the process of writing a historical piece like his dissertation becomes a way of connecting with the past. He considers himself as much a writer and historian as a geographer.

“It feels like I’m really channeling the ghosts of the past,” he said of writing. “If I feel like I’m accurately representing some person that lived and died long before my time, and trying to stand where they stood and experience the world as they experienced it, I think there’s something profound about that.”