by William J. Bauer, Jr.

From Boom Winter 2012, Vol. 2, No. 4

Paiute oral traditions and the Owens Valley Water Wars

In 1935, Susie Baker, an Owens Valley Paiute elder from Big Pine, California, told the following story: A giant approached the Alabama Hills, a range of small hills and protruding rock formations on the Valley’s southern edge.1 As the giant reached the hills, he screamed at the top of his great voice. Frightened, people scurried from their hiding places. As they fled, the giant picked them up and killed them. He planned to take his victims home for a feast with his wife. When the giant reached Tinemaha, a peak that looms over the Owens Valley, he again screamed at the top of his voice. More people ran from their hiding places, and the giant picked them up, too, and killed them. He traveled as far north as Tupueseenata (Hammil Valley) and then decided to return home with his prey.


But the waterbaby, a spirit that lives in lakes, grew tired of the giant’s screaming, which had frightened him several times. Waterbaby knew when the giant would pass by his home in the Owens Lake, so he went near the trail, lay down on a rock, and waited. When the giant approached, screaming, he saw the waterbaby lying on the rock. The giant asked where his mother and father were, but the waterbaby refused to answer. The giant pressed the waterbaby’s little fingers to see if it would scream, but the waterbaby never said a word. The giant pressed his little head, but the waterbaby did not even mumble. Again the giant asked, “Little boy, where is your mother and father?” The waterbaby said nothing. The giant pinched the waterbaby’s finger, saying, “You have a very little hand and pretty little body.” The waterbaby sat up and seized the giant by the forefinger. The giant exclaimed, “Let me go, you must have thought I was your dad or mother but I am not!” The giant tried to escape with his great strength, but it was useless. The waterbaby stood up, dragged the giant to the edge of Owens Lake, and threw him into the water. Then the waterbaby jumped in after the giant and took him down to the bottom. Years later, the waterbaby took the giant’s bones and threw them opposite the Alabama Hills, across the Owens River, which drains into the lake. The remains of the giant’s bones are still there, Baker informed the younger Paiute woman who recorded her story.

There are multiple meanings to this story, not only for the Owens Valley Paiutes but for all who have an interest in the Owens Valley. Scholars and folklorists know that such oral traditions are far from fantasy or quaint myths. Baker, seventy years old at the time, purposefully used the story to contemplate the history and consequences of a crucial event in California history. She concluded her narrative by saying that the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant still existed, but “It may be destroyed by the Los Angeles aqueduct builders. The waterbaby’s home may be still there. I do hope it’s there.”2


The aqueduct to which Susie Baker refers is, of course, the famous channel that siphoned water from the Owens Valley toward Los Angeles, and its construction was a seminal part of the Owens Valley Water Wars.

The Water Wars

A popular topic of study in California’s history, the Water Wars have inspired many books and the film Chinatown. Authors have used the Owens Valley saga to assess the environmental and economic causes and consequences of water diversion.3 Yet in too many of these histories, scholars ignore the Owens Valley’s Indigenous inhabitants. Paiutes may appear as static “first inhabitants” of the Valley, but then they disappear, allegedly conquered by Owens Valley “pioneers.” They were thought to have had little at stake in the Owens Valley Water Wars—a sentiment that Susie Baker refuted. Water and the conflict over this precious resource were on the minds of Owens Valley Paiutes when they told oral narratives in the 1930s.4

Beginning in 1905, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bought land and water rights from Owens Valley settlers. In 1913, the Department of Water completed an aqueduct that brought the water from Owens Lake and Owens River the 230 miles to Los Angeles. In the 1920s, conflicts between Owens Valley farmers and the City of Los Angeles developed. Drought had reduced the amount of water available for productive farming in the valley, and angry farmers attempted to sabotage the aqueduct. Eventually, the farmer rebellion failed and they sold more land and water rights to Los Angeles. By the 1930s, the city of Los Angeles owned 95 percent of the Owens Valley’s farm and ranch land.5 Through all this, the Paiutes and their oral traditions remained.


In 1935, anthropologist Alfred Kroeber of the University of California secured a state public works project grant and enlisted anthropology students to canvass the state and interview native peoples. Students Frank Essene, Frederick Hulse, and Abraham Halpern traveled to the Owens Valley to conduct their fieldwork. Anthropologists often hired younger Paiutes to interview and interpret the oral testimony of elderly Paiutes, which enabled Paiutes to control and shape historical and contemporary narratives. Many of these oral traditions involved or were related to water.

