Water Reinvigorates Museum

nhmla-feature-image-453x302This weekend the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles throws open its doors to celebrate its centenary and the completion of a major (and wonderful) renovation. There’s a big birthday bash planned, complete with food trucks and a performance by DEVO, the 1970s New Wave band from Ohio (why not?!), and even a giant gift waiting to be unwrapped—the museum’s glassy new entrance pavilion will be unveiled during Sunday’s celebration.

The museum opened, along with Exposition Park which surrounds it, with great fanfare and two weeks of celebration on November 7, 1913. During the two days before, the city celebrated another momentous opening: that of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which piped water to the city from the Owens Valley hundreds of miles north. The timing was no coincidence: a Celebration Commission produced a pamphlet promoting the two-day affair in honor of the “completion of two great institutions which are without peers in this or in any other country.” A site across from the museum’s entrance was dedicated that day in 1913 for a fountain, in commemoration of the aqueduct (though the fountain wasn’t actually built until 1929). With its gleaming new monument to arts and sciences and ample water supply now assured the city had not just arrived, but was going places.

Over the decades, the museum has changed names and grown, and evolved away from its watery history. Once closed, the original 1913 entrance is open again, but the primary way into the museum is now on the north side, facing a symbol of LA’s new future: the light rail Expo Line that opened last year. But the connection to water has not been forgotten.

As part of the renovations, an old parking lot has been transformed into three-and-a-half acres of gardens along the museum’s north and east sides. Opened to coincide with the new Expo Line’s opening day in 2012, the plants have had over a year to mature before this weekend’s celebration. One of the garden’s attractions is a large water feature designed to mimic Los Angeles’s water system. A pond on one end and an “urban water feature” where a sheet of water runs over stone are connected by a dry creek bed. The museum says it’s “a metaphor for LA’s waterways, whose seasonal streams disappear underground.” One end has become a popular gathering spot for birds, and the other for splashing children, if a recent visit is any indication.

Water is an integral part of Los Angeles’s natural history, and its place in the museum’s gardens is entirely fitting. It’s also a key part of the museum’s history, and it’s nice to see that link restored.

— Eve Bachrach

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Daniels,


Help Us Solve a Mystery?

Photo courtesy of The Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif.

Calling all Los Angeles neighborhood connoisseurs, local historians, and amateur detectives!

Where was this photo taken?

While working on our fall issue, which will focus on the 100th anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, we uncovered a curious photo album about the aqueduct at the Huntington Library. The album ends with this neat photograph of a woman watering her lawn at 1837 Canyon Drive in 1915. But which Canyon Drive? Can you help us pin this photograph to a map? We’d like to rephotograph the site for our fall issue.

Here’s another clue: The photo album features two men, W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver, who took a car trip along the L.A. Aqueduct just two years after its construction. We think it’s an interesting early example of the evolving attitude of Angelenos toward water, the southern California landscape, car culture, travel and tourism, photography, and even movies, but we’re thirsty for more information. Do you know where in the Los Angeles area we can find this 1837 Canyon Drive? Do you have any idea who W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver were, or the woman, who is identified only as “the Slacker,” who is “using the water” that came all the way from Owens Valley to water her lawn? Help us crack the case!

Leave a reply here or send editor Jon Christensen an email. See our contact page for his email address. Please let us know what your evidence is, and when we track down the address and re-photograph the site, you’ll get credit here on our blog and in print for helping us solve this mystery!

UPDATE: Mystery solved — and a family member revealed!

Thanks to our readers, we’ve been able to figure out a lot about 1837 Canyon Drive, the aqueduct explorers, and the “Slacker” watering her lawn. The home was in Hollywood, but has since been demolished and replaced with a modern apartment building. W. H. Frick and J. G. Oliver are William Henry Frick and Julius Goodwin Oliver, and the woman watering her lawn is Oliver’s niece, Lillian, who lived with him. And most exciting of all, Ann Campbell, a relative of Oliver and Frick, heard about our search and reached out to us. She has allowed us to share some of her family photographs, including the one above.

Watch for our Fall 2013 issue of Boom, when we will tell more about their photographic expedition and publish the full photo album online!

Annie Powers


Songs in the Key of L.A.

Songs in the Key of Los Angeles, by Josh Kun (Angel City Press)

Last year the L.A. band Best Coast appropriated an image from “I Love You California,” a song published in 1913, for their album “The Only Place.” A grizzly bear stands on its hind legs warmly cuddling the state on the cover of Best Coast’s CD as well as the sheet music published a century ago. History doesn’t repeat, it turns out, but it does rhyme. Best Coast’s song “The Only Place” is a catchy burst of boosterism worthy of joining the great catalog of music that has been asking essentially the same question — “Why would you live anywhere else?” — for a very long time.

Josh Kun — an editorial board member and contributor here at Boom — has mined the sheet music collection of the Los Angeles Public Library for a multiplatform project called “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” that explores this musical love affair. One product of the project is this lavish book featuring colorful evocative covers of dozens of songs spanning just over a century from 1849 to 1959. Six songs are featured in their entirety, including lyrics and musical notation.

But it is not the music that grabs you here. The covers steal the show. Kun writes that images of southern California on sheet music covers are “nearly indistinguishable” from historical images found on orange crates, tourism pamphlets published by the Southern Pacific railroad, and the brochures of real estate boosters. The product for sale on sheet music covers was not just a song, but Los Angeles itself, Kun writes, a product made up “of Mission myths, Spanish romance, endless orange groves, and the promise of a healing Mediterranean climate.” Oranges abound, of course, along with flowers, beaches, cozy cottages, lots of sun, and, naturally, plenty of pretty girls. “Summer ever lingers on the air” in one song — “Glorious Southern California” — from 1907. “This is now the only place for me,” the song says. Was Best Coast listening? “This is the only place for me,” they sing more than a century later.

Despite the vivacious art of the sheet music covers, however, the songs in this book seem sadly inert simply sitting on the page in an age when we mostly consume music directly through our ears, often without any text or artwork at all, the album cover having now become a historical artifact, like the sheet music cover before it, with CD covers likely to suffer the same fate. What do these “Songs in the Key of Los Angeles” sound like, then? With the help of arrangers such as Van Dyke Parks, who has an essay in this book too, Kun will be bringing some of these songs to life in a series of events this summer in Los Angeles, including a concert July 18 with the band Quetzal at the Mark Taper Auditorium at the Central Library, and a free concert with the band Ozomatli in Grand Park on August 2. Tune in to Kun’s Tumblr blog — — for news of other events and regular postings of additional archival musical finds from the Los Angeles Public Library’s sheet music collection and elsewhere.

Jon Christensen


What We Are Reading

Birds of Paradise Lost, by Andrew Lam (Red Hen Press)

These short stories by Vietnamese-American essayist Andrew Lam open doors on unexpectedly intimate scenes, moving stories, told in surprising voices. In his nonfiction, Lam has plumbed the depths of his own experience as a refugee who came to the United States as a young boy and grew up gay in San Jose’s conservative Vietnamese émigré community. He has used his own hard-won insights to write widely and wisely about immigration, culture, politics, identity and so much more. His own voice is a true gift to California and the world. Here he brings to life other Vietnamese-American voices, their Californias, their worlds. Lam’s fiction weaves the pitch-perfect perceptiveness of his nonfiction, with slightly cracked characters all the more believable for their idiosyncrasies, and a touch of magical realism that may or may not be the result of living fully, simultaneously between worlds, with the past ever present.

