A Paiute Perspective on the LA-Owens Valley Water Story: Jenna Cavelle in conversation with Alan Bacock and Harry Williams

Alan Bacock (left), Jenna Cavelle (middle), Harry Williams (right). © Chris Morrow 2013.

There is a widely held belief that Los Angeles went out and “stole” its water from Owens Valley. This viewpoint has produced an entire body of literature and film on the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water war. In nearly every case these works focus solely on how Los Angeles took water from the white settlers at the time the aqueduct was completed in 1913. From academic journals to best sellers, to documentaries and film noir, for the past 100 years the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water story always begins and ends with the Los Angeles Aqueduct. But there is a greater story, an untold story that is rich in history and human achievement—a story that is as much a part of American memory as the creation of our great cities. This story is the history of the Paiute Indians who populated and irrigated Owens Valley for millennia, long before the aqueduct was built.

Paya, a documentary film project currently in production, sheds light on the pre-history of America’s longest-lived water war through the untold story of Paiute Native Americans and the vast irrigation systems they engineered. These complex networks of ditches, canals, and dams were erected using communal labor and managed under the direction of a head irrigator who was elected by the tribe.  Over sixty miles of indigenous waterworks irrigated desert valley into an agricultural system that sustained the Paiute for thousands of years.

For the ancient Paiute—from Pai meaning water—water was central to both their cultural practices and sociopolitical hierarchies. Colonization during the nineteenth century and the takeover of their waterworks without regard to first-user water rights led to the displacement of the Paiute, erasure of their irrigation practices, and suppression of their customs and history. Over time, tribal members have lost touch with their cultural traditions or simply don’t remember historic livelihood practices their people engaged in for thousands of years. Perhaps what is most miraculous about this untold story is that living tribal elders have identified what they believe are remnant waterworks in the current Owens Valley landscape.

Paya documents Paiute irrigation history and remnant waterworks using web media, photography, videography, archival materials, cartography, and oral histories. The media resulting from this project will be featured in museum exhibits in the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center in Owens Valley and in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, in a documentary film, and on the project website.

The following are excerpts from an interview  conducted in Owens Valley, June 23, 2013, by Paya producer/director Jenna Cavelle with two of the film’s main protagonists, Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute tribal elder and activist, and Alan Bacock, Big Pine Paiute tribal member and the current president of the Owens Valley Committee, a non-profit citizen action group dedicated to protecting the natural resources of the Owens Valley.

Jenna Cavelle: I am Jenna Cavelle. I am a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and a recent graduate of UC Berkeley. I am here in the Owens Valley doing a community service project that recovers the cultural memory of the Paiute irrigation and water history in the context of the aqueduct centenary and a 150-year water war between the indigenous Paiute and various outside entities, LADWP among them.

Alan Bacock: My name’s Alan Bacock, I am a tribal member of the Big Pine Paiute tribe of the Owens Valley. I also work for the tribe; I am employed by them to look at water issues. The story here is continuing and is unfortunately one that stresses a viewpoint that water is something to be owned by people for people only—that’s not a viewpoint that tribal people typically take because we see water as important for all life and life encompasses more than just humans.

Harry Williams: My name is Harry Williams. I am a lifelong resident of Owens Valley. I am a member of the Bishop Paiute tribe but I have relations in the Big Pine area, Tinemaha, and the Round Valley areas that were traded off during historic land exchanges. Since 1996, I’ve been pretty involved in water rights and I’ve argued for them as a member of the Owens Valley community.

JC: I think I will start out by piggybacking something that you said, Alan. You mentioned that for the Paiute people and you personally, resources including water and land are not just for people. I think that’s a good starting point; to talk about what the Paiute perspective on the resources in question are. What is the Paiute view on land and water or on resources? Do the Paiute think about natural resources in terms of ownership or not?

AB: That’s a great question especially because our thought is very different from current, modern thought about life and ownership of land or ownership of water—those concepts are new to our culture. In contemporary mainstream society, we feel that we need to own things. And not only do we need to own them, we need to change them for our benefit—regardless of if it’s beneficial [overall] to do so or not.

For instance, Phoenix is a huge metropolis and within that metropolis people don’t want to suffer in the heat of summer, and so they go into buildings and those buildings are climate controlled so people don’t recognize where they’re living because they’ve completely controlled their environment. Within Paiute thought we don’t control our environment—we work within it.

