Payahuunadü – Land of the Flowing Water, is the place we call home. Nüümü – the People (Owens Valley Paiute), have lived here in our homelands since time immemorial. We were placed here to care for the land and the water. Payahuunadü is located in what is called the Owens Valley which is nestled in a deep valley 75 miles long in California’s Eastern Sierra between the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the west and the White and Inyo Mountains on the east. Every day the people wake up to majestic mountain peaks that in some places are greater than 14,000 feet in elevation including Mount Whitney and White Mountain Peak. In normal years, these mountains that surround the valley are blanketed in snow in the winter and come spring burst forth raging rivers and tributaries that provide clean crisp water for all life.
The Nüümü lived in harmony for millennia stewarding the fertile land and natural resources. We irrigated vast swaths of land using ditches and canals dug by hand to grow taboose and nahativa, these plants were main food staples. We built dams that were used to capture fish that we subsisted on. There was a delicate balance of moving water to grow our plants while caring for the land and ensuring that all life including plants, animals, birds, and insects were taken care of.
Around 1859, the Nüümü way of life changed. Miners moved into and through our valley, then came the ranchers and farmers whose cattle overtook the fields of taboose we subsisted on. Places where we once irrigated were now fenced off and we no longer had access to these lands. The ditches and canals we painstakingly built using sticks and rocks were now controlled by cattlemen. This led to major conflict that ultimately resulted in the United States Calvary forcibly marching over 900 men, women, and children out of our homeland in 1863 to Fort Tejon, a place foreign to us over 250 miles away.
Many of our ancestors fled into the mountains or escaped and made their way back home. Because of our strong ties to our homelands that the Creator instilled in us, there was a yearning to get back home to Payahuunadü. Upon returning to Payahuunadü, many Nüümü families and individuals found that their irrigated farming lands were stolen by ranchers and farmers that used Paiute irrigation ditches to plant corn, wheat, alfalfa, and other commercial crops. Despite this, Nüümü families recreated their communities within these places, kept close to the accustomed areas of their ancestors, and became day laborers on the settler farms and ranches, becoming an indispensable labor source for the valley’s budding economies.
Los Angeles entered Payahuunadü in the early 1900s and begins buying up land. In 1905, Los Angeles voters approved plans for the Los Angeles Aqueduct. After construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, agricultural operations declined because of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s purchase of farms and ranches and their refusal to guarantee a water supply to land leases.
By 1933, the City of Los Angeles had purchased 85 percent of the valley’s residential and commercial property and 95 percent of the valley’s farm and ranch land. The decline in farming and ranching operations in the valley resulted in loss of employment for many of the Paiute. Los Angeles then turned to the lands held in trust for the Nüümü by the federal government. Los Angeles was successful in having Executive Orders revoked that had set aside nearly 70,000 acres of land for the Nüümü.
Los Angeles issued a series of reports called “Owens River Valley, California, Indian Problem”. The Indian Problem reports said that the Indians were “homeless”, “scattered”, “squatting”, using immense quantities of water from streams for irrigation”, “wastage of water”. Los Angeles’ solution was to remove or relocate the Indians. Los Angeles reported that the benefits of grouping the Indians would mean “better control” and “the question of land acquirement and title definition fixed unquestionably”. It was also during this time that Los Angeles and the United States coerced Nüümü that were fortunate to have land allotments into selling these lands (many along creeks and streams with water rights) for a fraction of what Los Angeles was paying white landowners. In many cases, Los Angeles purchased Indian Allotments for one-quarter of the price they paid others.
Eventually, Los Angeles and the United States government agreed to move the Nüümü onto three separate reservations in a land exchange whereby the United States traded 2,913 acres of land for 1,391 acres of Los Angeles owned land. The Land Exchange was authorized by an Act of Congress in 1937. In the Congressional record it is reported that, “there are a number of Indians here from California who desire to be heard on the bill, and they desire to have this go over until such a hearing can be had”. The Speaker replied, “it is too late now, of course”. Senator Burdick then replies, “It occurs to me that the Indians themselves have no voice in this matter. […] We are going mighty fast to bring up the passage on the 10th of March a bill introduced on the 3rd of March. This is the speediest action I have seen on legislation in this House”. The bill was put up for vote without a hearing and passed. The Indians were not allowed to speak.
