Track 8: Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute Tribal Member

Harry Williams is an environmental activist and Bishop Paiute tribal member. Harry provides a candid and opinionated voice at Owens Valley community meetings concerning water-related issues and the environment. As an educational guest speaker with the White Mountain Research Station, Williams always makes it a point to discus the “political side of land and water in Owens Valley” with his student audience.

In this track, Harry shares a letter received from a Los Angeles area student who attended one of his previous WMRS talks. The girl’s note shares an insightful impression from her visit: “It was so strange to drive through the desert afterwards for hours until we reached L.A. and saw proof of Owens Valley springing up in all the lawns and fountains in the area. Thank you for opening my eyes to the hardships, past & present occurring in Owens Valley.”

As a child, Williams hunted rabbits and other small game while exploring the outlying foothills of West Bishop—an area once extensively managed and utilized by his ancestors. During these outings he unknowingly encountered an ancient irrigation diversion made out of wood. Some years later he began to reflect on the structure’s purpose, eventually learning that it was one branch of a series of extensive ancient irrigation systems built by his forebears within the Owens Valley.

The ancestral Paiute word for the act of irrigating is “tuvadut.” The Paiute elected an irrigator head or “tuvaiju” whose honorary position was to direct and maintain the ditch network.[1] The ancestral Paiute did not cultivate the land through tillage and row planting but instead irrigated an area sufficiently to encourage the growth of essential plant life providing grasses, seeds, berries, and roots for a variety of purposes as well as habitat for hunted game.

Two to four square mile plots were chosen by the tuvaiju for their ease of dam and ditch construction; the land’s ability to drain properly and the plot’s seed yield potential. Ditch repairs and maintenance were carried out communally—about 25 men worked with the tuvaiju to construct a dam of boulders, brush, sticks, sod, and mud. [2] Once constructed, the tuvaiju tended system independently. Selected areas were flooded seasonally on an alternating schedule to avoid exhausting the soil of nutrients.  The dam was then destroyed after the harvest allowing the stream to return to its natural channel. An ancient irrigation ditch known as  “Paiute Ditch” near Bishop Creek was used by ranchers during the early part of the last century and is still visually traceable to this day.[3]

Mural Controversy

Against the backdrop of the 2005 court battle when an Inyo County Superior Court judge fined the City of Los Angeles $5000 a day to begin remediation efforts outlined in the 1997 MOU, the Bishop Mural Society commissioned San Francisco Bay area artist, John Pugh to create a mural in downtown Bishop titled, “Drain.”

As Williams points out in his interview, this controversial trompe l’oeil mural features a LADWP pump among an idealized Owens Valley orchard setting to “signify that LA started pumping the life and color out of the area.” It is an understatement to say that the mural was unpopular with the department’s then regional manager, Gene L. Coufal—who reportedly withdrew LADWP’s $500 donation for the mural’s creation. Coufal’s wife even went so far as to warn the building’s owner where the mural is painted “that employees of the utility would not shop there”—later apologizing publicly for her threat. [4] Coufal vowed to “more closely scrutinize all requests for (community funded) assistance throughout the Owens Valley” after the incident.

The regional department’s response to the mural was looked down upon by the downtown administration and serves to illustrate the historic tensions between Owens Valley community residents and the LADWP’s local management.

POI: “Drain” Mural in Bishop
John Pugh’s controversial mural painted in 2005 is located on a building at 400 W Line St, Bishop, CA 93514.

Latitude: 37.361229°
Longitude: -118.398312°

[1] Julian Steward, Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1933).
[2] Ibid.
[3] University of California Berkeley Environmental Policy and Management researcher, Jenna Cavelle is working with Williams to document and “restore cultural memory associated with their ancient irrigation systems” in a funded research project on the subject. For more information, visit the project synopsis: Recovering Cultural Memory: Irrigation Systems of the Owens Valley Paiute Indians. I cited her paper and sources for this section.
[4] Randal C. Archibold, “Mural Comments About Water, and a City Doesn’t Like It,” New York Times, November 3, 2005.

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