Jon Christensen


Frontier Diaries

by Molly McCarthy

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

Transporting the daily habits of home

No matter how they got there—over land, by sea, or by a circuitous combination of both—western migrants in the rush that followed the whiff of gold at Sutter’s Mill often found their baggage lighter at the end of their long journey. Some blamed the elements. For Stephen Chapin Davis on board the steamship Philadelphia in July 1850, the enemy was weather. After enduring four days of a wretched storm, Davis complained in his diary of “not having anything dry on board” and that all his possessions, even his food, had “been soaked in salt water.”1 Weather and other hindrances routinely conspired against ambitious travelers hoping to transport the trappings of home to new outposts out West. Forced into hard and often wrenching decisions, travelers unloaded possessions along the way. The more portable the keepsake, the more likely it was to survive the grueling trek.

This may help explain the ubiquity of a particular kind of diary in collections of western Americana. Known colloquially in the mid-nineteenth-century as a pocket diary, today we’d call it a daily planner. Although it had roots in the colonial almanac, its printed contents appeared more modern, with features such as calendar pages, postal rates, interest tables, and preformatted sections devoted to daily diary entries and cash accounts. The title page of a Kiggins & Kellogg edition from New York read “Daily Pocket Diary for the year 1858: for the Purpose of Registering Events of Past, Present, and Future Occurrence.” It might seem ephemeral from our vantage point, but these unassuming stationery items were not just a matter of convenience or making do with whatever was at hand. They were brought along with commitment and conviction, carrying as much weight as a cherished tea set or family Bible. Published and printed in distant cities such as Boston and New York and containing features keyed to those locales, the daily planner allowed migrants to maintain ties to the places they left behind and to transplant entrenched cultural habits to their new homes.

John Mason, an overland immigrant, purchased his 1858 Pocket Diary published by Kiggins & Kellogg when he had already been living in California nearly four years. Enduring the overland trek from St. Louis and along the California trail, he had arrived in Sacramento in June 1855 and found work on river steamers heading in and out of Sacramento. On an end leaf of the three-by-four-inch volume with a foldover or “tuck” closure, he penciled a simple inscription, a mark of ownership: “John T. Mason, Sacramento.”2 While it’s unclear where Mason bought the diary, the real mystery is why. What was the use of having a diary whose monthly calendar pages contained the times of sunrise and sunset for New York, or advertisements for the wide selection of books and stationery in Kiggins & Kellogg’s new storefront at “123 and 125 William Street, Between John and Fulton Sts.”? Perhaps Mason was a New York native and, like rereading a cherished letter from home, found comfort in having a diary printed in his hometown. But a nostalgic attachment to the symbols of home alone cannot explain how frequently these diaries turn up in the archives.

James and Madilia Scofield, cousins in southern Connecticut before each set out separately for California in 1849, became husband and wife five years later in 1854. By that time, Scofield had abandoned any hope of striking gold and opened a general store in Stockton selling miner’s supplies and household goods. Like Mason, both Scofields preferred a New York-manufactured datebook to anything local. Year after year, until their eventual return to Connecticut (after making their fortune!), the Scofields remained loyal customers of the Daily Pocket Diary . . . for the Use of Private Families and Persons of Business, Published Annually for the Trade. The title continued on, listing the diary’s key features such as a banking table, counting-house calendar, and a “blank space for memorandums for every day in the year.”3

The real mystery is why.

In Auburn Ravine, 1852

Many frontier settlers such as these pictured in Auburn Ravine, circa 1852, transplanted their diaries and the habits that accompanied them from homes back east.


For customers like the Scofields, the decision to purchase a New York planner over a blank book or local almanac may have been for lack of alternatives. It took some time for West Coast cities such as San Francisco and Sacramento to rival the variety and sophistication of the publishing output of Eastern firms. Apart from travel manuals, local newspapers, and a variety of regional almanacs, Western cities turned out a limited print fare at mid-century. Most guides were published in St. Louis or Cincinnati, cities that had a much more vibrant publishing scene. The Great Western Almanac for 1846 was published by Joseph McDowell in Philadelphia, of all places. Sloan’s Almanac and Traveler’s Guide for 1851 was published by W.B. Sloan at 40 Lake Street in Chicago. Some western publishers partnered with eastern firms to put out even the most basic print matter. In order to publish The Prairie Almanac for 1857, Thomas Orton, proprietor of the Western Book Emporium in Davenport, Iowa, teamed up with a New York firm and borrowed copy from the United States Almanac for that year. Likewise, The California Almanac for 1849 had San Francisco on its title page but was printed by George Rand in Boston. Nelson Slater, originally of Champlain, New York, now of Sacramento, collaborated with P.L. Platt to write The Traveler’s Guide Across the Plains, Upon the Overland Route to California.4 Nevertheless, the limited variety in Western bookstores seems inadequate to justify the lengths customers were willing to go to import a daily planner from back East.


Diaries bridged the distance

For a long time, I puzzled over the prevalence of these commercial diaries in collections of Western migrants. They certainly delivered on those virtues suitable for the traveler, such as portability and durability, which was a big part of their appeal. But the reference matter was all wrong, having more to do with the world they left behind than the one ahead. They contained monthly calendar pages with tide tables and calculations for Boston and/or New York, railroad tables with New York as its origin. I soon realized that the popularity of this Eastern diary represented more than convenience. The daily planner shrank the distance between coasts, mentally if not physically. It allowed the Scofields to imagine they were closer to Connecticut and helped them replicate what they left behind with a portable, inscribable symbol of home.

Mary Carpenter Diary, 1861

Diaries such as this one published in New York in 1861 are not uncommon in the collections of western immigrants.


The daily planner was the material embodiment of a cultural habit of daily record keeping that could be traced to the Protestant pledge to “improve the time.” The serially dated spaces in a prefabricated diary had a way of making one persevere with the daily task of “keeping account,” whereas a blank page in a journal could be more forgiving of the passage of time. Madilia Scofield confessed as much when she noted in April 1856 that she’d neglected to write in her journal for several days “on account of sickness.” However, she did manage to record a few lines in her daily register in hopes “that I may improve [the time] in a proper maner.”5

The kind of diary the Scofields chose was key to the process of making California feel, at least for them, more like Connecticut.

