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Tribal elder brings water history to life for students

In a course on western water history, Paiute tribal elder Harry Williams shares his knowledge of ancient ditches in California's Owens Valley, site of pivotal, early water wars. Students' research "will help us fight for the water rights of our people,” he says.

Harry Williams with students
(UC Berkeley photos by Cathy Cockrell)

California’s record-breaking drought may be a wake-up call for many Golden State residents. But for Harry Williams, a Bishop Paiute elder whose reservation occupies 900 parched acres near the California-Nevada border, water scarcity is anything but new.

Back home in the Owens Valley, starting point of the aqueduct that makes metropolitan Los Angeles possible, “we have our own man-made drought,” Williams told a group of Berkeley undergraduates recently as they pored over rare archival materials on California water history. (Story continues below slideshow.)

Williams is a Native water activist whose intimate knowledge of the Owens Valley — a narrow stretch of Inyo County tucked between the Sierra Nevada and the White Mountain ranges — makes the undergraduate course “Researching Water in the West” anything but dry.

A tradesman and archaeological technician by day, Williams has spent several decades exploring, in his spare hours, the remnants of a sophisticated network of ditches created by the original inhabitants of the valley. Long before the arrival of white settlers, his Paiute ancestors designed these channels to flow at a specific gradient, directing water into the valley from creeks running off the eastern face of the Sierra.

Harry Williams

Harry Williams

“The ditches were like plumbing” that raised the water table, made the high desert bloom and served Paiute communities’ daily needs, says Williams. Ironically, for many years the modern Paiute themselves had little knowledge of “these ancient ditches. We never were taught.”

That has changed. The Owens Valley Paiute are now quite familiar with the area’s ancient irrigation system — and how it could strengthen tribal claims in continuing struggles with the L.A. Department of Water and Power — thanks in large part to Williams and to contributions by Berkeley students and staff, collaborating with Williams, since the launch of “Water in the West,” a spring course, four years ago.

Pivotal water struggles

Patricia Steenland, a lecturer in College Writing Programs, designed the course to teach undergraduates how to use primary-source materials — complemented by recent popular accounts — to understand pivotal water struggles over the fate of the Owens and Hetch Hetchy valleys. To deepen students’ experience (and fulfill their American Cultures requirement), she has them explore how different populations, the Paiute among them, figure into these histories.

In sessions at the Bancroft, teaching librarian Corliss Lee and curator Theresa Salazar introduce students to archival materials from the library’s vast Western Americana collection, available for them to describe and interpret: original letters to East Coast allies (signed “Ever yours, John Muir”) penned during the legendary conservationist’s campaign to save the Hetch Hetchy valley, early photographs of the High Sierra, ethnographies of California tribes — including stories, myths and plant knowledge of the Paiute — conducted by Berkeley anthropologists in the early 1900s.

Patricia Steenland, Jenna Cavelle and Harry Williams

Patricia Steenland, Jenna Cavelle and Harry Williams in the Owens Valley

Williams attends these sessions, where his insights on the Paiute and the Owens Valley, in particular, and accounts of his personal quest in the valley, bring water history to life for Berkeley students.

For business major Madison Pauly, who spent spring break exploring Paiute irrigation ditches with Williams, it’s exciting to have found an American Cultures course “so personal to me and my hometown,” the tiny Owens Valley community of Swall Meadows.

Genetics and plant biology major Wai Y. Ho, for her final research project, cross-referenced plant information in the 1930s notebooks to their common English and scientific names — a contribution of great interest to the Paiute tribe, notes Steenland.

First users

Another student enrolled in the class after a year working on water issues in Indonesia. “I had thought it would be exotic to go to some other place and do research and try to save the world,” Jenna Cavelle recalled in a recent campus talk. “I learned that I wasn’t really paying attention to my own backyard” in California.

Fascinated by Williams’ story — and by scholarly references to a surveyor who documented “Indian ditches” in the Owens Valley in the 1850s — Cavelle traced the location of A.W. Von Schmidt’s journals (just steps away at the Bancroft, as it turned out) and moved temporarily to the Owens Valley to map its ancient irrigation system with Williams using modern GPS and GIS technology.

“I’d been talking about these ditches for years, trying to find someone credible to study them,” Williams reports.

Now a grad student in filmmaking at USC, Cavelle is completing a documentary, Paya: The Water Story of the Paiute, set to premiere at the Red Nation Film Festival in November.

The Bancroft’s ethnographic materials on the Paiute — filled with references to family names, plants, places and practices — are an invaluable resource for Williams and his community. So are the Von Schmidt journals and maps, which he says establish Paiute “first-user” water rights — the Western U.S. legal doctrine holding that the first party to take water from a given source has the right to continue using the same quantity of water, while others may use the remainder.

New model

All of these developments come as a surprise to Williams, who first came to UC Berkeley in 2011 to bless skeletal remains in the campus’s custody. Later, when Steenland approached him about her wish to incorporate Paiute perspectives in her new course, he agreed to share his expertise.

It was a life-changing decision for Williams. Through his partnership with Berkeley, supported by the campus’s American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program, “my dreams are being fulfilled,” he says.

In May, Steenland was awarded a Berkeley Collegium grant to bring young Paiutes from the Owens Valley to campus, to explore Bancroft ethnographic notebooks on the Paiute, from the 1930s, alongside Berkeley students. They will also receive oral-history training that could help the tribe preserve its cultural history.

She calls the ongoing collaboration with the Paiute “a new and different model for partnership between the university and Native peoples,” a “much more positive and equitable one. Partnering in this way opens doors for students and the tribe in ways that would not be possible otherwise.”

The Paiute may have been left high and dry when L.A. won the Owens Valley water wars. But “the story isn’t over,” Williams insists.

The forthcoming documentary and historical records preserved by the Bancroft, along with student contributions building on Williams’ efforts, “will help us fight for the water rights of our people.”

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