Oral traditions, those stories told for more than one generation that reflect social, economic, cultural, and political contexts, represent the ways in which indigenous people remembered and told their histories.6 Paiutes related their ethnogenesis to a specific river, which enunciated their relationship with water, and identified the location of springs as a way to define a historical consciousness that depends on place rather than chronology.7

Paiute oral traditions not only contemplate the past, they intentionally reflect and comment upon contemporary events. The diversion of water from the Owens Valley was one of the most important events in Paiute lives and politics, if not in all of California. Paiutes revised their oral traditions in a struggle between themselves and Anglo settlers over the meanings and consequences of Settler Colonialism in California.8 In their oral traditions, Paiutes argued that the war began at Paiute creation, not in 1905, when Frederick Eaton began to purchase land in the Owens Valley. The antagonist, rather than the City of Los Angeles, was more often than not the Owens Valley settler. And the ultimate victors in the wars may not have been the city of Los Angeles, but the Paiutes themselves—their systems of knowledge and their efforts to reclaim water.

Identity and water

At a basic level, Paiute oral traditions define Paiute identity. In the 1920s, George Collins, a Paiute man in his thirties or forties from Fish Springs, said that the Owens Valley Paiutes called themselves nün’wa paya hūp ca’á otūŭ’mu, “we are water ditch coyote children.” In one version of their creation story, Coyote the creator placed Paiutes next to the “water ditch,” or the Owens River, that runs through the Valley.9

Anthropologists lump Owens Valley Paiutes into the Great Basin cultural area and have attempted to define them by their language and economy. Paiutes speak Mono, a dialect of the Numic language mostly spoken in the present-day states of Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, and California. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe Paiutes settled the Owens Valley as early as 600 C.E., but archaeological evidence shows that indigenous people occupied the Valley 5,000 or perhaps 6,500 years ago. A common trait of Great Basin Indians was their ability to adapt a hunting and harvesting economy to the arid environment east of the Sierra Nevada and west of the Rocky Mountains.10

But whereas anthropological cultural areas, such as the “Great Basin,” identified practices that indigenous people of a specific region shared, and archaeologists endeavored to discern a specific time or date when Paiute culture appeared in the Owens Valley, Paiutes demonstrated the importance of place in their sense of self. Paiute ethnogenesis occurred next to a known and specific body of water; they were not “water ditch coyote children” until Coyote created or placed them next to the Owens River. Oral traditions explicitly linked Paiute identity to Paiute water, and water to Paiute worldview.


All things, especially water, are sentient in Paiute cosmology, with human emotions and abilities. In one story, a group of women are gathering basket-making materials near a lake at present-day Dyer, Nevada. The women foolishly begin to make fun of the water. Angrily, water leaps out of the lake and attempts to sweep them to the bottom.11 Although the lake fails to take its intended prey, water, like humans, feels insults and attempts to exact revenge for affronts.

Additionally, water possessed its own spirits, such as the waterbaby in Baker’s story.12 Often, waterbabies were troublesome sprites associated with bodies of water, such as lakes or rivers, although they also functioned as spirit helpers for healers. Another oral tradition relates that a group of children were playing at Pasasa’a (now known as Casa Diablo Hot Springs and home to a geothermal power plant). An impetuous boy begins to throw rocks into Pasasa’a, despite his peers’ warnings. A waterbaby emerges from the spring, abducts the boy and takes him under the water.13 Such stories about water revealed the way in which Paiutes understood and related to the world in which they lived—namely, that aspects of the physical world possessed access to supernatural forces. Moreover, these stories warned children of the real dangers of playing too close to springs, creeks, or lakes.

Paiutes animated water by imbuing it with puha, power or “a force or energy” that everything in the world possesses. Puha can have positive and harmful effects; it can be a generative or destructive force in the People’s lives. Yet the relationship between puha and water might be much more than just possessing power. The Paiute word for water—paya—sounds like puha, the word for power.14 A Southern Paiute man from Las Vegas described puha in liquid terms: it “flows into and down the sides of mountains.”15 The Paiute worldview accorded water an important role and place in the People’s lives.

