A Paiute’s Perspective

By Alan Bacock, Water Coordinator, Big Pine Tribal Member

The ancestors of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley lived in harmony with all organisms through a lifestyle based on traditional subsistence. Our ancestors gathered resources from the earth in a varying schedule which relied on seasons and locations. In the fall, the most important food item for our ancestors, pinenuts were gathered. Pinenuts were gathered in the mountains and sometimes if the crop was plentiful, they would stay in the groves throughout the winter. In spring, the valley floor would create an abundance of plant resources including seeds, berries and roots vital to the health of our people.

Water was very important to our ancestors because it gave rise to everything we needed for life. Mary DeDecker, who lived in the Owens Valley 1930 – 2000 and studied the local ecosystem, stated the following about the Paiute people: “They had developed a simple form of agriculture in the Bishop, Big Pine and Independence areas which was an ingenuous way of using the natural resources to advantage. Although they lived on the land, harvesting both natural and their cultivated native foods, they were wise enough to allow for replenishment. No resource was exploited to the point of no return. Above all, they had a high respect for water.”[1]

The ditches were designed with dams and channels to divert flows out of the streams coming from the Sierra Nevada. Areas were irrigated some years and fallowed other years, management was carried out by agreements among the people, and in the course of managing flows, fish were harvested from ditches when flows were suspended.

All of this came to a sudden halt when settlers came into the Owens Valley in 1860. The settlers took ownership of lands and used them in ways that were incompatible with the Paiute way of life. The introduction of vegetation and animals which were not native to the area led to the destruction of native plant and animal life, and ultimately the destruction of a lifestyle based on equality of all life which could no longer exist.

Our ancestors held a different worldview from incoming foreigners and as a result conflicts arose when views clashed. Below is an example of what occurred when conflicts arose between the two different points of view and how the conflicts were dealt with:

This treaty [in consequence to a conflict with whites and Paiutes], like so many others – both official and unofficial – drawn up by whites and presented to the Indians, had no chance to succeed. The treaty failed to recognize that the white and Indian ways of life were wholly incompatible, which make peaceful coexistence impossible. For the Paiute to continue “their daily avocations” unmolested, they would need to hunt and to gather every foot of the Owens Valley. To the whites, who did not comprehend that the Paiute were already making maximum use of the valley, the area appeared to be underutilized. Cattle grazing in the valley meant less forage for the indigenous animals, whose numbers would have to decline as the numbers of steers increased, and the destruction of native plants, whose seeds and roots were the staple of the Paiute diet. It would only be a very short time before the Paiute would begin to feel the effects of white encroachment. The Paiute would then have to prey on cattle and become beef eaters or starve.[2]

The loss of food control for the Paiutes and the resulting starvation which followed are the precursors to the Owens Valley Indian War which was fought between the Paiute and the U.S. Calvary. The Owens Valley Indian War consisted of many battles between 1862-1863; however, no party could claim victory. The Paiutes did not see an end in sight, but wanted to live without the constant killing so they initiated peace with the U.S. Calvary. The U.S. Calvary invited the Paiutes to Fort Independence for a barbeque to show the beginning of a new relationship. At the barbeque, the Paiutes were taken hostage and forced marched in the heat of July to Fort Tejon 200 miles away. Along the way, many Paiutes lost their lives.

The Paiutes were unable to cope with the new environment at Fort Tejon and “many of the Indian people returned to Owens Valley. Most of their irrigation ditches were already being used by white settlers…Although irrigation [of wild plants] in Owens Valley may have continued in some districts after 1863 on a lesser scale, it would appear that the system had largely broken down as a result of white settlement and the use of their fields for grazing and of the irrigation ditches for growing introduced crop plants.”[3]

Los Angeles was a growing city in the late 1800’s, but needed a reliable source of water to continue that growth. As a result, Los Angeles bought all the land and water in the Owens Valley and exported water to the Los Angeles Basin through a 250 mile aqueduct. In 2013, the City of Los Angeles commemorated 100 years of continuous operation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct which brings water to Los Angeles from the Owens Valley. A declaration by the Los Angeles City Council proclaims that, “the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct 100 years ago is a significant historical event that led to the growth and prosperity of Los Angeles and Southern California”[4]. Over the last 100 years, the Owens Valley has seen tremendous change, just as Los Angeles has, except that instead of prosperity, Owens Valley has seen devastation. The devastating results of moving water from Owens Valley to Los Angeles include: drying up of Owens Lake which became the largest emitter of PM-10 air pollution in the nation; destruction of animal and plant habitat due to the drying up of the valley’s springs and wetlands; irreversible damage to cultural sites due to Los Angeles Department of Water and Power land managers; and loss of groundwater dependent vegetation due to groundwater pumping for export from the region.

The year 2013 marked 100 years since the City of Los Angeles stole the water “fair and square”[5] from the Owens Valley white settlers, but it also marked 150 years since the settlers callously stole the irrigation ditches and fertile lands from our ancestors. Today, we share our story in the hope that one day justice would be granted for our people and the environment.

[1] DeDecker, Mary. “Owens Valley, Then and Now.” Pp. 7-15 In Mountains to Desert: Selected Inyo Readings. Friends of the Eastern California Museum. Independence, CA, 1988.

[2] McGrath, Roger D., Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes: Violence on the American Frontier. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1984.

[3] Lawton, H., Wilke, P.J, Dedecker, M., and Mason, W.M, “Agriculture Among the Paiute of Owens Valley”. The Journal of California Anthropology, 1976.

[4] Los Angeles Department of Water and Power website. 18 Jan 2013, retrieved on 06 June 2014 from: http://www.ladwpnews.com/go/doc/1475/1683763/L-A-City-Council-Declares-2013-Year-of-the-L-A-Aqueduct-

[5] University of California Berkeley website. 2003, retrieved on 25 Feb. 2013 from: http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people3/Freeman/freeman-con4.html

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