MOENKOPI, Ariz. – On the bone-dry plateau where the Hopi have lived for more than 1,000 years, Robinson Honani pulled his truck to the side of the road and pointed to a carcass.
"This is where the cows come to die," Honani, manager of the Hopi Office of Range Management, said one September morning as he spotted the remains nearby of another bovine decaying. It was at least the 10th dead cow Hopi range officials have found recently.
Alarmed by the two-decade drought that has dried up springs, withered crops and killed cattle, the Hopi Tribal Council ordered ranchers in August to slash their herds in a bid to preserve water supplies and avoid the cruelty of an even larger death toll.
But an outcry by Hopi cattlemen, who say they are providing families with locally raised food, compelled the council to rescind its edict, a decision that unleashed a fierce discussion over what traditions to safeguard in a time of climate change. The tensions involve farmers who need water to grow crops and ranchers who need water for their cattle. Some Hopi leaders say the tribe should do everything it can to preserve dry farming, a tribal tradition in which crops grow despite scant rainfall through drought-resistant seeds, small fields and terraced gardens.
What both the farmers and ranchers appear to agree on is that the difficult choices feel unfair to the Hopi, who are thought to descend from some of the Southwest's earliest inhabitants. They have been forced to feud over restrictions, they said, at the same time that Arizona cities, experiencing breakneck population growth, have been depleting the state's reservoirs.
"Why isn't the governor cutting off water resources to southern Arizona?" asked Clark Tenakhongva, vice chair of the Hopi Tribe, which is in the northeast part of the state. "Cut out the pools. Cut out the water recreation areas. Cut out the golf courses, and you'll start resolving some of the issues the state of Arizona is looking at right now."
But while Arizona's booming population consumes ever larger quantities of water, the flaring tempers in one of the state's poorest corners have revealed how the drought, which has ranked among the most severe in recorded history, has inflicted pain unevenly around the West.
In a parched landscape where the Hopi honed water-harvesting methods over centuries, the tribe estimates the reservation has about 2,200 head of cattle that drink about 66,000 gallons of water a day.
Supporters and foes of herd reduction both agree they are quarreling over ranching on a scale dwarfed by huge cattle operations elsewhere. The famed King Ranch in South Texas, for instance, is home to more than 30,000 head.
"I only owned seven head before reducing that number myself to three because of drought," said Makwesa Chimerica, a carver of kachina figures who lives in the village of Hotevilla. He said he was stunned when authorities then ordered him to sell or slaughter his remaining cows.
"I was raised going to the ranch with my grandfather," said Chimerica, who also practices dry farming. "That's the future I want for my two sons."
Still, Hopi officials who pushed for the cattle-reduction measure counter that ranching was introduced by colonial powers, beginning with the churro sheep brought by the Spanish in 1540 before cattle became more common in the 20th century.
"The Hopi consider themselves farmers, first and foremost," said Priscilla Pavatea, director of the tribe's Office of Range Management. "Ranching comes after that. We urgently need to take steps to save our land base."
Outsiders can find it hard to fathom how the Hopi squeeze harvests out of small farms without using ditches or modern irrigation methods in lands traditionally receiving only about 8.5 inches of rain a year.
But over the course of centuries, Hopi farmers developed techniques and seeds adapted to the dry climate. Forgoing pesticides, they focused on oasislike mesas with farmable flood plains, moisture-retaining soils and springs, what Hopi call qatsi suphelawta, or the "perfect location for life," according to archaeologists Wesley Bernardini and R.J. Sinensky.
The Hopi have long endured challenges to this tradition, declining to bend to modern techniques. But the drought that has gripped the Southwest since 2000 is thought to be as bad or worse than any in the region over the last 1,200 years.
Researchers have estimated that human-influenced climate change has contributed considerably to the drought's severity. On the Hopi Reservation, such conditions are reflected in disappointing crop yields and disappearing springs.
"The sand dunes don't stop growing," said Curtis Naseyowma, 58, a Hopi rancher.