The places of history

Paiute histories emphasize place, rather than chronology.16 Oral traditions and historical narratives move across space, not time; from place to place, not from date to date. Consider again the story of the giant, who traveled from one distinct place to another on the Owens Valley Paiute landscape. The giant walked from the Alabama Hills to Tinemaha to Tupueseenata and then returned to Owens Lake. Baker knew the exact location of the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant. Other stories about water, too, were clear about where they occurred. We know that the story of the basket-makers took place at Dyer, and the story of the children occurred at Pasasa’a. In the Owens Valley as well as the Yukon Territory, specific places serve as “anchors of memory,” linking human history to place.17 We don’t know when these stories occurred, but they are “true” from a Paiute perspective because they occurred at places known to historical and contemporary Paiutes.


Looking into the stories deeply, we see a narrative structure emerge that adheres to topographic features. In Paiute cosmology, high places such as the Alabama Hills or Tinemaha are associated with positive manifestations of puha. Hence, puha “flows down” from mountains. Benevolent spirits live on mountain peaks; doctors go to the tops of mountains to seek visions and puha itself. Low-lying areas, such as Owens Lake, Pasasa’a, and other bodies of water, usually (but not always) have negative manifestations of puha. Waterbabies emerge from water and snatch women and children. In between high and low areas are the plains, or Owens Valley itself, an area of stasis or what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan describes as “space.”18 Paiutes structure their oral narratives to replicate this understanding of their topography. Oral traditions begin in space, either on the plains or at the foot of the hills, and proceed to high or low places. The story of the giant originates at the foot of the Alabama Hills and then moves from named place to named place before the giant meets his end at Owens Lake.19 Other oral traditions about water adhere to this topographic narrative structure.

The Frog Sisters and Rattlesnake

Here is another story Susie Baker told in 1935: The Frog sisters lived at a spring. Rattlesnake, who lived about one mile or more away, planned to steal the spring away from them. He kept very close watch until he had a chance. One afternoon, when the Frog sisters were fast asleep and no one was around, Rattlesnake came down to the spring and drank as much as he could, holding the rest of the water in his mouth. He took every bit of the water in the spring and started for his home. He was about a half-mile away when the Frog sisters woke up and to their surprise found no water in their spring. They immediately investigated and guessed what had become of their water. They pursued Rattlesnake and saw him climbing up the hill. The Frog sisters followed him up the hill as fast as they could. Upon seeing the sisters in pursuit, Rattlesnake increased his speed, but as he ascended the mountain, he became tired, coughed, and spat out some of the water. He continued on his journey until the Frog sisters overtook him, stopped him, tickled him, and made him spit all the water he had in his mouth. The Frog sisters drank the water and took it back to their spring where they deposited the water in its rightful place.

This story embodies the topographic narrative structure that undergirded Paiute oral culture and history. As we can visualize, the story begins with Rattlesnake on the plains, moving down to the spring and stealing the water. Afterward, Rattlesnake climbs a hill, where the story’s positive resolution occurs. Additionally, Baker used the Paiute language to map the Owens Valley landscape. Baker identified the place where Frog sisters lived as ya qua java joh (Frog Spring). She called the place where the Frog sisters overtook Rattlesnake togo wamo cha qua tepu (Snake Spat Out).20

The Paiute landscape functioned as a mnemonic device, reminding Paiutes where valuable sources of water exist—essential knowledge in an arid environment.21 In 1935 Mattie Bulpitt, a ninety-five-year-old Paiute woman from Round Valley, told a variation of the Frog sisters and Rattlesnake story: “[Frog] owned a spring about five miles out, north of Big Pine and it still is there just below the state highway.” She also identified the locale of Snake Spat Out: “These willows can be seen still to this day near the top of the mountain just off the main state highway.”22 The places mentioned in Paiute oral traditions were not atavistic memories; they were meaningful locations that, on a daily basis, Paiutes saw and into which they invested meaning.

When Paiutes moved into the Owens Valley approximately 1,500 years ago, they grafted meanings on the area’s mountains, hills, valleys and waterways. These early Paiutes used language, stories and place names to create a home in the Owens Valley. They named the places in their homeland—the Owens Valley—in their own language: Mattie Bulpitt called the places “Frog Spring” and “Snake Spat Out.” With these oral and historical narratives, Paiutes transformed nebulous space into place and made a political claim on it. Naming a place is laden with power relationships and the act of naming generates debates over the meaning of those names.23

