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Arizona's Dust Bowl: Lessons Lost

The Arizona Public Media original documentary Arizona’s Dust Bowl: Lessons Lost, premiering November 18th at 7 p.m.,
explores the effects of the 1930’s Dust Bowl, not only on Arizona’s economy, but also the area’s demographics and culture.

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The Story

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The Dust Bowl was a natural disaster caused by severe drought that affected much of the United States during the 1930s. Poor farming practices, primarily attributed to the large number of small family farms, compounded the severity of the damage. While the environmental disaster was mainly in the Midwest, the socio-economic repercussions transformed the nation, especially Arizona. Arizona’s Dust Bowl: Lessons Lost, a 60-minute documentary produced by Arizona Public Media, explores how this tragedy affected Arizona’s economy, but also the area’s demographics, and culture.

Work in Arizona’s cotton fields was the last hope for some of the thousands of migrating Okies and Arkies, These new arrivals brought their preference for Southern food, music, religion and culture with them. The shift in demographics and tastes changed Arizona forever. These emigrants transformed Arizona, displacing thousands of migrant Mexican laborers. Racism was rampant. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican and Mexican-American citizens were forcibly deported south of the border. Unlike migrant Mexican laborers who previously went home at the end of the harvest, Arizona’s new residents stayed, most lived in squalor, and survived on the public dole.

The people on the Navajo and Hopi reservations in Northern Arizona were not excluded from the affects of the Dust Bowl. Concerned about the overgrazing of livestock, the economic backbone for the Native Americans, the Soil Conservation Service feared that Hoover Dam would silt up. The service convinced the Bureau of Indian Affairs to carry out a stock reduction program on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. A million sheep and goats were slaughtered, and thousands of families decimated.

Filled with historical images from the time, most famously taken by Dorothea Lange and other government photographers, Arizona’s Dust Bowl: Lessons Lost, captures haunting and stark images of families, individuals, and the surrounding Arizona landscape. Images of tragedy and gloom, but also of hope, survival and love.

Could we suffer another Dust Bowl? Are the recent droughts across the southwest and deadly dust storms that engulfed Phoenix a sign of things to come? Have we learned any lessons?

Featured Experts

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Tom Swetnam
Director, Laboratory of Tree-ring Research
University of Arizona
Swetnam was hired as an assistant professor at the Tree Ring Laboratory in 1988, and has led the lab since 2000. He uses dendrochronology (the study of tree-rings) to reconstruct the histories of fire, insect outbreaks, human land uses, and climate.

Thomas E. Sheridan
Anthropologist
University of Arizona
Sheridan grew up in Phoenix in the 1950’s and early 1960s. At the University of Arizona he holds appointments at the Southwest Center and as professor of anthropology. He is the author of the recently updated Arizona: A History and many others books about the history of the Southwest.

Manley Alan Begay, Jr.
Social Scientist, American Indian Studies
University of Arizona
Begay is a senior lecturer in the American Indian Studies Program at the University of Arizona. He is also the co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

Betsy Fahlman
Professor of Art History
Arizona State University
Fahlman began teaching at Arizona State University in 1988. In addition to her appointment at ASU, Fahlman is the author of two books including New Deal Art in Arizona and has a keen interest in public art.

Eric A. Betterton
Head, Department of Atmospheric Sciences
University of Arizona
Betterton, born and raised in Zimbabwe, is an award-winning teacher at the University of Arizona where he joined the faculty in 1988. He specializes in research on dust and air pollution.

Juan R. Garcia
Professor of History
University of Arizona
Garcia joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1981 and is author of Mexicans in the Midwest, 1900-1932 published in 2004.

Jeffrey C. Silvertooth
Agronomist, Agriculture and Life Sciences
University of Arizona
Silvertooth was born in Oklahoma and came to the University of Arizona in 1987. He studies soil/plant interactions and is a specialist on cotton.

Tom Kleespie
Producer/ Director/Writer
Kleespie is the senior producer of special projects at Arizona Public Media. He traveled the deserts of the world for 19 seasons for his work on The Desert Speaks, airing on over 300 PBS stations nationally. Kleespie also produced Together We Heal, Unforgettable: The Korean War, Barrios and Barriers, Phoenix Mars Mission: Ashes to Ice and the follow-up program, Phoenix Mars Mission: Onto to Ice, Southwestern Gems: Our Desert National Parks, and the Tucson Remembers series, which included Tucson Remembers: The War Years, Tucson Remembers: The Battle for Europe, and Tucson Remembers: War in the Pacific and A Show of Courage.

Remembering the Dust Bowl

In Their Own Words:

Manley Begay

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Details of the personal experiences and impressions of a family member who lived through the Navajo Stock Reduction.


Betsy Fahlman

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Explanations of some of the lasting effects that growing up during the Depression had on her parents.


Juan Garcia

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Recounting the struggles of his grandmother during the Depression era.


Jeffrey Silvertooth

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Describing some personal experiences having grown up in the Dust Bowl region.


Tom Swetnam

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Tales of his parents’ experiences living through the Dust Bowl.