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‘Water is indeed life’: Ak-Chin Indian Community showcases its farming and water infrastructure

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‘Water is indeed life’: Ak-Chin Indian Community showcases its farming and water infrastructure

Feb 21, 2024 | 2:14 pm ET
By Shondiin Silversmith
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‘Water is indeed life’: Ak-Chin Indian Community showcases its farming and water infrastructure
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Ak-Chin Farm Manager Damian Murrieta (right) talks with White House Advisor Tom Perez (center) and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (left) on Feb. 19, 2023, about how pecans and potatoes harvested from Ak-Chin farms are processed through their facility on a daily basis. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

As the chairman of the Ak-Chin Indian Community, Robert Miguel said he has often met with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., to advocate for issues impacting his southern Arizona tribe. 

He said it is great to advocate and have conversations with leaders, but when federal leadership visits the Ak-Chin Indian Community, it is more meaningful because they witness firsthand what he advocates for.

And that’s precisely why Miguel was glad that the Ak-Chin Indian Community welcomed Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland and White House Senior Advisor Tom Perez on Feb. 19. The Ak-Chin Indian Community’s tribal land is in southern Arizona and spans over 22,000 acres. It is located near Maricopa, in the Santa Cruz Valley. 

The visit was part of the Biden administration’s tour to highlight its Investing in America agenda. A chief component of that is showcasing how it makes historic investments in Indigenous communities, including fulfilling settlements of Indian water rights claims and providing affordable, high-speed internet.

Miguel said having Newland and Perez tour the community and see the tribe’s work firsthand is letting the Biden administration know what the tribe is doing when it comes to providing services within Indian Country. 

Newland said the Biden administration has allocated more than $3.1 billion to fund Indian Water Rights settlements, which is more than any administration in history. 

“We were determined to reset our relationship and to build a relationship, nation to nation, a partnership,” Perez said. 

Newland said that the Biden administration’s implementation of the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund is helping to deliver “long-promised water resources to tribes,” and it provides certainty to surrounding communities and a solid foundation for future economic development for entire communities dependent on common water resources.

Perez said that is why they are proud to see that the funding from the Indian Water Settlement Fund that Ak-Chin has received has been “put to good use.”

“If you don’t have water, you cannot sustain your community,” he said. “And the history of our dealings with tribal communities on the water issue, not just here, but frankly, elsewhere, has not been our proudest history.”

The Ak-Chin Indian Community has received $44.5 million as part of the Indian Water Rights Settlement Completion Fund, according to the Department of Interior.

“Farming defines who we are as people,” Miguel said. “Water is indeed life. The community values water and how we utilize it every day. It is essential for Ak-Chin Farms.” 

“We are proud of the crops we have harvested with the use of our water resources and water infrastructure,” he added.

The first stop for Newland and Perez was the Ak-Chin Farms processing plant, where Farm Manager Damian Murrieta led them around the facility, sharing details about how pecans and potatoes are sorted and packed at the facility. 

Murrieta said about 30 people operate the facility, which sorts, washes, and packs the potatoes and pecans harvested from Ak-Chin Farms. 

“It’s the only one in Pinal County,” Miguel said of the processing plant.

Crops from Ak-Chin Farms include cotton, pecans, barley, potatoes, alfalfa and corn. The tribe farms more than 16,000 acres and is one of the leading farming tribes in the Southwest.

‘Water is indeed life’: Ak-Chin Indian Community showcases its farming and water infrastructure
Ak-Chin Farm Manager Damian Murrieta (left) led White House Advisor Tom Perez (center) and Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Bryan Newland (right) around the Ak-Chin Farms potato processing plant in Maricopa, Arizona, during the federal leaders’ visit to the tribal community on Feb. 19, 2023. Photo by Shondiin Silversmith | Arizona Mirror

By visiting the processing plant first, Miguel said it was a great way for Newland and Perez to see how the tribe produces their crops and how they are shipped. 

Potatoes are one of the top crops with Ak-Chin Farms, Miguel said, and they are shipped locally to vendors FritoLay and the In-N-Out food chain. 

“If you’re eating a fry from In-N-Out, it’s most likely coming from our community,” Miguel said.

Newland said through President Biden’s Investing in America agenda, the federal government has invested $45 billion into Indian Country in just two years — an amount equal to 15 years’ worth of funding for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ annual budget.

The funding has supported multiple projects across Indian Country, he said, from clean energy and economic development to addressing past injustices against tribal communities.

“This investment in and commitment to Indian country, while long overdue, is unprecedented,” Newland said. “Thanks to President Biden, the federal government is better able to uphold its treaty obligations to tribal communities and farms, like here at Ak-Chin, where they finally have access to secure and reliable water.”

As part of the tour, Newland and Perez visited two different subdivisions within the community. Miguel said it was to show where they intend to provide more housing needs to their tribal members, but also where they need to improve their broadband services.

The tribe is working to build an additional 75 homes within the community, Miguel said, and they’ve started laying down the infrastructure needed to improve their broadband connectivity. 

He said that broadband availability is still low within the tribal community, and those limitations impact the students who need reliable, faster internet for school.

As part of the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program, the Ak-Chin Indian Community was awarded $3.08 million in funding for a project dedicated to improving access to and use of broadband services among their tribal members.

As part of their project, the tribe proposes to work to install over 63,000 linear feet of fiber optic cable, replacing and updating their 21-year-old infrastructure.

“I have said regularly that broadband is like water,” Perez said. “It’s an essential public utility. That should be affordable and accessible to everyone.”

He said there are still too many communities, like Ak-Chin, and around the state where access to quality high-speed internet is still an aspiration. 

“We have accomplished a lot, but we have so much unfinished business,” Perez said.