California Tribal Members Are Reclaiming the ‘Land of the Flowing Water’

California Tribal Members Are Reclaiming the ‘Land of the Flowing Water’

The vast territory known as the Owens Valley was home for centuries to Native Americans who lived along its rivers and creeks fed by snowmelt that cascaded down the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

Then came European settlers, and over time, tribe members lost access to nearly all of that land. Eventually, the water was lost, too: In the early 20th century, the developers of Los Angeles famously built a 226-mile-long aqueduct from Owens Lake to the city. It was this project, the story goes, that allowed Los Angeles to become the booming metropolis that it is today.

Less familiar is what happened to the Owens Valley, and the people who lived there, after most of the water was sent south. Owens Lake is now a patchwork of saline pools covered in pink crystals and wetlands studded with gravel mounds designed to catch dust. And today, the four recognized tribes in the area have less than 2,000 acres of reservation land, estimated Teri Red Owl, a local Native American leader.

But things are changing, tribal members say. They have recently reclaimed corners of the valley, buoyed by growing momentum across the country to return land to Indigenous stewardship, also known as the “Land Back” movement.

In recent years, Native American tribes have reclaimed hundreds of acres of ancestral land, often following decades of advocacy. Members of Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation have repurchased 130 acres in Illinois, which will become a federally recognized reservation for the tribe. And some 850 acres of land along the Mattaponi River in Virginia were returned to Indigenous stewardship and preservation.

In California, state and local leaders have acknowledged a dark history of brutality toward Native Americans, and tribes have reclaimed territory up and down the state.

Early this year, the state transferred ownership of the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery, a European-style stone hall built in 1917 and manicured grounds, to the Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians, in the first return of its kind under a new state directive.

And last year, the owners of a healing retreat called Three Creeks sold their five-acre property to a water advocacy group representing three local tribes.

Along Highway 395, the desolate road running along the base of the Sierra Nevada, the landscape is rocky and covered in scrub brush. But the approach to Three Creeks is like a portal into a different world, opening onto a lush green expanse and a pond reflecting the clear, blue sky. On the property itself, apple, cherry and apricot trees bloomed on a recent afternoon while the sounds of trickling water and laughter floated through the air.

This is not what the tribe members’ ancestors would have seen. But Ms. Red Owl, the executive director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission, the group that purchased Three Creeks, said it is no less significant.

“To me, it is sacred,” she said as she took a break in the cool air of what is known as the Heron Hut, a circular building on the property used for gatherings and ceremonies.

The former owners of Three Creeks had established the place about 25 years ago for visitors from around the world to stay, tend to the gardens, walk through the nearby mountains and learn about the area’s history from local tribe members. In the process, they built relationships with the Native American community.

Gigi Coyle and her partners were told they could have sold the property for $1.5 million on the open market. Instead, they accepted the commission’s proposal to buy it for $900,000 as a gesture to the people whose ancestors were there first. Donations to fund the commission’s purchase had come from people around the world who were moved by the community’s call.

Ms. Coyle, 74, said she hoped the land return would inspire others to challenge beliefs that land is merely property to be passed down to heirs.

“Maybe think twice about that,” she said. “Recognize how important a relationship to place is and that these places have destinies, as well as these people.”

The area’s Native American community members, who make up a relatively large share of the area’s overall population, have carried the legacy of brutal displacements and broken promises by the federal government. (According to census data, 13.8 percent of the roughly 19,000 residents of Inyo County, which includes the valley, identify as American Indian alone, compared with 1.7 percent in California overall.)

At the Owens Valley Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center, maps show where the local tribes once lived near water sources. Their name for their home, Payahuunadü, translates to “land of the flowing water.”

Other exhibitions trace how, in the 1850s, white miners and ranchers discovered that water, and agreements were made with a United States government that continuously shrunk their territory.

Today, the four recognized tribes in the area struggle to provide enough housing for members, many of whom have left as a result. On the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s reservation, trailers are parked in the front yards of worn ranch houses and duplexes. Looming overhead are the craggy, towering peaks of the mountains — this spring, capped with blinding white.

While many land returns involve sites that have historic or ceremonial significance, tribal leaders in the Owens Valley say they also want to recover property that community members can use for housing and jobs that can sustain their lives.

“We take care of our roads, we take care of our water, we take care of housing — the state doesn’t do that for us,” said Carl Dahlberg, the chairman of the Fort Independence tribe, whose reservation is about 40 miles south of the Bishop Paiute Tribe’s.

The Fort Independence tribe, which is not part of the group that purchased Three Creeks, took ownership of the Mount Whitney Fish Hatchery thanks to a recent rule change giving tribes the right of first refusal when the state dispenses with excess property.

Marilyn Bracken, 85, a longtime member of the Friends of Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery, which has helped preserve the site, recalled visiting there for field trips and birthday parties as a girl growing up on the Fort Independence reservation. She said it was meaningful that her community now controlled the site.

“It’s encouraging, because this was once our land here,” she said as she helped prepare a tribe member’s wedding on the hatchery grounds. “Do we feel like we were the ones that should get it back? No, it should have been my grandparents and my great-grandparents. But it’s happening now.”

Environmental groups are working with Indigenous leaders in hopes of keeping more water in the Owens Valley, and in particular, Owens Lake. Los Angeles’s demand for water, they say, has left the region’s ecosystems barely hanging on. They hope that after two rainy winters, Los Angeles water officials have more latitude to rethink how much water they really need and to rely more on conservation and recapture measures in Southern California.

“We have a moment here. There is water in the lake. People are ecstatic,” said Wendy Schneider, the executive director of Friends of the Inyo, an environmental nonprofit.

Los Angeles water officials said that they are mandated to keep water bills affordable for the millions of customers they serve in the city. And water from the Sierra Nevada and beneath the Owens Valley is the cheapest source in the utility’s water portfolio, which includes buying water from the overdrawn Colorado River.

Officials also emphasized that in drier years, their first responsibility is to provide water to tribes, which often leaves less for the utility.

“We’re trading impacts from one area to another,” said Jaime Valenzuela, who manages Owens Lake planning for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. “It’s a big balancing act.”

The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission, the group that owns Three Creeks, sees more potential for land returns in the area. Already, a couple who owns a neighboring property, bordered by a creek, is working on a letter of intent to sell to the commission.

For now, tribal members and other community members are working to make Three Creeks a sanctuary for anyone interested in learning about the Indigenous history of the Owens Valley. They are creating campsites around the edge of the pond and cultivating native plants like wild rose and stinging nettle.

Julia Morales, 33, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe who is living in a cottage at Three Creeks with her daughter, tended to a cluster of bushes in the garden on a recent afternoon. She also has a job at a restaurant in Bishop, but she said she has always wanted to work outdoors and with the environment.

“I feel like I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be,” she said.

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