The order and regularity embedded in the diary’s format helped them transplant some of their Yankee values to a new, foreign, and oftentimes dangerous place. James Scofield acknowledged such perils when he recorded on 10 February 1854, that he had attended a murder trial. While he wished “the poor fellow a merciful sentence,” James admitted that “some rigid examples are necessary to break up the wanton use of fire arms.” The habit of keeping a daily diary was just one more convention the Scofields brought with them to their new home. In keeping that daily account, they recorded for posterity all those other customs they refused to forego, such as making calls on New Year’s Day, receiving visitors for tea, or attending Sunday services and lyceum lectures. Even April Fool’s Day was observed, as Madilia noted in 1856: “This is the first day of April. A day devoted by some to fool makeing. I believe the practice is quite prevalent here.”6

Just as the Scofields seemed intent, despite the new terrain, on maintaining their Yankee rituals of New Year’s Day visits and afternoon tea, John Mason peppered his diary entries with mentions of outings to the theater, buying “segars,” and attending “church.” Apart from the inscription that placed him firmly in Sacramento, a reader might not even realize what town or city Mason was writing in. There were but a few clues, such as the anomalous note that he’d given “25” cents to an “indian,” that Mason resided anywhere west of the Mississippi. He even chose to commemorate significant events of the American Revolution at the opening of his 1858 Pocket Diary: “the Battle of Lexington,” “Richmond destroyed,” the “battle of cowpens,” and “peace declared with Gt Brit.” It didn’t make him any less patriotic, or American, that he’d gotten many of the dates wrong.

In similar fashion, James Scofield remembered the day, 8 January, on which the final battle of the War of 1812 was fought in a blank space reserved for that day in his 1855 diary. He wrote: “To-day is the anniversary of the battle of New Orleans. No demonstration of whatever kind in this city.”7 James’s memorial to the final battle of the War of 1812 affirming America’s independence and opening up the settlement of the West reflects his sense of a shared history, though one not nearly as universal as in Connecticut. James seemed shocked that the anniversary passed unnoticed in Stockton. It is just this sense of communal history, tradition, and values that the pocket diary affirmed for customers like Mason and the Scofields. Although far from home, their loyalty to this commercial product signified that they were not willing to abandon their places of origin. Just because they were removed from the urban centers of the East to an outpost experiencing its first turbulent years of statehood did not make them any less American.

It took a few years for Bancroft to realize the significance of the transplanted publication.

The Bancroft Company, operating from its Market Street headquarters, published a commercial diary to rival Eastern brands and provide California with a daily planner all its own.

Illustration by Charles John Dickman.


Not until after the Civil War did West Coast publishers begin producing a commercial diary similar to those brands emigrants had carried with them. By that time even John Mason had replaced his New York-made diaries with a California “original,” Bancroft’s Diary for 1872 Containing Useful Memoranda, and Tables for Reference. Nearly twenty years after Hubert Howe Bancroft first arrived by steamer in San Francisco with a consignment of books and stationery, his brother A.L. Bancroft, entrusted with the business his brother had built, erected a five-story edifice to the family’s publishing empire at 721 Market Street, and announced that the “business has been remodeled to conform to the new order of things. It is selling goods upon the lowest possible margin of profits. Satisfaction guaranteed. The public are cordially invited to visit the new premises.”8

It may be no coincidence that this announcement appeared as an advertisement on the back page of Bancroft’s Diary for 1872, a California-branded diary viewed as an extension of Bancroft’s vision for “the new order of things.” Bancroft could hardly take credit for the design, a blatant copy of the formula Eastern publishers had found so successful and lucrative. That meant the basics were essentially the same, with calendar and diary sections formatted exactly as the Kiggins & Kellogg’s versions decades earlier. Only now Bancroft’s diaries, which included many different styles denoted as “No. 306,” and such, along the binding, were outfitted with data tailored for the local populace: fire alarm stations and hack fares for San Francisco, locations of the city’s public offices and buildings, monthly tide tables for San Francisco, distance tables from San Francisco to various points in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay, and a complete table of US stamp duties including the California Stamp Tax. Although not new or original, California finally got a diary all its own. It took a few years for Bancroft to realize the significance of the transplanted publication. In 1875, he applied to Congress for a copyright and renamed Bancroft’s Diary the Pacific Coast Diary.9

Title page of a Bancroft diary modeled after popular East Coast brands.


By that time, the Scofields had decamped and returned to Connecticut. John Mason, however, converted to the Pacific Coast brand after abandoning river work and becoming a rancher in Colusa County. Others followed suit, such as Boston native John Thomas, who emigrated to California in 1857 and turned to lumbering after failing as a prospector. In addition to two large account books, Thomas kept daily records of deliveries, his health, and the weather in annual editions of the Pacific Coast Diary from 1874 to 1885. A.G. Peyton, a wood-chopper, trapper, and pit worker, used the daily entries in his Pacific Coast Diary for 1875 to detail payment for various odd jobs in mining camps in Humboldt County. Even Nelson Slater, author of the 1852 edition of The Traveler’s Guide Across the Plains, was using a Pacific Coast Diary by 1876 after settling in Sacramento as a minister and school administrator.10 Once it was adopted by Bancroft’s prolific publishing house, the daily planner became more attuned to the needs of those newcomers to the Pacific Coast, the settlers who turned gold fields and port cities into centers of commercial and cultural exchange.

The popularity of this stationery product, a European-bred symbol of order and regularity, amongst the gold miners and fortune seekers in early California seems paradoxical—until we read them. The accumulation of mundane, daily entries reveal how critical and powerful these commercially-printed products could be in conveying a sense of place, both old and new. For these California transplants, the choice of a daily planner was consequential, not casual, and instrumental to their efforts to settle into the rhythms of a life in the West.


1. William Benemann, ed., A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849–1850 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), x.
2. John T. Mason diaries, 1849–1888, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
3. James M. Scofield papers, 1823–1923, American Antiquarian Society (AAS).
4. Sloan’s Almanac, Great Western Almanac, and The Prairie Almanac in the Graff Collection, Newberry Library; The California Almanac for . . . 1849, Ayer Collection, Newberry Library; and Nelson Slater and Henrietta Slater McIntire papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
5. Madilia Scofield 1856 diary, James M. Scofield Papers, AAS. To put these entries into broader, historical context, see Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and the English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). See also Alexis McCrossen, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000).
6. James M. Scofield papers, AAS.
7. John T. Mason diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; and James M. Scofield papers, AAS.
8. The business records of A.L. Bancroft & Co., including samples of the “Pacific coast diaries,” are located at the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
9. John T. Mason diaries, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
10. John Thomas diaries and account books, 1874–1885; A.G. Peyton diary, 1875; Nelson Slater and Henrietta Slater McIntire papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.


California’s Voter Registration Rates

by Mindy Romero and Jonathan Fox

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

Up but uneven

A review of California’s most recent voter registration rates sends mixed messages.1

The Good News: Current State Registration Rates Are Higher than in 2008

Current state registration rates are at their highest levels since 1996.

A comparison of September 2012 state registration figures with those of four years ago shows statewide registration rates have increased over two points, from 70 percent to 72.6 percent of eligible voters.2

Campaigns matter. During campaign seasons, the combination of media attention and grassroots outreach can significantly increase registration rates. In 2008, registration rates rose 4.8 points to 74.6 percent between September and election day.

The Bad News: Registration Rates Are Very Uneven Across the State’s Counties

California registration rates are among the lowest in the nation.3

Fewer than three out of four California citizens are registered to vote.

