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Of Silt and Ancient Voices

Water and the Zuni Land and People


Kelly M. Cobourn
Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation
Virginia Tech
Edward R. Landa
Department of Environmental Science and Technology
University of Maryland, College Park
Gail E. Wagner
Department of Anthropology and Associated Faculty, Environment and Sustainability Program
University of South Carolina, Columbia


This case explores the complex and multifaceted resource management issues that arose when traditional Zuni Indian land and water use practices were displaced by the construction of the Black Rock Irrigation Project by the U.S. government in the early 20th century. The case study is framed as a legal case brought by the Zuni tribe against the U.S. government in the mid-1980s, and relies on the extensive testimony provided by expert witnesses about traditional Zuni culture, resource management, and property rights. The case study combines the interrupted case method with the jigsaw approach. The jigsaw approach allows students first to examine resource management issues from a disciplinary perspective, with an emphasis on the fields of anthropology, soil science, and economics/policy, and then to combine those disciplinary elements to brainstorm potential resolutions that are informed by a multidisciplinary understanding of the issues. Originally designed for use in introductory environmental studies/environmental science courses, the case also could be used in courses in anthropology, agriculture, soil science, economics, geography, Native American studies, environmental law, water resources, water policy, socio-environmental synthesis, environmental policy, ethnobotany, and ethnoecology.


  • Describe the advantages and disadvantages of multiple resource management practices, namely those of the Zuni tradition and those of the U.S. government.
  • Understand the value of different kinds of knowledge (that of the Zuni vs. the U.S. government).
  • Recognize and characterize interactions between social and environmental systems.
  • Understand a complex problem from multiple disciplinary perspectives.
  • Synthesize knowledge from natural and social science disciplines to generate potential resolutions to a complex problem, but also recognize that the nature of complex systems implies that no single resolution can solve such problems.


Resource management; socio-environmental synthesis; ethnography; soil science; water policy and economics; irrigation; Native American; Indian; Zuni; Black Rock Dam; New Mexico; American Southwest

Topical Areas

Legal issues, Policy issues, Regulatory issues, Social issues, Social justice issues

Educational Level

Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division



Type / Methods

Interrupted, Jig-Saw



Subject Headings

Environmental Science  |   Natural Resource Management  |   Geography  |   Anthropology  |   Sociology  |   Economics  |   Agriculture  |   Earth Science  |   Interdisciplinary Sciences  |  

Date Posted


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