OF FLOWING WATER
The Nüümü (Owens Valley Paiute) are peoples whose ways of being and knowing are intricately and intimately tied to water (paya). For millennia, we have lived and thrived in Payahuunadü, ‘the land of flowing water’ (the Owens Valley), spreading this crucial resource across the land in order to sustain the plants and animals that sustain us in return.
Irrigation, utilizing water from the streams that descend from the Sierra Nevada, was practiced in Payahuunadü for millennia prior to contact with white settlers. We stewarded the valley’s resources and carefully harvested its seed concentrations in order to sustain the land while living upon it. This was a longstanding, ecologically sustainable means of agricultural production.
Payahuunadü was a garden of taboose and nahativa, carefully cared for and worked upon for thousands of years. It nurtured life for countless generations. There were no fences in the valley, no collective sense of ‘ours’ or ‘yours.’ These were, in some ways, unfamiliar concepts to the Nüümü.
The delicate balance that we maintained in our use of water and land was interrupted when settlers came into the valley in the 19 th century. Settlers did not recognize the form of agriculture practiced by our ancestors and only saw land available for the taking. In 1870, an article in the Inyo Independent noted the fertile nature of the soil in the valley (nourished by Paiute irrigation) and claimed that settlers would quickly transform it into “luxuriant gardens, orchards, and green fields.”
Settlers were quick to harness the existing networks of irrigation for their canal infrastructure and, within 50 years of contact with settlers, the distribution of water across Payahuunadü had changed forever. Where the Nüümü required and had been utilizing the full extent of Payahuunadü in their traditional lifestyle, ranchers saw only under-utilization and opportunity, which lead over time to monocrop agriculture, seepage of water into otherwise un-irrigated plots, the draining of marshy areas, pollution of fresh water from stock runoff, the gradual recession of Owens Lake, and the eventual destruction of native seed supplies and the practice of our traditional way of life.
The City of Los Angeles would soon repeat the same pattern of displacement, overtaking existing water uses in order to provide for the City’s growing population. This time, at the start of the 20 th century, it was the ranchers and settlers of the valley who were displaced as well as the Nüümü, who lost their employment on the ranches. The City’s purchase of land and water rights throughout the valley allowed them to remove mass amounts of water from the landscape. By the end of the 1920s, they owned 95% of the private land and water rights in the valley. Soon, surface water alone was not enough to sustain the booming city of Los Angeles, and so the City also began groundwater pumping.
Next, they turned to the lands held in trust for the Paiute by the federal government. Between 1920 and 1930, as agricultural activities decreased due to land sales, many Nüümü who had turned to wage labor as a means of survival were left without work. Living conditions were quickly becoming intolerable. The City of Los Angeles issued multiple reports between 1930 and 1936 regarding the “Indian problem” in the Owens Valley, some recommending relocation outside the valley. Eventually, the City of Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power recommended relocation to three new homesites within the valley via a land exchange with the federal government.
A variety of factors influenced Los Angeles’ interest in the land exchange of 1937, but one of the primary factors was the City’s observation that all water expended upon agriculture limited water available for their export. It was thus in the City of Los Angeles’ interest to consolidate the Owens Valley Paiute on three reservations (Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine) and exchange its lands with those held by the federal government. This would help to further limit the amount of water that was conveyed in the valley and thus help to minimize loss from irrigation.
Not transferred in the land exchange were the Federal Reserved Indian Water Rights associated with the original 2,913.5 acres of land held in trust for the Owens Valley Paiute Indians, who after the land exchange occupied a total landbase of only 1,391.48 acres. The water the Tribes are currently receiving and using for irrigation is only a contractual water right guaranteeing delivery by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The Federal Reserved Indian Water Rights remain unresolved and are the basis for current negotiations.