In many counties, especially in the Central Valley, only two out of three citizens are registered to vote. In a few coastal counties, the rate is closer to four out of five (see figure 1). For example, the voter registration rate in San Joaquin County is 65.2 percent, while the rate in Orange County is 83.8 percent.

Figure 2 demonstrates that in nearly half of the state’s counties, registration rates actually decreased, particularly in the southern Central Valley (Mariposa –5.5 percent, Tuolumne –4.5 percent, Madera –3.7 percent, and Tulare –2.4 percent).

The map’s striking geographic imbalance reflects the well-known relationship between voter registration rates and voter income. The state’s wealthiest counties have the highest voter registration rates: Marin, Orange, Santa Cruz, and those situated in the Sierra Foothill/Tahoe area. The lowest registration rates are in the counties with the highest poverty levels, including Fresno, Merced, Tulare, and San Bernardino. Ultimately, these disparities in registration leave wealthier and more educated populations with significantly more representation in the state’s electorate.

Voter registration rates by county: September 2012 snapshot.

Update: By the close of the final 2012 deadline, statewide voter registration rates reached 76.7% (up 2.1% over 2008). The new online registration system had been up and running for only a month before the October 22 deadline.

Voter registration trends, comparing 2008–2012: who’s up, who’s down?

Solutions: How to Reduce Barriers to Registration

These uneven registration trends also reflect the capacity of county election authorities to actively register their citizens. Key questions remain with regard to the reach and extent of voter registration outreach efforts, particularly in counties with declining rates. A recent blue-ribbon commission report, Roadmap for the Future of California Elections, suggests multiple actions are needed in order to achieve a more informed and representative electorate across the state.4 These recommendations include:

Establish same-day voter registration

Automatic registration when citizens are eligible—evaluate available opportunities

Youth registration—evaluate opportunities to implement “preregistration” at age 17

Establish comprehensive civic education, with special emphasis on the importance of voting—to be utilized by schools and the media

Seek additional public and private support for California voter outreach, education, and registration

Provide the opportunity for newly naturalized citizens to submit their voter registration forms at naturalization ceremonies

California’s Registered Voter Turnout Trends—The Importance of Registration Rates

Voter turnout is understood in two different ways. The easiest to measure is turnout as a share of already-registered voters. For understanding who is represented in our electorate, the more accurate indicator is voter turnout as a share of eligible voters. The following graph demonstrates the historical turnout trends for California’s electorate, seen through both of these lenses. Over the last forty years, registered turnout in the state has fluctuated significantly. State voter turnout rates have also varied significantly by county. A key contributor to these uneven turnout rates is the state’s ability to successfully register voters across its counties, ultimately impacting democratic representation.


1. Current California voter registration rates. 60 Day Report of Registration, September (2012), California Secretary of State.
2. Change in California voter registration rates from September 2008 to September 2012. 60 Day Report of Registration, September (2008, 2012), California Secretary of State.
3. “Roadmap for the Future of California Elections,” James Irvine Foundation (2012).
4. Ibid.<


WUI Space

by Howard V. Hendrix

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

The language of exurbia

What does WUI (often pronounced “woo-ee”) mean to you? If you immediately recognize those letters as an acronym for “Wildland-Urban Interface,” odds are good you’re a Californian who does not live in one of our state’s urban cores. If the term WUI conjures images of CalFire and Forest Service firecrews fighting blazes in grasslands and forests, then you probably know firsthand some of the risks of living beyond the easy-access comfort zone of city services.

WUI (the “I” sometimes standing for “intermix” rather than “interface”) is part of a special vocabulary—the parlance of exurbiA&Mdash;that I’ve had to learn since moving into the Sierra Nevada. I didn’t move to the mountains to learn about urban or rural sprawl, the rural/urban fringe, or edge effects. I didn’t move here to learn about the WUI as that space where buildings (usually residences) face off or intermingle with wildland vegetation. That’s the simplest and most straightforward definition of the term, but also one that does not begin to do full justice to the complexities of that space. I moved here because I wanted to live in a place where, on clear, moonless nights, I could see the dense river of stars called the Milky Way. I wanted not so much to look down on city lights as to look up at stars. That was the space I was interested in. To cultural geographers that makes me an “amenity migrant,” although I must admit that reducing the whole of the visible universe to an amenity—to something merely conducive to the attractiveness and value of a piece of real estate—strikes me as trivializing in the extreme.

Aerial view of wildland-urban interface (WUI).IMAGE COURTESY OF NATIONAL PARKS SERVICE.

Despite myself, I have learned about more here than the names of constellations. I have had to learn to see the trees for the forest, the specific details that get lost in phrases like “wildland-urban interface.” I have had to recognize that the WUI is a boundary zone for many conflicts between human beings and our environment in California: not just wildland fires but also habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and biodiversity decline. Encroaching air and water pollution. Mountain-lion kills of pets and other domesticated animals (and yes, sometimes people). The toxic waste and toxic politics surrounding guerrilla marijuana grow-sites and methamphetamine labs—including law enforcement agencies’ widespread use of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft surveillance, and the proposed use of drones. When I look through the lens of the wildland-urban interface, what I increasingly see in its details is not so much some idyllic past now disappearing, but rather a foreshadowing of the future that forces me to reexamine my understanding of words like “diversity” and “urban.”

Initially, I found it strange that “urban” is a part of the term for this particular interface. I have lived in Riverside and Fresno Counties in ethnically, racially, and socio-economically mixed “urban” neighborhoods, as well as in locales commonly understood to be “suburban,” “rural,” and “exurban.” I thought that I knew what those words in scare-quotes meant. I seem to have been wrong.

What, for instance, is “urban” as opposed to “rural” or “exurban”? Urban and regional planners, demographers, cultural geographers, political ecologists, and rural sociolo-gists have been debating those definitions, and the issues and impacts surrounding them, for fifty years. Yet the matter still continues to be worth debating. For all of us, understanding those terms more deeply tends to lead us away from the idea that we can take for granted the characteristics of the places where we actually live, work, and play. Moreover, how a locale is defined has many practical consequences—from the ratio of grocery stores to liquor stores, to how government funding is distributed, to how corporations market their wares to residents (and which corporations will choose to do so).

Satellite image of California at night. IMAGE COURTESY OF WWW.NIGHTEARTH.COM

Yes, it’s true that to define is inherently to exclude and oversimplify, but like the experts we should at least attempt to define the problem before we set about problematizing the definition. So, to begin: Of California’s nearly 38 million people, only 800,000 (about 2 percent) are defined as “rural” by the USDA; the rest are “urban.” My wife and I are members of a still more nuanced geographic minority—Californians who live in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We number about 600,000, mostly in rural and exurban communities, but with a few suburban-style resort developments in the mix, too.

Fires from undeveloped land may impinge similarly upon all of these, but even if one considers urban, suburban, rural, and exurban as points along a continuum rather than clearly bounded regions, there are still a lot of differences among them.

Unlike the suburbs’ subdivisions and planned commu-nities, with their limited variety of approved home models on lots generally smaller than an acre, the lot sizes where I live mostly run five acres and more. This makes my neighborhood exurban, if one agrees with the geographers that exurban housing densities are one housing unit per one to forty acres. Architectural styles of residences in my exurban neighborhood, too, tend to be unregulated beyond basic county-permitting requirements.

