Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Geoffrey O'Gara, What You See in Clear Water

Wyoming Week continues at BITS with this book of nonfiction about water rights and the struggle over a river. Author Geoffrey O'Gara uses two decades of legal wrangles over control of the watershed on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation to explore two centuries of the collision between whites and Native Americans in the West.

He accomplishes this feat in 300 pages by presenting the story as a human drama, focusing on the lives of individuals, living and dead, each with their own aspirations, history, and personality. On the one hand are the white farmers who have settled legally within the boundaries of the reservation. They have been "reclaiming" arid land with water provided by federally funded irrigation systems.

On the other are the Indians of two tribes, Shoshone and Arapaho. Historically antagonistic, they have been reduced by over a century of conquest, but together they discover a new-found strength to resist the will of state and federal governments. Among them are the college-educated, the young drop-outs, and the old who still remember some of the lost Indian culture.

Fremont Peak, Wind River Range
They are a wide range of people, challenging easy ethnic stereotypes while at the same time representing the social ills that plague the reservations: poverty, unemployment, alcoholism. It is a Dickensian cast of characters.

A third group of key figures in O'Gara's story are the non-Indian professionals whose lives become entwined with reservation residents as the struggle over water rights heats up. These include engineers, hydrologists, conservationists, bureaucrats, lawyers and judges. Endless legal battles and court decisions progressively yield more ground to the Indians, while appeals take the case against them all the way to the Supreme Court. And after $50 million in legal fees, the issues remain unresolved.

The book is organized as a journey upstream, along the river's two main branches, into its headwaters in mountain glaciers. Good idea to take a map of Wyoming along for reference. And a good pair of hiking boots.

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: John McPhee, Rising From the Plains


  1. I've read a couple of books organized something like that. One of the best was "the River that flows uphill". A good format to follow.

  2. Nothing seems to put people on the fight in the west as much as talking about water. We try to share our irrigation water with our neighbors, but their attitude is to fight for every drop they can get.

  3. The book sounds interesting, the photo of the lake in the Wind River range seems to be calling my name :)

  4. Charles, there are so many river books in American fiction and nonfiction. If anyone hasn't written a book about them, it's surely overdue. Lewis and Clark would be the example for upstream and Huck Finn for downstream.

    Susan, I've already encountered this as a central issue in early western fiction - DESERT CONQUEST, OR PRECIOUS WATERS (1913) by A. M. Chisholm.

    Sage, it does look like your kind of territory.