Early twentieth-century settler historians of the Owens Valley and Inyo County challenged Paiute ideas about history and the land. William Chalfant, a local news-paperman and contemporary in age to Susie Baker, wrote Owens Valley and Inyo County histories, constructing a usable past that glorified American settler colonialism.24 Settler histories use Indians as foils, introducing them as premodern people who gave way to civilized settlers. Chalfant dedicated his book “to the pioneers” and to his father, who was a “Pioneer of Inyo and [a] pioneer in endeavor[ing] for her moral as well as material growth.” Chalfant suggested that Paiutes failed to work for Owens Valley’s social and economic development. Then, he went so far as to deny Paiute indigenousness in two chapters on Paiute cultural practices, freezing them in the time in which they encountered Anglo settlers in the mid-nineteenth century, and denying them any history beyond. He argued that no one, not even the Paiutes, had occupied the Valley for long before Anglo Americans arrived. The Indigenous artists who made rock paintings in the Owens Valley, he claimed, were interlopers. He further argued that archaeological remains were the products of a “wandering warrior from some other region” and not of a long Paiute occupation. Finally, Chalfant provided detail into the process by which the Owens valley, river and lake received their name: Captain John C. Frémont named the area’s predominant features after a fur trading associate, Richard Owens.25 In the Owens Valley, as in southern New England, Settler naming-practices replaced “Indians in their homelands” and argued for the “indigeneity” of the Settlers themselves.26


Paiute oral traditions challenge Chalfant’s arguments. They argue that Paiutes had occupied the Owens Valley for a long time and possess a deep understanding of the area’s history through knowledge of places and what occurred there. Although “pioneers” had arrived in the Owens Valley and displaced the Paiutes—Mattie Bulpitt told her listeners—the place names, historical actors, and tellers of history remained. Although she did not explicitly refer to Chalfant’s work, likely, she and Susie Baker knew the meanings Settlers had embedded onto the Paiute landscape, and they refuted his arguments with their oral traditions. The story of Rattlesnake and the Frog sisters reasserted a Paiute landscape, known to them, defiant of American colonialism, which began in the 1850s.

Anglo colonialism and Paiute displacement

In the mid-nineteenth century, Anglo Americans arrived in the Owens Valley, which sparked conflict over natural resources. Jennie Cashbaugh, a seventy-year-old Paiute woman from Bishop, noted that “Trouble arose every now and then as the white people wanted more water.”27 American Settlers established a mining, pastoral, and agricultural economy in the Valley, which drained water from Paiute communities and resource areas. Conflict ensued as Paiutes clashed with miners, ranchers, and the military. In 1863, the California Volunteers forcibly removed nearly one thousand Paiutes to Fort Tejón.28 From there, federal officials relocated the Paiutes to the Tule River Reservation, near modern-day Porterville, California. By 1870, very few Paiutes remained at Tule River, for they had returned to the Owens Valley, but by that time, Anglo American farmers and ranchers had claimed much of the best land and water. Paiutes eked out a living by creating a mixed economy of wage labor, hunting, and using the little water available to irrigate gardens and small fields.29

Giving places Anglo American names signified the process by which Anglo Americans exerted rule over the region. Indeed, place-naming worked in concert with Settler economic practices and histories to erase Paiute histories and systems of knowledge. In the 1860s, Confederate sympathizers living in the Owens Valley named the Alabama Hills after the CSS Alabama, which sunk the Union ship Hatteras off the coast of Texas.30 Paiutes reclaimed such places by telling their own narratives about them. The Alabama Hills are not significant because they commemorate a Confederate naval victory, Paiutes tell listeners; they are important because they were the place from which the giant began his rampage and where, ultimately, he ended his journey and his exploitation of the People. Paiutes were not interlopers, recent arrivals or wandering warriors—they had a deep history in the Owens Valley.

An alternative history

If we continue to probe the sometimes murky meanings of oral tradition, other historical meanings and interpretations rise to the surface. Susie Baker deliberately ended the story of the giant with a reference to a contemporary event, that the rock on which the waterbaby waited for the giant “may be destroyed by the Los Angeles aqueduct builders.”31 Similarly, she concluded the story of Rattlesnake and the Frog sisters, “[ya qua java joh and togo wamo cha qua tepu] were springs at one time, but they are now dry.”32 In other words, in 1935, Frog Spring and Snake Spat Out no longer had water. Why not? Simply, someone had entered the Valley and drunk all the water.

