Place of Flowing Water: The Paiute of the Owens Valley

East of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range lies Owens Valley, a 75 mile long valley that is the ancestral home of the Paiute people. The Paiute call the valley Payahǖǖnadǖ, or the Place Where Water Flows, and it is also where Los Angeles gets a third of its water.  Through a series of legal and physical battles in the early 20th century, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built an aqueduct that connected the Owens Valley to the city of Los Angeles, and completely drained the lake in 1926. In addition to widespread environmental destruction through the human induced drought in the valley, the drained lake creates dusts in the heat and wind of the valley. Today, it is the single largest source of dust pollution in the United States, and has caused spikes in respiratory diseases for the 25,000 people who live in the valley.

California water law states that if someone can prove they used the water first, they have a legal right to it. As such, lawyers will often hire historians to prove a “first in time, first in right” use of water. For centuries, the mainstream archeological opinion was that Indigenous people of California and North America had not developed agriculture in any large scale way, which gave the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power the legal authority to drain the Owens Valley lake and turn the valley into a desert. But as the dust pollution grows worse in the valley, more and more evidence is emerging to suggest that the Paiute people were irrigating the valley thousands of years before the arrival of European colonizers, which would give them a legal right to water in California.

It’s important to recognize that the Paiute have been saying that they have used agriculture for centuries, but have been largely ignored. This is almost certainly due to racial bias, as well as the fact that much of the physical evidence of agriculture has been destroyed. In the mid 19th century, a campaign of genocide was carried out in the Owens Valley by state sanctioned militias. The people who were not killed were marched from the Valley to the old Spanish Fort Tejon, where they remained for some time. During this time, ranchers came to the lush grass filled valley and layed pipes in the centuries old irrigation ditches, effectively destroying all evidence of them existing. This was demonstrated in the 2015 documentary Paya, where investigators used 19th century maps, GIS technology, and soil spectrometry to find the original pipes and the centuries older ditches they sat in. The reason it is so hard to prove the existence of Indigenous agriculture is because their history was purposefully destroyed in the valley.

For that reason, contemporaneous documents of observers of the Paiute people are crucial to a complete understanding of what the valley was like pre-contact. In 1933, Berkeley Anthropology researcher Julian Steward wrote the “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute”. In it, Dr. Steward speaks with several Paiute people over the course of several days, including a man named Jack Stewart, a Paiute man who was a hundred years old at the time of publication. Dr. Steward viewed him as one of the most reliable sources of information in the report, because of his age and honesty. Dr. Steward included a drawing that Stewart made, shown below:


Fig. 1: from “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute”, Julian Steward, 1933

The drawing clearly shows a purposeful, artificial grid pattern of irrigation with troughs for crops that runs perpendicular to the flow of the river and the slope of the mountain. Steward then labels this obviously manmade structure as natural “tributaries”. Steward’s report is one of the finest examples of what has made history of water in the valley so painful, because it shows both the clear evidence of irrigation in the valley, and the prejudice that has permeated the academic community on both an individual and institutional level. UC Berkeley is notorious for its mistreatment of indigenous knowledge, artifacts and land, and to this day possesses dozens of papers that document in detail the indigenous knowledge and practices in the valley. The contents and location of these papers will not be disclosed in this article in order to protect the privacy of the affected peoples, but readers can rest assured that these first hand accounts are more than convincing.

In the paper, Dr. Steward includes testimony from Jack Stewart about the social institutions that surround Agriculture. One of the most interesting was the position of Chief Irrigator, an elected position among all of the various Paiute peoples. Jack Stewart told Steward that the position had existed for generations before he was born, meaning it definitely predated the arrival of the Spanish (something advanced soil chemistry would prove a hundred years later), and Steward agrees with him. He ends his paper with the idea of “irrigation without agriculture”, the idea that the Paiute people got the idea of irrigation from another culture, but never figured out how to grow food with it.

