Case Study Highlights
THE CATALYST MOMENT
Connecting the historical and academic resources of Berkeley with a Native American tribal leader helped to preserve the history and legacy of his tribe.
The power of human connection cannot be exaggerated. Here, we tell the story of how a professor, a community activist, and a university student came together to uncover the untold history of the Owens Valley water wars.
Patricia Steenland was in the first cohort of faculty and instructors to teach a new kind of undergraduate course at Berkeley called “American Cultures Engaged Scholarship” (ACES) that sought to connect academic research and scholarly work with on-the-ground efforts of community leaders and organizations.
In 2011, Steenland was designing College Writing, “Researching Water in the West,” with a goal of giving her students firsthand experience with original source documents and as a way to explore the intersection of communities in the Owens Valley. “It was well known that the Paiute were the first to dwell in the Owens Valley. What was their part in the water story?” Steenland said. A colleague in anthropology told her about an elder in the Paiute tribe, Harry Williams. Steenland called Williams.
The Community Organizer
When Harry Williams was a boy growing up on the Bishop Paiute Reservation, he played among the tule (a wild plant found in watery lands and marshes) and watersheds of Owens Valley. When two City of Los Angeles aqueducts were constructed in the 1970s to divert water from the valley to LA, the valley dried up, and dust storms blew directly into his Paiute reservation.
Williams vaguely knew that the Paiute had learned how to engineer the water into carefully constructed irrigation ditches or channels designed to irrigate the land, thus raising the valley’s water table. Recognizing that his homeland and way of life might disappear, Williams got into “water politics” and joined the Owens Valley Committee in 1996. The committee’s purpose was and is to seek the just and sustainable management of Owens Valley land and water resources.
Steenland invited Williams to speak to Berkeley students about the culture and history of the Owens Valley Paiute people.
“I tell my students that history as we know it is written by historians, but that the vast and unknown past contains things that don’t make it into the historical records.”
— Patricia Steenland
Teresa Salazar is a librarian and curator of the Western Americana collection at the Bancroft, Berkeley’s archive of rare documents. Two collections proved invaluable to the ACES course and held evidence that supports Williams’ narrative of his people’s achievements.
Two Berkeley anthropologists who traveled to the Owens Valley in the 1930s compiled the first collection and worked with the younger Paiute members to translate the elders’ life stories, myths, stories, and recipes. These “generational transfers,” as Salazar called them, were never published and sat unnoticed in the Bancroft for two generations. The notebooks held stories that no one in the Paiute tribe remembered.
The second collection the students reviewed was a series of maps made by 19th century surveyor Von Schmidt. This collection contained hand-drawn maps of the ancient Paiute irrigation ditches in Owens Valley. Over 150 years later, a student of Steenland, in partnership with Harry Williams, overlaid these maps onto modern maps to pinpoint the exact location of the historic irrigation ditches. Williams now had evidence to document his people’s legacy and water rights.
One of the students listening to Harry Williams’ lecture in the first year of “Researching Water in the West” was Jenna Cavelle ’12. Interested in how water and indigenous communities intersect, Cavelle researched the Paiute’s water techniques in the Owens Valley.
When Williams came to speak to the class, Cavelle was shocked to learn that the ditches still existed. She jumped at the opportunity to visit them with Williams.
Three years later, Cavelle is now a graduate student in the University of Southern California’s film school working on the documentary Paya: the Water Story of the Paiute Indians. Her goal for the film is to mobilize the three Paiute tribes of the Owens Valley to fight for their water rights.
“I tell my students that history as we know it is written by historians, but that the vast and unknown past contains things that don’t make it into to the historical records,” Steenland said. “Sometimes if we are fortunate, incredible parts of the past can be found in our libraries, waiting quietly for a new generation.”
Video Extra: Exploring an Untold California Water Story
Listen as protagonists of this story discuss their work during a panel presentation on Cal Day 2015.