Water Protectors of Payahuunadü
Photo: Sophia Borgias
“I always tell the agencies that we share the responsibility for the lands they call public lands. We see them as our ancestral homelands. We want to see that land taken care of in a good way. When we talk about inherent sovereignty, it is not just a political or legal term. It also has an emotional component of love for our homeland. It’s built on thousands and thousands of years of connection to this place.”
Monty Bengochia has been working on tribal land and water rights issues in Payahuunadü for more than three decades. He was involved in the water rights negotiations with Los Angeles during the 1990s and has advocated on those ongoing issues ever since.
Today he is the Chairman of the Board of Water Commissioners for the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission and is also the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Bishop Paiute Tribe. He has served multiple terms as a tribal council member and chairman for the Bishop Paiute Tribe and has been an advocate for tribal youth programs and tribal food sovereignty.
In meetings, Monty is known for helping people see the big picture, drawing connections between the past and the present and between environmental and human wellbeing. He reminds us that all of California’s water comes from Indigenous territories, that public lands are also ancestral homelands, and that there is much we can learn from Indigenous stewardship practices.
Photo: Sophia Borgias
Teri Red Owl
“We at the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission strive to bring together community members and allies to find common ground around the concept that water is life. We are motivated by our responsibilities to the land and the people of Payahuunadü.”
—Teri Red Owl
Teri Red Owl is building a movement, skillfully coordinating the legal, educational, scientific, and political fronts all at once. As Executive Director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission (OVIWC), she has been at the forefront of efforts to negotiate tribal land and water rights for the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine tribes, working closely with the tribal leadership and their representatives on the OVIWC board.
But the work doesn’t stop there. On any given day, you can find Teri and her OVIWC staff organizing community workshops, trainings, and youth camps; monitoring water quality and groundwater levels; or advocating for policy change in Payahuunadü, in Los Angeles, and at the state and federal levels. Teri goes above and beyond in service to her community, serving on the Inyo County Water Commission and working to make space for more Indigenous voices in decision-making forums.
She reminds us that we all have a part to play in educating ourselves and taking action, recognizing that Indigenous rights are not just a legal matter but also a matter of social and environmental justice for current and future generations.
Photo: Sophia Borgias
“Tending the water would be respecting it, knowing where it comes from. There’s a whole process. Know where it comes from. It doesn’t just come from the tap.”
Paul Huette knows what it takes to get water to the people. As water operator and wastewater operator for the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley, he takes pride in the tribe’s award-winning water quality and is dedicated to seeing that it flows to where it is needed. This is no simple task, since even basic maintenance issues have had a tendency to become complex, drawn-out political struggles due to the fact that the water supply system for the reservation originates on land owned by the City of Los Angeles. Paul has been an advocate in these broader water rights struggles through his role as Vice Chairperson of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission. He has also been vocal about the impacts of Los Angeles’s groundwater pumping in the valley, serving on Big Pine Tribe’s Environmental Protection Committee and on the Inyo County Water Commission. Paul’s dedication to public service extends to all parts of the water system, from regional environmental stewardship and valley-wide water management to tribal water rights and water supply systems, ensuring that there is not only water for today but also for future generations.
Photo: Ryan Christensen
Kathy Jefferson Bancroft
“Water underlies every other issue. So everything we do is to protect the water. When you look at what DWP is doing, all they’re thinking about is how to get that water down south. You’ve just got to get out there and let them know that this isn’t acceptable.”
—Kathy Jefferson Bancroft
Kathy Jefferson Bancroft is expert at navigating the conflicts and synergies between Western science and Indigenous knowledge systems.
As the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, she works tirelessly to protect cultural resources from the impacts of Los Angeles’ water export and dust mitigation projects, as well as the growing impacts of tourism and recreation. She has been instrumental in shifting the way that Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and other agencies work with tribes so that Indigenous perspectives form an integral part of the decision-making process.
She is known as a passionate protector of Patsiata (Owens Lake) and other sacred sites, advocating for understanding them as interconnected parts of the same cultural landscape. She is a powerful communicator, always listening to and understanding others’ perspectives before asserting her own (humbly keeping her degrees in organic chemistry tucked away in her back pocket), and regularly speaking truth to power in order to protect land and water for future generations (including her three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren).
Photo: Noah Williams
“The tribes really lived within a balance of life, but then they also learned how to spend the water because water turned into life and the more life or diverse life you had, the more opportunities for food and resources you could also use. 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 the resources you will end up with nothing.”