Image source: Radeloff, U.C. et al. “The Wildland-Urban Interface in the United States,” Ecological Applications 15, 2005.

Suburban developments are generally regulated by covenants or similar agreements. Most are served by paid professional city firefighters, police, and emergency services, as well as by publicly funded roads, water, and sewage systems. In exurbia, where we live, there are fewer covenants and residents are likely as not to have their own water systems (usually wells), their own “sewage” systems (septic tanks and leach fields), and their own privately maintained roads. Law enforcement is more likely to involve the county sheriff and state highway patrol, and fire protection is more likely to be provided through county fire districts, volunteer fire departments, and CalFire.

Suburbs tend to grow houses where there were formerly orchards and row crops, but the land where I live (which the local real estate agents like to call “resort property”) was previously used for grazing and timber. That in itself might be a good way to distinguish between rural and exurban: “Rural” as historically and/or presently characterized by the large-scale row cropping of the farmer, and “exurban” suggesting far less a history, or ongoing presence, of large-scale row crop agriculture, and more pronounced historical connections to the worlds of the miner, the lumberjack, the shepherd, and the cowboy. Yet even here the boundary between rural and exurban stays fuzzy, given that community gardens, backyard orchards, vineyards, and marijuana plantings—not to mention chicken coops, horse paddocks, and cow pasturage—are not unknown in exurban areas. While our exurbia is exhaustively described by neither the genteelly pastoral “Appellation: California” nor by the grimly pejorative “Appalachian California,” those terms nonetheless do suggest realities readily seen here, often cheek by jowl with one another.


Peter Walker and Louise Fortmann, in their 2003 article “Whose Landscape? A Political Ecology of the ‘Exurban’ Sierra,” find in their Nevada County study a situation of “competing rural capitalisms”—of conflicts between what Raymond Williams termed “practical” versus “aesthetic” or “production” versus “consumption” landscapes. The “old” resource extraction-based capitalism (timber, grazing, farming, mining) is an obstacle to the “new” aesthetic consumption-based capitalism (recreational tourism and rural residential real estate development). In my own neighborhood, the shift from the old capitalism to the new was less a “conflict” than a hand-off. Hereabouts, the largest local subdivision-style development was on land once owned, and then subdivided, by an out-of-state timber company, subsequently rebranded an “energy” company, which in turn sold the subdivision plans to local real estate developers.

Cultural geographers often get around the whole “what was grown or extracted when” question by referring to exurbia as “post productivist”—as Laura Taylor does in her 2009 landmark overview, “No Boundaries: Exurbia and the Study of Contemporary Urban Dispersion,” wherein she defines exurbanites as “city people who have deliberately chosen the rural landscape as a setting for their homes” and who “commute by cars, trains, planes, and Internet to one (or more) cities and suburbs for work, shopping, and entertainment.” She writes that “Exurbia captures the phenomenon of very-low-density, amenity-seeking, post-productivist residential settlement in rural areas.” Some of my neighbors are among those Internet circuit-riders called telecommuters, of whom it might be said that they do not so much go to the city as have the city and its ethos come to them—but more on that later.

View of Fresno from Pine Ridge. PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES PARR.

Such distinctions in any case miss out on details that are just as important, such as the fact that where I live the mailbox is not within walking distance, taking out the trash involves a pickup truck, and one of the best off-label uses for a pellet gun is plinking soot off the screen of a woodstove’s chimney cap. Moreover, a homeowner benefits from knowing how a couple of tennis balls in a mesh laundry bag attached to a long pole can be used to plug from the inside the outlet of a 3,000 gallon water storage tank. The homeowner can then remove the freeze-cracked ball valve from said outlet without draining said tank.

I include these details not to make the place where I live sound “folksy” or “quaint” or somehow “exotic,” but merely to mention realities I have experienced. Many of my neighbors and I have also come to know the “dark side of exurban living (constant debt, physical fatigue of commuting, dissonance between the dream of country living and the labor of its reality)”—as Taylor writes of A.C. Spectorsky’s warnings in his 1955 book The Exurbanites. As with so many other complex matters, when it comes to defining the “urbs”—including the “sub” and the “ex”—there is more than one way to peel the onion.

CalFire and the Forest Service have their own functional definitions of “urban” and “wildland,” which understandably emphasize different details than those I’ve just mentioned. The fire services’ WUI works well enough but is perhaps too broad and big-picture—too much “forest,” too little “trees.” It would be just as functional (and admittedly just as problematic) to say that, since the modern city is most characterized by night-banishing artificial light, the city ends where the Milky Way begins. When one is far enough beyond the influence of streetlights and all other forms of light pollution to be able to see our planet’s neighborhood—several of our solar system’s other planets and myriad stars of the actual galaxy in which we live—then we’re not in an urban area anymore.

Add light pollution, then, to the WUI conflicts of wildland fires, habitat fragmentation, invasive species, and biodiversity decline. Yet there are other types of “diversity decline” that should also concern us, beyond biology and astronomy.

During my twice-a-week commute to California State University, Fresno, where I teach, I see a diversity of landscapes and land uses. I pass logging trucks, cattle ranches, rock quarries, orange groves, suburban tract developments, and industrial and manufacturing concerns. Once I arrive on campus, I encounter a different type of diversity. My students are quite diverse economically and ethnically. They hail from almost everywhere, represent a broad range of class strata, and are as likely to be Hispanic, African American, Hmong, or Punjabi, as Northern European-descended Caucasian.

Yet underlying this apparent diversity is also a growing homogeneity. In 2008, for the first time ever, more human beings found themselves living within urban areas than outside them, according to geographers and demographers. When it comes to designating where the urban world ends and the nonurban world begins, these experts put forward even more numerous conflicting interpretations of that boundary than firefighters or starry-eyed writers do—but it’s clear that the trend of global urbanization is accelerating. When the experts write that 70 percent of all human beings are projected to live in urban areas by 2050, I see no reason to quibble. Although it took more than ten thousand years for cities to reach the 50 percent threshold, it will only take slightly more than forty years to cover the next 20 percent. If this trend continues, sometime in the next century the percentage of the global human population living outside cities will become vanishingly small.


Despite the apparent diversity of urban residents, many a seasoned traveler will tell you that, if you really want to know a region’s people, visit the countryside rather than the big cities. In one paradoxical respect, however, city and countryside are not so different. Agriculture made human settlement possible, and now human settlement curiously recapitulates agricultural practice, particularly the preference for monoculture. Megacities anywhere are very much alike: the socioeconomic logic of our times presses the diversity of peoples into an increasingly uniform global urban monoculture—or, more precisely, a global monoculture of the urban, corporate, and digital. As William Gibson rightly notes in his essay in a special “Cities” issue of Scientific American, cities increasingly exist within the “ageographic and largely unrecognized meta city that is the Internet.”

This reality was brought home to me when my wife and I, after having climbed to the summit of Mount Whitney, met a young man engaged in uploading to the Web, from his iPhone, every image he framed and shot from that peak. Despite the physical challenges involved in reaching its summit, Mount Whitney is also an on-ramp to the hyper-boulevards of the global virtual city.