Paiutes used their oral traditions to offer an alternative history of Paiute-American encounters and interpret the impact of those encounters on the water and, therefore, the People of the Owens Valley. “An enduring value of informal storytelling,” anthropologist Julie Cruikshank writes, “is its power to subvert official orthodoxies and to challenge conventional ways of thinking.”33 It is no surprise that the Paiutes called the Owens River the “water ditch,” for they irrigated the Owens Valley for centuries before Anglo Americans arrived. At a town Paiutes named pitana patü, near the modern-day town of Bishop, Paiutes used irrigation ditches to increase the growth of indigenous plants, such as nā’hāvīta (spike rush). In the spring, the town head man announced the beginning of the irrigation season, usually when snow runoff from the southern Sierra caused creeks to rise. Residents of pitana patü then elected or chose a tuvaijü’u, or irrigator, who led a corps of twenty-five men in building a dam out of rocks, brush, sticks, and mud on Bishop Creek. After completing the dam, the tuvaijü’u directed the water into the ditch, which fed northern and southern fields in alternate years.34 Stories about the “water ditch,” then, reposition Paiutes as the indigenous people of the Valley and those who had first used the water.

Owens Valley in the fall. PHOTOGRAPH BY FRANK KOVALCHEK.

Reframing time

Paiute oral traditions reframed the timing of events. The Owens Valley Water Wars did not begin when Los Angeles Department of Water and Power representatives bought land in the Valley. Rather, the wars’ genesis flows back to creation, when Coyote placed his children next to the “water ditch.” After that, Paiutes productively used Owens Valley’s water by irrigating fields of nā’hāvīta. Then, Anglo Settlers arrived in the Valley, who seemingly could never slake their thirst for water.

Although Los Angeles entered the Valley and preyed on water, Paiutes identified new “villains” or antagonists in this story. In many Owens Valley histories, Los Angeles and its representatives are the story’s bad guys.35 Paiutes told it differently. Jennie Cashbaugh actually had kind words for Los Angeles: “The city of Los Angeles is a different proposition all together,” she said. “They would meet the Indians part way, they realize they have made the Indians homeless and took their work from them, the means of bread and butter they had, just a living but today they are fair enough to compromise with the Federal Government so as to give better land to the Indians to at least make a living.”36 Los Angeles, according to Cashbaugh, promised to work with the Paiutes, something that Owens Valley settlers had never offered. Unlike the settlers, who also “made the Indians homeless,” Los Angeles promised to create a land base for the Paiute and provided jobs in 1930 and 1931 on city-owned ranches, roads, and waterways.37 Settlers, on the other hand, had marginalized Paiutes to the lowest rung of the region’s economic ladder and usurped the best land in the Valley.38 For Paiutes, settlers (the typical victims in Anglo histories of the Owens Valley), not Los Angeles, served as antagonists.


If Paiutes reframed the chronological narrative of the Owens Valley Water Wars and pointed to new adversaries, they also used their oral traditions to address the unique ways in which the Water Wars affected the People. The disappearance of water particularly harmed Paiute women. When Jennie Cashbaugh described the sedge plants Paiutes gathered, she remarked, “Nā’hāvīta is a taboose class of seed food, [it] cannot be found in the Owens Valley since the Valley went dry. The plant must have all dried up, never to grow again.”39 The development of a mining and pastoral economy in the Owens Valley, and Los Angeles’s siphoning of the Valley’s water, destroyed indigenous food sources, specifically those harvested by Paiute women, and harvesting indigenous plants grounded women’s identities: At Creation, the Paiute Father gave baskets to women in which they could gather plants.40 Without water, women could not perform this essential contribution to the family economy. (Paiute women found job opportunities as domestic workers and washerwomen, but they were poor substitutes for these lost resources.)41

The Los Angeles aqueduct also threatened Paiute systems of knowledge. The aqueduct threatened to destroy the places where Paiute oral traditions occurred. Passing the Alabama Hills in the Owens Valley, Paiutes remember that screaming giant. Passing the rock where waterbaby waited for the giant reminds them of waterbaby’s unusual service to the People. If those places ceased to exist, the history might disappear. Likely, Owens Valley Paiutes had another sobering thought in the 1930s: If the water disappears, what will become of the People? What will become of “water ditch Coyote children”? When Frog Spring and Snake Spat Out were dry, and nā’hāvīta no longer grew in the Owens Valley, the very identity of the People was threatened. In 1935 this was literally true, and it was the result of the colonization of the Owens Valley.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope in these stories, a thought that Paiutes may emerge victorious. The stories of the giant and of Frog sisters refer to a predator entering the Owens Valley, moving across the Paiute landscape and harming the People. Both the giant and Rattlesnake act in ways that mimic the actions of Los Angeles. When the giant walks from Alabama Hills to Tupueseenata, he comes from the direction of Los Angeles (south) and parallels the pattern in which Los Angeles purchased land in the Owens Valley, moving from the south to the north. The Frog sisters story likewise resembles the history of Paiutes, Anglo settlers, and Los Angeles. Someone—Paiute leaders, the Office of Indian Affairs, Owens Valley settlers—was asleep when Rattlesnake crawled into the Valley and stole the water. At this point, it certainly looked bleak for Paiutes and water, with murderous giants and thieving Rattlesnakes.42