JC: Harry, how about you? As a Paiute, what do you think the Paiute perspective is? Surely it’s changed over time because culture is not a stagnant thing. Before the settlers entered the valley, what do you believe was the viewpoint of the Paiute people on resources such as water and land in terms of ownership?

HW: The tribes really lived within a balance of life, but then they also learned how to spread the water because water turned into life and the more life or diverse life you had, the more opportunities for food and resources that you could also use. They were utilizing all the water by spreading it and creating life, creating a habitat for the plants that they gathered seeds off. When you got habitat for plants, you got habitat for animals and the animals you could then collect. But you never really killed everything because then you would have nothing. They learned: never take everything, always give a little bit of water back, always offer a little bit of food back. If you took everything then in the long run you’d have nothing. That’s what modern society needs to learn today: if you exploit all resources you will end up with nothing.

JC: So it sounds like they were practicing a very sustainable way of interacting with their resources but not necessarily calling it that. It was just sort of their way of being; it was just like breathing for them.

AB: Yes, when you rely on the environment for all that you have, you’re going look for ways to make it sustainable. Of course “sustainability” is a buzzword now, it was just a way of life for our people back then.

JC: Okay so let’s go back to the 1800s, the mid-1800s. There was a significant war that happened in 1863. It spanned about a five to seven year period depending on what academic book you reference. And 2013 marks a hundred and fifty years since that massacre. This is a period when Paiute territory and resources were formally taken over by the U.S. government. And so, what exactly happened during that time period, during the mid-1800s, to the Paiute

AB: Well, I would say that at that time period, people began moving into the valley and settling. Prior to that, you had explorers coming in, looking at things, but then leaving. Once settlement started to occur and people began to then take ownership of things like water and land, fences were put up. These new people began using the area’s water for their own purposes and they didn’t necessarily leave water for people downstream. And so a lot of the areas, the seed lands, the places where people still gathered, began to dry up. Also, cattle and sheep were brought in by the settlers and they were confined in different areas so either those animals were eating the vegetation that our people utilized or they were taking over areas that animals native to the place would typically go and they were no longer able to [use]. So when you don’t have the ability to collect and gather as you did, which was a major source of food for us, and when you don’t have the ability to utilize the native species of wildlife that’s there because you’ve been forced into new areas, that means that our people, then, weren’t able to find the needed food resources. That’s what really began the conflict here.

Harry Williams (left), Jenna Cavelle (middle), Alan Bacock (right). © Chris Morrow 2013.

JC: So the period from 1863 to 1913, before Los Angeles enters the valley, there’s a lot of changes happening; settlers start changing the name of places; you get Big Pine Creek, you get Bishop, you get Wind Valley. You get sort of the renaming of places that were once called something completely differently by the Paiute. So as this is happening, the irrigation systems are taken over; Indians are being essentially forced into labor at ranches because there are no other options. This happens over a fifty-year period and you get to a point where the settlers have, by 1900, essentially taken over the valley. Shortly thereafter you have a new stakeholder that enters the picture: the City of Los Angeles. Would it be fair to say that after LA’s entrance into the valley—whose primary goal is water resource acquisition—that during those initial years, the Paiute were not really considered a stakeholder until later in the twentieth century when LA wanted their water and their land in particular?

HW: Well, up until the 1960s let’s just say they called us the “Indian problem.” Capitalistic attitude; we were a problem because ‘we can’t make money with you in our way.’ We’re lucky that they didn’t just try to kill us all off. They tried to remove us but then nobody agreed to that, especially the ranchers because we were good workers for them.

JC: How did their presence in the valley change the Paiute way of life? What was the impact on Paiute livelihood, especially with the construction of the aqueduct in 1913? What was the effect on Paiute native plants? On irrigation? On their way of life in particular?

AB: Well, we had to adjust to settlers coming in and being able to work on the operations that they had going. When LA came in, then we had to do another shift. Because LA’s needs weren’t the same as the ranchers’ needs. In fact, they were very different, but again we looked to see ‘how are we going to survive with…?’ Was it easy? No, but to survive in this new environment with this new entity coming in—I would just say there was hardship. There was definite hardship. And how did they impact our culture? Oh, it devastated our culture: from having our children taken to schools outside of the valley to folks not being able to share our language with each other because that’s not the language you’re supposed to speak anymore. Our native plants—they were non-existent; we had to look for new sources of being able to feed ourselves or we had to go to the extremes to find new places where we could gather and then [when] we did do so, we had to be careful about going about it because usually it was somebody else’s property at this point.

