Track 2: Alan Bacock, Big Pine Tribal Member

Most often, the saga of the Owens Valley “Water Wars” begins at the turn of the twentieth century when the City of Los Angeles began its determined effort to acquire a remote river flowing with pristine snowmelt from the Eastern Sierra. This historical account fails to consider the “stolen water” story of the indigenous people who called this place home before the influx of European-American settlers descended on the valley during the mid-19th century. Owens Valley Paiute had their familial lands occupied and appropriated by these same settlers who, in turn, modeled their farm’s irrigation ditches on the original ancient irrigation systems of the Paiute.[1]

The Owens Valley Pauite who refer to themselves as Numa or “People,” were the first occupants of this region and have lived here many thousands of years.[2] The Owens Valley Paiute language belongs to the Western Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family.

Historically, Owens Valley Paiute lived in semi-permanent camps and traveled to various locations within the valley and surrounding mountain areas where they practiced the seasonal gathering of seeds, nuts, berries, and roots for food, medical, and other sacred purposes. It has been suggested that the Indians constructed and maintained the ancient irrigation systems to specifically encourage the growth of these foodstuffs and to bring game into selected areas.[3] Piñon nuts were a critical winter food gathered in the mountains during the summer months and stored for winter use. Small game, deer, and native fish supplemented their largely vegetarian diet.[4]

Today, there are four federally recognized tribes in the Owens Valley: the Big Pine Band of Owens Valley Paiute Shoshone Indians of the Big Pine Reservation; the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians of the Fort Independence Reservation; the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Lone Pine Community of the Lone Pine Reservation; and the Paiute-Shoshone Indians of the Bishop Community of the Bishop Colony. About 2,500 tribal members were recorded to be living on area reservations in the 1990s.

In April 1937, Congress passed an Act that authorized the exchange of land and water rights between the federal government and the City of Los Angeles. The resulting Land Exchange Agreement of 1939 swapped 3,126 acres of federally reserved Indian lands for 1,511 acres of highly-taxed city-owned land.[5] The land exchange consolidated scattered parcels that the Owens Valley Indians held into three new reservations in Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine. Although Los Angeles agreed to supply a set amount of water to the reservations, the land exchange did not include water rights. Because the Los Angeles City Charter would not permit sale of its water rights without the approval of two-thirds of city voters, it was negotiated at the time the deed was signed in 1939 that the matter resolving associated water rights would be settled at a later date. It was also agreed that Los Angeles would supply, in perpetuity, four acre-feet of water per acre of land annually amongst the three new reservations.[6] To this day historic water rights promised by the LADWP during the 1939 land exchange have not been fulfilled.

[1] See John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
[2] The Owens Valley Paiute name is Nün‘wa Paya Hup Ca’a‘ Otuu’mu translated as “Coyotes’ children living in the water ditch.” Source: Barry Pritzker, “A Native American Encyclopedia,” Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 227.
[3] Bishop Paiute tribal member, Harry Williams suggests that the ancestral Paiute did not practice agriculture in the industrialized form we know today, but did so in a way to encourage growth and life in a selected area where food gathering activities were practiced. Interview with the author conducted January 2012.
[4] Trout (brown and rainbow) and other sport fishing stocks such as large-mouth bass were introduced into the Owens Valley primarily in the late 1900s. Native species, including Owens pupfish (Cyprinodon radiosus) and Owens tui chub (subspecies Siphateles bicolor snyderi) are considered endangered species by the state of California and the federal government.
[5] See the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission website: The Water Rights Crusade.
[6] Ibid.

Credits: Archival soundtrack excerpt from City Of Destiny produced by Standard Oil in 1947. Photo of Alan Bacock by Matthew Hayes.

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