The stories’ conclusions, however, offer a positive narrative for the future. For one, the giant story suggests that the Paiutes were prepared for Los Angeles. They already knew that violent and threatening beings could come from the south and invade the north. Paiutes also knew that they and their water had the puha to defeat these large monsters. In parable-like fashion, the oral tradition of the Rattlesnake pointed out the folly of greed. Rattlesnake took too much water, for he could not swallow all of it. He eventually lost all the water and the Frog sisters returned the water to its rightful place. In the end of both stories, diminutive, ostensibly powerless, characters reclaim the water and defeat powerful enemies. The small waterbaby throws the giant into the lake and devours him; the Frog sisters reclaim their water from poisonous Rattlesnake. Although things may have looked bleak in the oral traditions and in 1935 when the women shared these stories, the future need not be. Paiutes had faced large foes like this before and won; Paiute cultural heroes returned the water to its proper place.

In 1935, when Paiute women told these narratives, their leaders were negotiating with the United States and Los Angeles about the future of the Paiute nation. In the early 1930s, the federal government and Los Angeles had recommended removing the Paiutes from their homeland, from the site of the “water ditch” to a new reservation, near modern-day Merced, or to Nevada’s Walker River Reservation. In fact, many of the people interviewed in 1935, such as Cashbaugh and Bulpitt, were children when the federal government removed the Paiutes to Tejón at the end of the 1860s, and they told stories of that difficult experience. Los Angeles’ suggestion for removal resurrected those memories of the forced march to Tejón and the awful living conditions there and at Tule River.43

Between 1935 and 1937, federal officials held outdoor meetings in the Owens Valley to explain the situation to the People. Paiute women appeared at these meetings in equal numbers with Paiute men. Perhaps the stories they told their leaders energized them in their effort to reclaim land, water, and power. At any rate, the Paiute leaders, supported by their elders, insisted they were not leaving. Historian Steven Crum suggests that the Paiutes’ “deep attachment” to the Owens Valley galvanized their resistance to removal.44 Paiute history and oral tradition likewise bolstered their fight to remain near the “water ditch.”

In the end, Paiutes emerged victorious because they avoided removal and displacement. In the 1937 Land Exchange Act, Paiutes and the United States traded 2,914 acres of “previously allotted lands” to Los Angeles for 1,392 acres, which became the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine reservations.45 The Paiutes would remain next to the “water ditch” forever.

The story, however, did not end there. The Land Exchange Act provided for Paiute water rights, but the federal government failed to secure them from Los Angeles. As part of the exchange, Los Angeles had promised to provide 6,064 acre-feet of water to the Paiutes; but at the same time, the city insisted it could not transfer water rights to the Paiutes without a two-thirds vote by city residents. Moreover, the amount of water promised failed to meet the demands of a growing Paiute population and tribal economic development.46

In 1994, the Department of the Interior investigated the water rights issue, which is still open to debate. The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission—a consortium made up of the Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine Reservations—fights for water rights and, like their oral traditions, hopes for a positive future.47

In their oral traditions, Paiutes told an ethnohistory of water and water rights in Owens Valley, which detailed the destructive consequences of economic change and offered a critique of historical changes in the Valley. Seen in the context of a struggle over water and culture, these stories enable us to see ways in which Paiutes re-envisioned their past and made it usable for contemporary political struggles, providing a snapshot of Paiute interpretations of past, present, and future.

Other histories of the Owens Valley Water Wars have treated Paiutes as bit players, something akin to the background that the Alabama Hills offers for movies. Paiutes were not scenery to the story; they were central to the Water Wars, which threatened the very core of Paiute life. The stories tell us that small, seemingly powerless people can slay the giant and tickle Rattlesnake. Perhaps nothing is more valuable than these oral traditions as a tool for understanding Paiute history, politics, and culture, or as a guide to assist modern-day Paiutes in future struggles for natural resources.