AB: We had a very forced, sudden amnesia that happened to our people because of settlers and then, because of Los Angeles. And that impacts us to this day. Fortunately, now we have a resurgence of wanting to recover our memory—something denied to our people in earlier times. That is important for our people and for our environment because we’re all connected together. We can see that this amnesia has impacted everything around us; we deal with the highest air pollution levels in the nation for [airborne] particulate matter, we look at springs that are dried up, we look at animals that are either extinct or now endangered because a group of select people in power throughout the last 100 years—in their desire to manage this place for themselves—have only managed to destroy this area.

JC: Wow, that’s powerful.

HW: Yeah, that’s good

JC: It’s like the Paiute people really went through two separate colonizations—in the beginning when the settlers entered the valley and then again when LA arrived. I asked you guys this question in the beginning: when the settlers entered the valley did they consider Paiute ownership of resources? Did they consider the Paiute as a stakeholder? Did it change when LA entered the picture? You know, it’s fifty years later—we should have progressed as a society, so did they consider the Paiute as a stakeholder at that point or was it still sort of the same song and dance?

HW: I would say so because they tried to make us work under their rules and their rules were made for their benefit. Like when they told the tribes, if you didn’t apply for your water rights in 1851, well, you don’t have them now. And if you didn’t do this, well, you didn’t own that land. We didn’t understand these rules, didn’t even speak their language. They came in and started using all their big words—lawyer words. Indian agents [representing the tribes] worked for the federal government and their whole thought was ‘they weren’t using it so we’re going to use it, so it’s not theirs, and they just took it away from them.’ So who can you fight? They’d send in an army and kill you if you disagree with them. And today they’ll name you a terrorist just by arguing with them. They’ll label you. Like I said, ‘til 1924, we couldn’t own land. What kind of government does that? That’s a colonial attitude; first you come in and change everything, change the religion, change the rules, say that you’re less than me and since you’re less than me, I have a right to kill you if you disagree with me, and that’s kind of like what we’re just getting over today.

AB: In 1937 there’s an act of Congress enabling land and water exchanges on the res for Indian allocations with the City of Los Angeles. Now, as things progressed, what Congress had intended was that land and water would be exchanged with any [future] agreement including those with the City of Los Angeles. What happened was land was exchanged but water [rights] were not.

JC: I want to talk a little bit more about the relocation of the Paiute from one place to another by way of the land exchange. When I was a student at UC Berkley and I was studying the land exchange, one of the things that was so confusing about it for me was that land and water seemed to be inextricably linked. This land exchange was presenting a whole new concept for me by separating and exchanging them independent of one another. It was really difficult for me to wrap my head around that. When talking to the public over the past couple of years as I’ve been here working on my project, this seems to be a common point of confusion. One of the points of confusion is in the literature—sometimes you see the land exchange talked about as a 1937 document and sometimes you see it talked about as a 1939 document. And I’m wondering is that—

HW: They’re two separate documents.

JC: Does that represent a process? Or…?

HW: The ’37 one was after Congress gave the water rights for [surface] runoff to the City of Los Angeles. Then after that act was passed they went after the [actual] tribal land. That’s when they did the land exchange. They offered every Indian from Fish Lake Valley all the way to Yerington to come join this process. It wasn’t just in Owens Valley—they just wanted to consolidate all the problems and get rid of everybody. But a lot of people back in Yerington—they didn’t agree with that. Fish Lake Valley they didn’t agree with that either—they just said ‘no.’ In the Bishop area, my grandfather Billy Williams was a chief negotiator. They wanted to put us down by the airport and my grandfather said ‘we can’t grow anything down there.’ So he forced them to move [us] up to the present site where Bishop is right now. We were never given a good option.

AB: Going off of what Harry said, there were actually two acts of Congress in 1937. One act gave LA the ability to have that watershed protection, the second act disabled federal government from negotiating with the City of Los Angeles to trade lands. The result of those acts was a new agreement in 1939, and then that agreement was finalized in 1940/1941 with both the City of Los Angeles and the federal government. So yeah, it’s a process that went on.