Not only did the United States, on behalf of the Nüümü whom they had a trust responsibility to, give up more than half of the amount of land than what was received from Los Angeles, but they also failed to ensure Nüümü received the water our people were entitled to. In a 1936 Report, Los Angeles wrote they would exchange 4 acre-feet of water per acre and that the United States would trade over 10,000 acre-feet of appropriated water rights along with unspecified riparian water rights on five separate creeks as well as underground rights. However, as the land exchange was commencing Los Angeles reported that the Los Angeles City Charter prohibits the sale or exchange of any water rights owned by the City, without the consent of two-thirds of the voters when submitted at an election. In order to move the Land Exchange forward, Los Angeles and the United States agreed to change the place of use of the appropriated water rights with a substantial reduction that amounts to 5,565 acre-feet of water per year for the Tribes collectively (this amounts to 4 acre-feet per acre which is what Los Angeles originally intended to trade and is less than what many ranch leases in the valley receive). The parties agreed to address the water rights later even though the 1937 Act of Congress authorizing the Land Exchange specified that the water rights were to be traded. The Federal Reserved Indian Water Rights were not traded in the Land Exchange and these tribal rights remain unresolved among other rights.
For over a century, Los Angeles has exported water from Payahuunadü. The valley including indigenous communities suffer severely depleted groundwater, and native plant communities and ecosystems have been destroyed never to be replaced. Tribal resources continue to be exploited as the health of the valley declines due to Los Angeles’ groundwater pumping and poor surface water management practices. The Tribes’ current landbase is woefully inadequate to meet the existing and future needs of the growing Nüümü population.
The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission (Commission) has been working on behalf of the Tribes since 1991 to improve access to water, secure water rights the Tribes should have received when their landbases were created, expand food security for current and future generations, utilize sustainable indigenous practices to transform natural resource management, and provide environmental protection services. As a tribal entity dedicated to defending water resources, the Commission strives to bring together community members and allies to find common ground around the concept that water is life. We take pride in being an organization built through the hard work and resilience of our community. This past year, we had many successes in spreading awareness about the importance of defending our water resources, building new alliances, and expanding participation in decision-making about land and water. We are optimistic that these efforts will result in healthy homelands and more land and water for the Nüümü.
After the first of the year, the Commission is scheduled to provide in-person water education events to schools, museums, and library systems in Southern California that will teach about the connections between local water sourcing and water conservation in Los Angeles with the potential for environmental restoration and justice in Payahuunadü. The Commission will also increase outreach to lawmakers, decision-makers, and allies both regionally and nationally with the goal being Tribal landbase expansion with enough water to meet the needs of the Nüümü, and better water management in Payahuunadü.
Last year, the Commission received a grant from the Native American Agriculture Fund that has enabled us to issue grants to individual farmers and ranchers for agriculture related projects as well as provide funding assistance to youth for 4-H and FFA market animal purchases. The Commission anticipates providing an additional $60,000 in agriculture grants in the coming year. Providing Indigenous farmers and ranchers and youth with agriculture support helps us reconnect with the land and move towards increased food security. We’ve also provided business plan development and agriculture economics training and look forward to providing permaculture and other trainings in the coming year. The Commission is working with the Big Pine Paiute Tribe to provide funding assistance for improving their irrigation system.
For those interested in learning more about our water story, a documentary Paya: Water Story of the Paiute is available for purchase on the Commission’s website.
Teri Red Owl is the Executive Director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission. The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission (OVIWC) is one of a growing number of organizations around the world working to protect water resources and expand food security for current and future generations. Indigenous communities are at the forefront of these efforts, continuing our history of stewardship that dates back since time immemorial. Communities like ours all around the globe are struggling to maintain access to water amidst increasing scarcity due to climate change, resource extraction and export, privatization, and ever-growing corporate influence.