I would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their excellent critiques of this essay and for pushing me to improve. I appreciate my friend Louis Warren for soliciting this essay for Boom. Charles Roberts shared research materials with me and directed me to important sources. Damon Akins, Laurie Arnold, Brian Collier, Duane Champagne, Steve Crum and Bridget Ford prodded me to think about this paper in new ways. I thank audiences at Stanford University, the University of California, Davis, and the University of Notre Dame for sitting through my lecture about Paiutes and water. Your questions improved this essay. The American Indian Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Center for Race and Ethnicity at Stanford University provided space and time for me to write.

1. The Alabama Hills have served as the scenic backdrop of Hollywood films, such as The Ox-Bow Incident, Joe Kidd, Star Trek Generations, Iron Man, and Django Unchained.

2. Susie Baker, Ethnological Documents of the Department and Museum of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, 1875–1958, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA, BANC FILM 2216, (hereafter ED), Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 296–98.

3. See Roman Polanski, dir., Chinatown (Paramount, 1974); William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict Over Los Angeles Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water, rev. ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993); Gary Libecap, Owens Valley Revisited: A Reassessment of the West’s First Great Water Transfer (Palo Alto: Stanford Economics, 2007); Abraham Hoffman, Vision or Villainy: Origins of the Owens Valley-Los Angeles Water Controversy (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2001).

4. There are correctives that include Paiutes in Owens Valley water history. See Nancy Walter, “The Land Exchange Act of 1937: Creation of the Indian Reservations at Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine, California, through a Land Trade Between the United States of America and the City of Los Angeles” (Ph.D. diss., Union Graduate School, 1986); John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); Andrew Franklin, “Desiccating a Valley and a People: The Effects of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power on Owens Valley and Its Inhabitants, 1924–1931” (M.A. thesis, California State University, Sacramento, 2000).

5. For an overview of the Owens Valley Water Wars, see Walton, Western Times and Water Wars, 131–97.

6. I follow Jan Vansina’s definition of an oral tradition: a “verbal message which are reported statements about the past beyond the present generation.” Jan Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 27. Rather than merely a personal recollection, Vansina suggests, oral traditions reach far deeper in time and are told with more consistency. Dakota scholar Waziyatawin adds that oral tradition also involves the process in which the story is relayed. Remember This!: Dakota Decolonization and the Eli Taylor Narratives (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 27.

7. Anthropology and ethnohistory have come a long way from the days in which Robert Lowie could dismiss oral traditions out of hand. I have been influenced by Marshall Sahlins, Islands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985); Peter Nabokov, A Forest of Time: American Indian Ways of History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995); see 1–28 for discussion of oral tradition and Lowie; Julie Cruikshank, The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998); Jonathan D. Hill, ed., Rethinking History and Myth: Indigenous South American Perspectives on the Past (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988).

8. Nabokov, A Forest of Time, 92. Peter Nabokov describes oral traditions as “mythic revisionings”: “rather than being closed systems of fixed symbols, if myths are to remain relevant and recited, they must be susceptible to internal tinkerings and updatings.”

9. Julian Steward, “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute,” University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33:3 (1933): 235, 234 for a description of Collins. By using the past tense (“called”), I do not mean to insinuate that the Owens Valley Paiutes no longer think of themselves as “we are water ditch coyote children.” Rather, they “called themselves” this name in the 1930s.

10. Sven Liljebald and Catherine S. Fowler, “Owens Valley Paiute,” Handbook of North American Indians, 17 vols., William Sturtevant, gen. ed., Warren D’Azevedo, vol. ed., (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institute, 1986), 11: 412–34; Steward, “Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute,” 233–38; Walter, “Land Exchange Act,” 31.

11. Mary Saulque and Emma Washington, ED, Reel 205–206, Item 205.3: 159.

12. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 296–98.

13. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152.4: 288–92.

14. For a concise overview of puha, see Jay Miller, “Basin Religion and Theology: A Comparative Study of Power (Puha),” Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 5:2 (1983): 66–86.

15. Richard Stoffle, Richard Arnold, Kathleen Van Vlack, Larry Eddy, and Betty Cornelius, “Nuvagantu, ‘Where the Snow Sits’: Origin Mountains of the Southern Paiutes,” in Landscapes of Origin in the Americas: Creation Narratives Linking Ancient Places to Present Communities, ed. Jessica Joyce Christie (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2009), 36, 38.