Given satellite phone coverage, that virtual city might not be said to “end” at all, but rather to be coextensive with the surface of the Earth. The light from its streets may prove inescapable. For those of us who dwell in the dwindling refugia of cell-phone dead zones yet are already enduring law enforcement’s surveillance overflights, the idea that someday soon there may be no space on Earth free of digital oversight is something that gives us pause. Privacy is, after all, another of the amenities for which we migrated here.

Aside from the occasional concerns expressed by linguists and anthropologists regarding the disappearance of tribal languages and cultures, one hears very little discussion of any downside to this shift to global monoculture, even from scholars and activists normally quick to condemn the unsustainability of monocultures in other contexts, particularly agriculture. These days, global urbanization is increasingly touted in messianic terms as the most environmentally sound future—the “smartest,” “greenest,” and “most sustainable” alternative among foreseeable life-ways.

Because city dwellers live at higher densities in more compact dwellings and are less reliant on automobiles, they presumably leave smaller carbon footprints than sub-urbanites or exurbanites. Urban population density itself is lauded as a major maintainer of cultural complexity and a major driver of new behaviors. No wonder the editors of Scientific American, in the previously mentioned issue, proclaimed the city as the “solution to the problems of our age.”

Much of this is plausible and true, but I still have questions. Cities currently account for 50 percent of our global population—and 80 percent of our greenhouse gas production. They will have to become far more energy efficient and much more self-sufficient overall if they are ever to fulfill our great expectations for them. The popular argument that “increasing population drives increasing innovation” may have been true enough for Upper Paleolithic humans living at numbers far below environmental carrying capacity, but I doubt that technological innovation alone will find for us the way out of an environmental-collapse cul-de-sac, or that population growth on its own, without broader socioeconomic changes, will foster a golden age of innovation. When discussing cities as engines of innovation, prophets of the messianic city, the Neon New Jerusalem, tend to speak of “conurbations,” so they might include the children of the better-off suburbs as part of their urban visions. Indeed, one might observe that, over its long history, urbanism has contributed in no small part to the creation of a contemporary world that is arguably overpopulated, heatgas-insulated, corporate-dominated, surveillance-regulated, and media-hypersaturated, as unpopular and unfashionable as that observation may be, especially if true.

If California is a bellwether in this matter as it has been in so many others, then the future looks more “suburban” than “urban,” in any case. Population is declining both in the state’s urban cores and exurban counties. Meanwhile, population and poverty are growing fastest in the suburbs, although they still remain richer and less population-dense than residential zones of the urban cores.

At first blush, the more “urban” side of the wildland-urban interface might seem to have little to say to the more “wildland” side. If the WUI is not exactly a Mason-Dixon Line, it still seems something of an “Occupy-Tea Party” Line: On the more urban side of the line, gun control means legislation; on the more wildland side of the line, gun control means using the proverbial “both hands” when your neighbor passes you the large-caliber hand cannon he’s just purchased and invites you to “take a shot.” On the more wildland side, wisdom is slow; but on the more urban side, slow is dumb. On the more wildland side, people’s most often-voiced response to government is that they “just want to be left alone,” while on the more urban side, they “just don’t want to be left . . . alone,” especially during hard times.

I have little interest in romanticizing or exoticizing either the wildland or the urban side of the interface. Such broad-brush contraries, even if drawn from my own experience, again cannot do full justice to the nuanced realities. Consider, for instance, the fact that rural folk and exurbanites—partly because of their privately maintained roads, wells, and septic systems—tend to view themselves as more self-reliant than their urban fellow citizens. Yet USDA figures for 2010 showed that, in terms of all Federal funding, government support of rural people amounted to $9,806 per person, while government support for urbanites was actually less, at $9,433 per person.

Each side of the WUI needs the other’s perspective, especially when it comes to water and fire issues. Urban environmentalists (and exurban homeowners of the “new” aesthetic-consumption economy) sometimes need to see the trees for the forest. “Land use” and “land management” are not necessarily dirty words, and not every timber harvest is a clear-cut. My neighbors here in the forestland can readily tick off “seed-tree cuts,” “shelterwood cuts,” “group retention for wildlife habitat,” “group selection for uneven-aged mosaic stands,” and “single-tree selection for least impact” without even breaking into a sweat.

© Burn Institute.

Exurban land-users, however, need to see the forest for the trees and be reminded that there is a long, big-picture history of wildlands being mismanaged and abused, not least by agricultural and forestry interests of the “old” resource-extraction economy. Given the overburden of fuels in our forests caused by a century of fire suppression, some timber harvesting is unavoidable if the environmental and economic damage of unnaturally high-intensity fires is to be reduced. Yet a balance must be struck between such harvesting and damage to watersheds and ecosystems.

The people who would use the land can benefit from the perspective of those who would protect it, and vice versa. The same is true of water in California, which is in fact about a lot more than “fish versus farmers versus cities,” or the dreams and nightmares of dam builders and wild-river enthusiasts. Here, nearer the headwaters in the Sierra Nevada, a diversity of informed approaches both to the use and the protection of watersheds again works best. Water issues are like surface tension: an interface, or better, an intermix—not all one thing or all the other, but a combination and interpenetration.

The conflicts of the WUI, too, are of this dynamic kind, a tension arising from the diversity of needs, uses, and approaches. How shall we balance the practical and the aesthetic, the trees and the forest, the private individual and the connected crowd? The wild stars and the domestic streetlights? The nonurban and the urban worlds? Understanding the interplay of those forces clearly and deeply might be a first step in preventing our boots on the land from making ever-deeper carbon footprints—and might prevent us, as well, from selling our birthright of stars for a mess of wattage.


The Giant and the Waterbaby

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).


Sonic Turbulence

by Josh Kun

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

A thirty-year timeline of L.A. music

This past spring, the exhibition Trouble in Paradise: Music and Los Angeles 1945–75 opened at The Grammy Museum in Los Angeles as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time initiative. The show—which featured an audio-visual timeline wall, a digital jukebox, and two galleries of video, music, photography, and historical artifacts—explored the popular myths, social realities, and political upheavals of life in post-WWII LA through the city’s multiple music scenes. The following is the text from the exhibit’s timeline, a guide to the key political tensions, cultural breakthroughs, and musical moments of the period that helped shape the making of this exhibition.


Musician and impresario Johnny Otis improvises a cover of “Harlem Nocturne” onstage at Central Avenue’s Club Alabam. He and his band record it soon after, earning Los Angeles one of its first national R&B hits.

The LA-born jazz producer Norman Granz launches the Jazz at the Philharmonic Tour, part of his attempt to promote desegregated jam sessions.


Journalist Carey McWilliams publishes Southern California: An Island on the Land, a portrait of LA as “a vast drama of maladjustment: social, familial, civic, and personal.”


Elizabeth Short, “The Black Dahlia,” is found brutally murdered in Leimert Park. The gruesome unsolved killing helps earn LA a reputation as a capital of noir and crime.


The American Council on Race Relations publishes “The Problem of Violence: Observations of Race Conflict in LA,” which finds the city overrun with prejudice and economic inequality.