This account demonstrates the institutional and personal bias that deprived the Paiute of their water rights. In reading the report, it is clear that Steward struggled to reconcile his biases with the archeological evidence in front of him, which caused him to come to the contradictory claim that the Paiute had advanced social institutions around irrigation, built and maintained dozens of canals, elected someone to lead the effort full time, just for the sake of it. This idea was the prevailing theory of the Owens Valley for about forty years.


Fig. 2: Dichelostemma pulchella, or Tüpüsi, from the Owens Valley. Copyright UC Regents.

In 1976, a comprehensive paper was released, titled “Agriculture among the Paiute of the Owens Valley”. Among the usual complement of Historians and archeologists, one of the paper’s authors was a botanist with a specialty in Indigenous plant knowledge. Mary DeDecker surveyed the plant make up of the valley in 1976, and consulted historical records to piece together what type of plants naturally grew in the valley throughout the 19th and 20th century. That was paired with geographic surveys and water maps to show where those plants would have grown, as well as consulting maps and journals from the time. They then compared that data to contemporaneous accounts of the Paiute (especially a 1859 Army Expedition report by Captain J.W. Davidson), and the results were striking. The Paiute ate far more of a plant known as Tüpüsi, a starchy onion like bulb, than would have been possible if it was growing naturally. The plant is similar in structure and nutritional makeup to the staple crops of other agricultural societies in the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes called Chufa.

The plant also grows in the wet, marshy conditions that were created by the irrigation ditches, and were harvested processed along with another cultivated plant, a nut called Nahavita. DeDecker concludes that it would be impossible for the sheer amount of these specific plants to exist naturally, because it would overwhelm the natural ecosystem. They had to have been specifically grown, harvested, and replanted in order to exist in the quantities described and observed.

There were also a couple other interesting pieces of evidence in the report. First was the Davidson report itself, which flat out stated that the Paiute used agriculture in the form of artificially made irrigation pits, and even traded excess crops with other tribes. The second came from a consulted linguist, who identified an entire family of agriculture related words in the Paiute language. The words were not Spanish, English, or Shoshone in origin. They were unique to the Paiute language and used specifically to describe Agricultural practices. Crops that were regularly harvested also had a linguistic transformation from a plant grown naturally to one harvested (the word referred to the product of the plant, rather than the plant itself). This complex language structure would have evolved over thousands of years, inseparably tying the Paiute people to the practice of agriculture and the stewardship of the Owens Valley.

The archeological evidence is very clear-the Paiute people are victims of a sustained, coordinated effort over decades to erase a centuries long practice, and to deprive them of their legal right to continue it. Individual prejudices and institutional compliance took the the water and the life from the valley, and used it to build the largest city on the West Coast. A new generation of Indigenous activists have come home from Standing Rock, and are fighting for their rights to a clean and healthy environment, and the Owens Valley is no different. While it is unlikely that any court would order all water in the entire valley back to the Paiute, an decision requiring the drained lake be filled again is absolutely a possibility, going by the letter of the law. Water could once again flow in Payahǖǖnadǖ.

Jacob Dadmun

Jacob Dadmun is a freshman in the Society and Environment major at the College of Natural Resources with an intended minor in public policy. He grew up backpacking with his family in the mountains of Southern California, near where he grew up in San Diego. He found a passion for government in high school through the program Youth and Government, and intends to follow a career in public office. He is fascinated by international relations, large scale ecosystems, and clouds. He worked with the ACLU on smart racial justice and national security strategies, and did an academic residency at the aquatic lab in Biosphere 2, where he saw the potential good that public policy can have at addressing the climate crisis and rebalancing the earth’s natural systems. When at home in San Diego, he can generally be found eating Mexican food or sitting on the beach (or both), or locked in his room ranting about Ecuadorian cat populations. His interests include free diving, backpacking, history memes, and pretending to have a social life. Jacob Dadmun covers international environmental governance and policy.

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