16. “Whether in physical reality or cultural memory,” anthropologist Peter Nabokov writes, “language, religion, and history always ‘took place.’” A Forest of Time, 131. Perhaps the best known book on the role of place and worldview is the fantastic work by Keith Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996).

17. Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, 17, 18.

18. Yi-Fu Tuan defines space as “that which allows movement.” Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 6. Here, too, I am influenced by Daniel Gelo’s exceptional work on how Comanches (also Numic speakers) view of the landscape. “Recalling the Past in Creating the Present: Topographic References in Comanche Narrative,” Western Folklore 53 (October 1994): 295–312.

19. For a similar narrative structure, see Gelo, “Recalling the Past in Creating the Present.”

20. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152: 321–22.

21. Basso, Wisdom Sits in Places, 15, 16. Basso notes that Western Apaches recognized that water too had left their homeland. Many Western Apache placenames referenced water existing in places that are now dry.

22. Mattie Bulpitt (Paiute), ED, Reel 149–52, Notebook 43: 336–38.

23. For helpful studies of place and power, see Tuan, Space and Place and Tim Cresswell, Place: A Short Introduction (Wiley-Blackwell, 2004). Historian Jared Farmer has put the theories of both scholars to good use in his history of place making in Utah: On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians and the American Landscape (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008).

24. Across the United States, local histories were instrumental in the construction of ideas about American Indians and westward expansion. Writing about southern New England, historian Jean O’Brien argues, “the local gave particular valence to the twinned story of non-Indian modernity and Indian extinction.” Jean O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xiv.

25. Willie Arthur Chalfant, The Story of Inyo (Published by the author, 1922), frontispiece, 8–41, 9, 10–13, 46–47.

26. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting, 56, 73.

27. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206

28. For a concise overview of removal, see George Harwood Phillips, ‘Bringing Them Under Subjection”: California’s Tejón Indian Reservation and Beyond, 1852–1864 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 248–49.

29. Walton, Western Times and Water Wars, 24–52; Sharon Dean, et al., Weaving A Legacy: Indian Baskets & the People of Owens Valley, California (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004), 23–26.

30. Erwin Gudde, California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographic Names, 4th ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998, 1949), 6. Anglo Americans named Tinemaha after a Paiute chief. Ibid., 394.

31. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–52, Item 152.4: 296–98.

32. Susie Baker, ED, Reel 149–152, Item 152: 321–22.

33. Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, xiii.

34. Steward, “Ethnography,” 247.

35. See especially Reisner, Cadillac Desert and Walton, Western Times and Water Wars.

36. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206.

37. Kahrl, Water and Power, 356.

38. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 198–206. For the Paiutes, events during the next couple of years ensured that they would remain in their homeland. In 1937, the Land Exchange Act created reservations at Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine. On behalf of the Paiutes, the federal government exchanged nearly 3,000 acres of land with the City of Los Angeles for nearly 1,400 acres of land. Questions remain about Paiute water rights, and modern-day Paiutes and scholars argue that the United States failed to protect Paiute water rights and fulfill its trust responsibility to the Paiute Nation. Walter, “Land Exchange Act.”

39. Jennie Cashbaugh, ED, Reel 153–155, Item 154, Notebook 31: 196–97.

40. Jim Jones, ED, Reel 149–152, Notebook 29: 129–33.

41. Walton, 25–27.

42. Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank notes that for Indigenous people of the Yukon Territory, “If one has optimistic stories about the past . . . one can draw on internal resources to survive and make sense of arbitrary forces that might otherwise seem overwhelming.” Julie Cruikshank, Social Life of Stories, xii.

43. For Owens Valley Paiute removal, see Steven J. Crum, “Deeply Attached to the Land: The Owens Valley Paiutes and Their Rejection of Indian Removal, 1863 to 1937,” News from Native California 14 (Summer 2001): 18–20. Crum also notes that in 1873, the federal government proposed returning the Paiutes from Owens Valley to Tule River. However, Owens Valley Settlers, who needed Paiute labor, blocked these efforts.

44. Crum, “Deeply Attached to the Land.”

45. Sharon Dean, et al, Weaving A Legacy: Indian Baskets & the People of Owens Valley, California (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2004), 31-33.

46. Walter, “Land Exchange Act,” 213, 379.

47. (accessed 1 August 2012).

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