Harry Williams has spent decades raising awareness about the history of indigenous water use and water rights in Payahuunadü.
He helped to shed light on the existence of extensive networks of ancient irrigation ditches that the Paiute built to spread water and cultivate subsistence plants long before the arrival of settlers and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Through collaborations with the University of California, Berkeley and various film projects like “Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute,” Harry has shared that history with countless classrooms and audiences, as well as with his local community.
As a Tribal Advisory Committee member for the CalEPA, he has informed decision-makers about the need to think outside of the box of colonial legal systems in order to fully recognize and respect Indigenous rights.
His efforts have helped people to see that understanding the past is a crucial step toward building a more sustainable and just future.
Photo: Charlotte Lange
“We at Mono Lake are the headwaters of the water system flowing off the eastern Sierra mountains. The snow atop our mountains, the water in our streams and rivers, the moisture in the air we breathe, and the waters that collect in our groundwater are all connected. DWP’s decisions impact the water supply of our tribal lands and aquifers and habitat for our traditional foods and medicines and we need to speak for the plants and animals because they don’t have a voice.”
Charlotte Lange sees that water connects communities and that there is great power in that connection. As Chairwoman for the Mono Lake Kutzadika Tribe, she has been an outspoken advocate for environmental stewardship at Kooza Pa’a (Mono Lake) and throughout Payahuunadü. Amid the ongoing struggle to gain federal recognition for her tribe, she has often had to inform decision-makers that the Kutzadika are still here and are actively caring for their ancestral territories. She tells the story of driving all the way down to Los Angeles for a meeting of the Water and Power Commissioners only to be told by one of the Commissioners that they were not even aware there was a tribe at Mono Lake. Despite these challenges, she stays optimistic, carrying on with patience learned from her years as a teacher and with persistence and resilience inherited from her ancestors. Lately, Charlotte has been pouring her heart into revitalizing a traditional gathering at Kooza Pa’a, creating a space for native nations from across the region to connect and build community as they have always done.
Photo: Sophia Borgias
No matter how many impacts end up happening locally, we’re not going anywhere. And it’s not just because our reservation is here. It’s not. It’s because the land is here. The water is here. Even if the water isn’t here. This is a place where our stories are, where our culture lives.”
Alan Bacock is all about building relationships; relationships to place and to the environment, as well as relationships among people and communities. This is the common thread in all of his many roles: Water Program Coordinator for the Big Pine tribe, former Tribal Chair of the EPA’s Regional Tribal Operations Committee, former president of the Owens Valley Committee, and a member of the core organizing team for the Walking Water pilgrimages.
In all of his work, Alan helps people think about building stronger relationships with the land and water and with one another, recognizing that the sense of responsibility and accountability that those relationships foster is the first step toward building a better future for everyone.
Alan is an articulate and compassionate communicator, an attentive listener, and a powerful speaker. He helps educate people about how Indigenous connections to place can help us rethink conventional resource management approaches and their impacts.
Photo: War Party Pictures
“Our mission is to cultivate a thriving community that promotes the health and wellness of Payahuunadü and its inhabitants.”
The Payahuunadü Alliance was formed by a group of young Nüümü leaders who returned from Standing Rock determined to ‘bring the sacred fire home.’ Since 2017, the Alliance has brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous allies to learn from the history of Payahuunadü and build solidarity for its protection. The mission of the Alliance is multi-faceted, building upon the work of its founding members:
Jolie Varela creates spaces for Indigenous women to connect with the land and with each other, building a more diverse and inclusive outdoor community with Indigenous Women Hike; Kris Hohag and Kinsinta Joseph cultivate Indigenous social entrepreneurship through education, art, and tourism with Legendary Skies Enterprises and Payahupaway; Shondeen Chavez empowers Indigenous youth through the Nüümü Skills Camp; Antonio Caligiuri collaborates on wellness projects and ally-ship trainings; Jesse Archer assists with strategic planning and collaborative projects; and Mariah David produces Indigenous media to empower land and water protectors and encourage wellness throughout Indian Country with War Party Pictures.
The Alliance works closely with many of the water protectors that have been featured in this series, learning from their elders and working with Indigenous youth to ensure their legacy is carried forward. Drawing on the diverse skill sets of its members, the Alliance is connecting the local issues in Payahuunadü to broader movements for environmental justice and Indigenous sovereignty across Turtle Island and around the world.