The Elks Hall on Central Avenue hosts a historic jazz concert featuring a breakout horn battle between Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray that helps cement L A as a laboratory of bebop.

Hunter Hancock, a white radio DJ, debuts his R&B and jazz program “Harlematinee” on KFVD.


John Dolphin opens Dolphin’s of Hollywood, a South Central record store specializing in R&B and jazz that stays open 24 hours, has its own radio broadcasting booth, and its own recording studio for Dolphin’s “Recorded in Hollywood” record label.

Roosevelt High graduate Don Tosti records “Pachuco Boogie,” his hipster ode to zoot suit-wearing pachucos that becomes the first Latin song to sell a million copies in the US.

The Shelley v Kraemer Supreme Court decision abolishes racially restrictive housing covenants, though the practice still continues throughout Los Angeles.


Working as a busboy at Clifton’s Cafeteria downtown, Jerry Leiber hears Jimmy Witherspoon on the radio and dedicates his life to writing R&B songs. He soon partners with Mike Stoller to pen some of the most popular R&B hits of the twentieth century.


William H. Parker III is sworn in as chief of the LAPD and initiates an era of aggressive, racially discriminatory policing. He praises Los Angeles as “the white spot of the great cities of America today.”


Dragnet, a TV series based on the LAPD under Chief Parker, debuts on NBC.


The construction of the LA freeway system begins.


The white Local 47 Musicians Union and the black Local 767 Musicians Union amalgamate after a three-year campaign spearheaded by Buddy Collette, William Douglass, and Mark Young.

Oklahoma trumpet transplant Chet Baker records a classic West Coast bop session for the Pacific Jazz label alongside Shelley Manne, Russ Freeman, Herb Geller, and others.


John Dolphin organizes a protest with 150 Central Avenue business owners against the LAPD, whom they accuse of leading a “campaign of intimidation and terror” against white customers of black businesses.

The “Latin Holidays” concert series, organized by Boyle Heights radio DJ Chico Sesma, debuts at the Hollywood Palladium and features local and national Latin music legends.

The Robins have a #1 R&B hit with “Riot in Cell Block #9,” a Leiber and Stoller tune about a riot in a federal prison.


Walt Disney opens Disneyland, a suburban Utopia and “the happiest place on earth,” in Anaheim.

Marilyn Monroe convinces the owners of The Mocambo to book jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, who becomes the first black artist to perform at the legendary Sunset Strip nightclub.

Rebel Without a Cause, starring James Dean as a white suburban teenager, makes LA synonymous with “the juvenile delinquent.”


The Nat King Cole Show debuts on NBC to great controversy as the first variety show hosted by an African American.



To avoid age restrictions at LA nightclubs, Art Laboe starts promoting concerts at El Monte Legion Stadium. Drawing a multiracial audience of all ages, they become one of the prime music attractions in the region.


Ritchie Valens records an electrifying rock-&-roll-meets-cha-cha-cha version of the traditional Veracruz folk song “La Bamba” at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood. He dies in a plane crash the following year.

The surf rock craze is born, thanks to “Let’s Go Trippin,” an instrumental by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.

While working as an elevator operator at Bullock’s department store, saxophonist Ornette Coleman records his debut album, Something Else!

Ed Pearl opens The Ash Grove, a “Los Angeles cabaret,” on Melrose Avenue. It is the first LA venue to feature folk, blues, theater, bluegrass, and flamenco under one roof.


Gidget, starring Sandra Dee as a white suburban teenager, helps turn surfing into a national pop craze.


Twenty-seven-year-old R&B star Jesse Belvin dies in a suspicious car accident following the African American singer’s performance at the first integrated concert in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Rampart Records, the Motown of East Los Angeles, releases its first 45 RPM single.


The Hawthorne-reared Beach Boys debut “Surfin’” on LA radio. Despite Brian Wilson’s fear of the water, they become international ambassadors of Southern California beach culture.

In Watts, pianist Horace Tapscott forms the Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, dedicated to preserving and performing African American music. Two years later, it grows into the Underground Musicians Association.

The Beach Boys perform on TV, circa 1964.


Guitarist Charles Wright forms Charles Wright and the Wright Sounds, a band that will soon grow into the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, best known for their 1971 hit “Express Yourself,” famously sampled by NWA.


Sam Cooke records the civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” at RCA Studios on Sunset. Cooke is killed the following year at the Hacienda Motel on Figueroa.

Phil Spector produces “Be My Baby” for The Ronettes at Gold Star Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, highlighting his signature “Wall of Sound” recording style.


The Teenage Music International concert film, The T.A.M.I. Show, is filmed at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. It features performances by James Brown, The Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones, and others.

Life magazine cover, July 1966. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE AUTHOR.


Love, led by Dorsey High alum Arthur Lee, begins playing Bido Lito’s, where the audience often includes Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger.

Thee Midniters record “Whittier Boulevard,” their ode to East LA’s main drag, which they base on The Rolling Stones’ instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue.”

After a twenty-one-year-old African American man is pulled over on suspicion of drunk driving, a community struggle ensues with LAPD officers that escalates into five days of fires, looting, and civic disturbances that become known as The Watts Riots or The Watts Rebellions. Chief Parker calls in National Guard troops and the ensuing conflicts leave Watts with thirty-four deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests and over $40 million in property damage.


Frank Zappa watches the Watts Riots on TV in his Echo Park home and writes “The Watts Riots Song,” later renamed “Trouble Every Day” on The Mothers of Invention album, Freak Out.

Robert F. Kennedy in San Francisco, 1968. PHOTOGRAPHY BY EVAN FREED.

The Byrds begin a residency at the It’s Boss club. Art scene regulars Dennis Hopper, Craig Kauffman, Jack Nicholson, and Toni Basil are among those in attendance.


The Doors make their debut at The London Fog nightclub on the Sunset Strip.

Police clash with teenagers up and down the Sunset Strip over curfew and loitering violations. The “Sunset Strip Riots” reach their peak with a confrontation involving over 1,000 protestors in front of the Pandora’s Box nightclub.



In response to the riots, Stephen Stills of the band Buffalo Springfield writes “For What It’s Worth” three weeks later.

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks begin collaborating on songs for Smile, a new Beach Boys album that Wilson describes as “a teenage symphony to God.”


The Watts Happening Coffee House opens and The Watts Writers Workshop is formed, both important steps in using the arts to rehabilitate community in Watts after the riots.

The first “Love-In” is held at Griffith Park.

Ruben Leon forms the Black and Brown Brotherhood Band with Buddy Collette and members of Eddie Cano’s Afro-Jazz Quartet “to counter black and Hispanic tensions across the schools.”


James Brown records his Civil Rights anthem “Say It Loud—I’m Black, and I’m Proud” at Vox Studios in Van Nuys.

Students walk out of high schools throughout East LA in protest of unequal education.

Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire.

The Watts Summer Festival launches.


Members of the Manson Family commit a series of grisly murders, including a spree that ends at the canyon home of director Roman Polanski and actress Sharon Tate. The murders are the brainchild of Charles Manson, a struggling songwriter linked to Dennis Wilson of The Beach Boys.