HW: Here let me answer part of it. The act of ’39 was kind of illegal. What they did was they said if you want to become part of the Bishop, Big Pine or the Lone Pine tribes you had to sell all your land—all your allotted land. Some of the people ended up selling—which is evil to force someone to sell their land. They said, well, you can’t have land out there if you want to become part of the tribe. Some people still did it and they couldn’t go after them to make them sell their land so today, they still own their allotted land.

JC: So would you say then that this piece of legislation, or these pieces of legislation were really thrown into motion as a result of LA being here?

HW: LA had so much political power. They were able to push that 1939 act in one day. One day it went through Congress. One day. It just got pushed through. Voted on, not talked about, just… it was done.

JC: So are there current unresolved issues around water rights today that come out of that land exchange?

HW: Our water rights have never been settled.

AB: I want to say in 1937, the act and then with the 1939 agreement—which created the Big Pine, Bishop and Lone Pine reservations—are the water rights in question. The Fort Independence tribe, which is also in the Owens Valley, has their water rights established. But it’s the Big Pine, Bishop and Lone Pine reservations, which were a part of that agreement, that have not had those water rights settled. And that continues today. It is something that has always been on the hearts of our people to settle but we’ve always had opposition, be it externally or internally, that have not allowed us to fully settle out those rights. And again, the question is how do we then plan for the future if we don’t know what we have today?

JC:  So considering the potential for a positive future that considers all of these stakeholders that are here now with the Paiute at the forefront, how do you sort of imagine people coming together at the same table to create some sort of social exchange or change that is different and works for everyone; or can you even imagine something like that?

AB: That’s difficult to imagine. However, I would say that in the beginning of this interview we spoke about sustainability and that was how our people used to live before we knew what that really meant and we’re coming back to that. What is it to be sustainable? Because currently we look at our people and we see a lot of health impacts because of our [contemporary] diet, the lack of exercise—which a lot of folks aren’t able to do. The Big Pine tribe is looking at ways for our people to be healthier so we are looking at our diet. We’ve developed a project to create a community garden to demonstrate how to grow plants that will help our bodies be healthier. And in the process of doing that we’re utilizing the land in a beneficial way. We’re utilizing the water in a beneficial way so that we show that we still have an interest in protecting the land, protecting the water and, in turn, also being a healthy people. And I believe as we continue to do this demonstration, it will help to build the soil within our reservations. In Big Pine, because of the de-watering that’s gone on with the groundwater pumping and because of a flood that came over that deposited a lot of sandy soil, it is difficult to grow [food] and a lot of dust is produced on our reservation. We want to change that and it’ll take little bits here and there to strengthen our soil by utilizing the water and hopefully strengthening the health of our people in the process.

JC: I like that—I like the idea of growing plants to grow healthy people. You know I really like the way that sounds and feels.

AB: There’s a permaculturalist—Jeff Laughton is his name and he says that I can change the world through a garden. It sounds funny because you really think of a garden as something small and not really impactful; but when you look at what a garden is—it provides food and an area for animals and it provides nourishment for all kinds of things—I think he’s correct. You can change the world through a garden. I’m hoping that our project starts to show that by creating an environment where people can be healthier through getting out, working [outside] and eating from those plants so we can show others that this is how we will become healthier. This is how we can interact again with the world around us. When we started this interview we spoke about the disconnect that modern society has with the environment and how we always want to change our environment to fit our needs instead of being able to live within the environment. And when we begin to then live within the environment, we begin to recognize the importance of having clean air, clean water and [productive] land that can support life. When we end up doing that we will be a happier, healthier people in the process. And I would venture to say that a healthier environment as a whole is best for all living things.


Alan Bacock serves as Environmental Director for the Big Pine Paiute Band of the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone people.

Jenna Cavelle is a conservation and resource studies researcher at UC Berkeley and founder of Peakwater.org. She is currently working with the Paiute Indian community on a documentary film, Paya: The Untold Story of the LA-Owens Valley Water War.

Harry Williams is an environmental activist and Bishop Paiute tribal member who serves as an educational guest speaker with the White Mountain Research Station.


Posted on by admin1963 Posted in Fall 2013, Perspectives

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