“First in Time, First in Right”: Indigenous Self-Determination in the Colorado River Basin


This article adopts the premise “first in time, first in right” to bring Indigenous knowledge about the Colorado River Basin and the natural world more broadly out of the mainstream’s obscurity to reposition these perspectives at the foreground of the region’s water cultures. To initiate what is in essence a decolonization of Colorado River Basin water knowledge, I examine texts representing various tribal affiliations and genres to consider how their particular use of story engages the historic and ongoing environmental injustices they have faced and continue to negotiate in their fight to preserve their sacred lands, identity, and access to reliable, clean water. Such a decolonization occurs through these texts’ use of narrative to work within and against the scientific and instrumental discourses and their respective genres that have traditionally constructed and dictated mainstream Colorado River knowledge and activity. My treatment of narrative within the Ten Tribes Partnership Tribal Water Study (2018) and the Grand Canyon Trust’s “Voices of Grand Canyon” digital project (2020) sheds greater light on the essential relationships the Basin’s nations and tribes have with the Colorado River. Through these counternarratives to the West’s dominant water ideologies and cultures, the Basin’s tribal nations draw attention to past and ongoing struggles to secure equitable water access while amplifying their resilience and determination that defines their calls for environmental justice.


Colorado River; Environmental justice; American Indian Sovereignity; Water Rights; Grand Canyon; Ten Tribes Partnership

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Published : 2021-09-30

FormisanoP. (2021). “First in Time, First in Right”: Indigenous Self-Determination in the Colorado River Basin. Review of International American Studies, 14(1), 153-175. https://doi.org/10.31261/rias.10049

Paul Formisano  paul.formisano@usd.edu
University of South Dakota  United States

Paul Formisano is Associate Professor and Director of Writing at the University of South Dakota. His teaching and research in the environmental humanities brings together literary and rhetorical studies to address the complex, interdisciplinary issues regarding Western water management. This focus is the subject of his manuscript Tributary Voices: Literary and Rhetorical Explorations of the Colorado River. He is also working on an anthology on the literature of dams. Dr. Formisano’s research has appeared in various journals and collections including The Journal of Ecocriticism, Landscapes: The Journal of the International Centre for Landscape and Language, Iperstoria, Western American Literature, Make Waves: Water in Contemporary Literature and Film, and Reading Aridity in Western American Literature.

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