Roger McGuinn and David Crosby of The Byrds provide inspiration for the protagonists of Easy Rider, the landmark counterculture film directed by LA art and music denizen Dennis Hopper.


“Blood stains the roofs and the palm trees of Venice,” the Doors sing in “Peace Frog,” from their fifth album, Morrison Hotel. “Bloody red sun of fantastic LA.”

The Chicano Moratorium antiwar movement holds a peaceful protest of over 20,000 people in East Los Angeles that is violently broken up by police.

In solidarity with the Chicano civil rights movement, Mexican American soul band The VIPs change their name to El Chicano and record the hit single “Viva Tirado.”


Berry Gordy opens MoWest Records, a short-lived Los Angeles branch of Motown.


To commemorate the seventh anniversary of the Watts Riots, the Wattstax music festival—dubbed the “Afro-American answer to Woodstock” and featuring Isaac Hayes, Albert King, and The Staple Singers—is held at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Aretha Franklin records the top-selling gospel album in history, Amazing Grace, live at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church.


The music and poetry group known as The Watts Prophets—Richard Dedeaux, Father Amde Hamilton, and Otis O’Solomon—publish The Rising Sons of Wisdom & Knowledge. The trio met as members of the Watts Writers Workshop, a creative writing collective formed in the wake of the Watts Riots.


Neil Young releases his fifth album, On The Beach, which includes “Revolution Blues,” a song inspired by the Manson murders, and the title-track, which worries that “the world is turning’, I hope it don’t turn away.”

“Before the Deluge,” a song included on Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky, muses on the end of Southern California innocence and “the resignation that living brings.”


Long Beach band WAR releases ‘Low Rider,” their tribute to the Chicano low rider scene in East LA.


Spirits of Guasti

by Susan Straight
Photographs by Douglas McCulloh

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

Between the 60 and the 10

Is it a ghost town when haunting and beautiful stone buildings sit between two of the busiest freeways in California? Is it a ghost town if the rows of ancient houses are shrink-wrapped in white plastic so that they actually look like a blinded row of what used to be homes for the men and women who picked grapes and made them into wine, and packed the barrels onto railroad cars?

There was once a city here in Southern California, a lovely replica and reimagining of a village from the Piedmont area of Italy. It was the center of life for hundreds of families who came from the mountains of southern Italy to work for Secondo Guasti, who picked grapes and made them into wine and packed the barrels onto railroad cars. Secondo Guasti built an entire little world here, with a town named for himself. The surrounding land was planted in vineyards, grapes famous for sacramental wines, communion wines, and a world-famous dark red port. The Italian Vineyard Company was the largest vineyard in the world in 1917, with 5,000 acres of grapevines that produced 5 million gallons of wine a year, vintages that were sent all over the world.

Today, between the 60 Freeway, which connects Riverside and Los Angeles, and Interstate 10, which runs from the Pacific Ocean at Santa Monica to the Atlantic Ocean in Florida, you can see, just beyond the railroad tracks, a vast stone building with arched windows and the skeletal remains of a wooden roof. That was where the wine was put into barrels and stored. My father remembers being inside the dark, cool warehouse, smelling the grapes. Nearby, the workers’ homes are wrapped incongruously in shiny white plastic, even the chimneys, like some piece of modern art. Lemon trees full of bright yellow fruit stand here and there, sole survivors of what were once backyards.

Photographs by Douglas McCulloh

My father taught me to drive on Guasti Road, amid the acres of vineyards that, back in the 1970s, still covered some of Rancho Cucamonga and Mira Loma.

In the kind of convergence that happens over and over in Southern California, Guasti Road heads through CentreLake, an industrial park of structures with white walls and blue glass that house for-profit colleges and businesses, the Guasti post office, an old brick schoolhouse, and across from there, one of the loveliest churches I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world: San Secondo d’Asti.

Secondo Guasti left Italy, went to Mexico, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1878. He had no education or money. In Los Angeles, he worked in a restaurant and eventually married the owner’s daughter. He saved enough money to start a small winery in LA, and he bought a small vineyard in Glendale. But according to legend, he visited the sandy Cucamonga Valley and thought there might be water under the dry land. He also found a single vine growing, which could have been a straggler from other grapevines, wild or even domestic—we know Tiburcio Tapia planted the first domestic grapes in 1838 on his rancho there in Cucamonga, and others grew grapes all around the region.

Stories say Guasti dug down twenty-four feet with a shovel and found water. Back in LA, he went to his fellow countrymen and sold shares for his Italian Vineyard Company. He bought eight square miles of desert land and planted a hundred varieties of grapes, and soon San Bernardino County had 20,000 acres of vineyards, more than present-day Sonoma and twice as many as Napa.

Guasti created a village based on work, family, and beautiful architecture—the values he’d brought from Italy. He built an inn, a school, firehouse, post office, hundreds of homes for workers, and his own narrow gauge railroad that ran twenty-two miles along the vineyards so that workers could send the harvest to the huge stone packing houses where barrels of wine were produced and stored.

Then in 1924, Guasti and his wife decided to build their own church, to replicate a seventeenth century church from Asti, his native village. He brought woodworkers and stonemasons from Mexico and Italy to work for two years. It feels as if those two countries are still alive in the stone courtyard lined with rock walls, in the garden where white statues and roses are vivid against the surreal backdrop of a huge electrical tower.

Inside, the sanctuary is cool and dark, as if worshippers are in mountainous Italy. The carved wooden beams hold wrought-iron chandeliers; copper reliefs decorate the brown plastered walls; and the stained-glass windows show the martyred St. Secundus, beheaded in Asti during Hadrian’s rule.

San Secondo d’Asti is as beautiful as any of the famous missions of California, surrounded by the ancient past and the glossy present, which obscure its history of debt and worry. Prohibition, drought, development, and water shortages led to Guasti’s haunting. Urban sprawl, history erased, housing tracts and warehouses are common in California now. But Guasti Wines still sells sacramental and altar wines all over the world, through Joseph Filippi Winery & Vineyards, still in Cucamonga, where it began in 1922. And Guasti remains a vision. No—no one could build a warehouse or a church like that now.

One afternoon, I took my father to San Secondo d’Asti. He remembers Guasti from the 1950s, when most of the Italian workers had been replaced by Mexican immigrants, who lived in small wooden houses throughout the area.

My father went with his brother-in-law, who sold televisions to the men who tended the vineyards.

Later, I went to the post office for stamps. The sign reads “Historic Guasti,” but it’s really not; the original post office is a shuttered building of yellow and red brick, near the empty schoolhouse. A long line of people waited, including several elderly men and women—black, white, and Mexican American—who have been using this post office since the 1940s. A notice on the wall identified it as one on the list for closure, but on 15 May 2012, there was a reprieve.

The actual population of Guasti is one. One man. Father Louis Marx, who has lived here since 1997, in the church. He is mayor, fire captain, and priest. At night, I wonder what he hears, there between the freeways, between the electrical towers and CentreLake development, and the white-shrouded history of a dream that could be revived and made beautiful again, if someone, a new Secondo Guasti, fell in love.