Owens Valley tribes seek historic site nomination

Spirits live here. That’s what the Paiute and Shoshone tribe members say about the Lake Owens playa, a strangely flat, arid land along the eastern Sierra Nevada range prone to suffocating dust storms.

It is best known for being the focus of a historic feud that began in the early 1900s, when Los Angeles city agents quietly purchased farmland and water rights to an aqueduct to placate thirst of the growing metropolis 200 miles to the south.

LA diverts so much water through the aqueduct that the 110-square-mile lake dries up and local farmers and ranchers can barely make a living – a scandal staged in the classic 1974 film ” Chinatown”.

But another history loomed over this wasteland to the Native Americans whose ancestors knew it as a kingdom of irrigated villages and bountiful games until the late 1800s. – before the US military was sent in to protect the local white settlers and the land and water they had effectively stolen.

Now, as part of an effort to present a more complete picture of the area’s importance to the natives of Owens Valley, five local tribes have nominated 186 square miles of the lake bed for included on the California Register of Historic Resources and on the National Register of Historic Places.

A long-distance runner stops with a lizard in its beak.

A jogger carries his lunch on the dry and dusty upper shore of Lake Owens.

(Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

The nomination brought a sense of hope to Danelle Bacoch-Gutierrez, of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley. As she looks out over the $2.5 billion dust control projects LA has installed on the lake bottom over the past three decades, Bacoch-Gutierrez said she has long prayed for guidance in preserving preserve their nation’s heritage.

“I pray for wisdom,” she said, “and the right words to say to the LADWP.”

The nomination is expected to be put before the state’s Historic Resources Commission on April 29. If approved, the nomination will go forward for consideration for inclusion on the National Register of Calendar Places. Historically, a process is expected to take about 90 days.

Oral histories of tribal members and military records provide insights into some of the gruesome Native American massacres that occurred here. These include the 1863 massacre of 35 Paiute Indians who were driven into Lake Owens by soldiers and settlers and either drowned or shot to death.

Other reminders are constantly being unearthed by flash floods and Los Angeles Department of Water and Electricity employees tending to dust reduction projects being carried out on the largest source of hazardous powder dust in the United States. . Artifacts include cavalry uniform buttons, muskets, whetstones, arrowheads, and human remains.

The mountains reflected in the water of Lake Owens.

The 14,000-foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada are reflected in Lake Owens near Lone Pine.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

On a recent morning, Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Preserve, gestured toward the 14,000-year-old coastline, approximated the legal boundaries of the proposed historic district, and said, “Most people drive past and wonder, ‘What’s with all that big sand and rock out there?

“With this designation,” she said, “we want people to start seeing what we see – a sacred home of beauty and suffering.”

“Of course, if it were up to us,” she added, laughing, “this legal boundary would not be needed, and the lake would be filled with sparkling water as it has for countless generations of ancestors.” our first. . ”

Nominations were drawn up in part by representatives of five Owens Valley tribes with traditional ties to the lake. In addition to Bancroft and Bacoch-Gutierrez, they include Barbara Durham of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe; Monty Bengochia of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, and Sean Scruggs of the Fort Independent Paiute Indians Community.

Support was provided by the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, the Greater Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, the California State Land Commission, the United States Bureau of Land Management, and the LADWP.

At 119,303 acres, the proposed Patsiata Historic District would be the largest National Register site in California, National Park Service officials said. There are currently 14 national registration points across the country covering more than 100,000 acres.

It will join a growing number of national historic sites in California created to commemorate the traditions and history of the Indigenous peoples, as well as their resilience and resistance in the face of eradication policies. strains.

“Overall, between 1846 and 1870, California’s Indian population plummeted from about 150,000 to about 30,000—a staggering loss,” said Benjamin Madley, UCLA professor and author of the book. 2016 book “An American Genocide: America and the Catastrophe of the California Indians. ”

“Forced dislocation, disease and starvation caused many of these deaths,” says Madley. “But the near-extinction of the California Indians was not an inevitable result of the two civilizations coming into contact for the first time.”

Rather, it is in part genocide committed by vigilantes and what he describes as a sanctioned and largely funded state-sponsored killing machine. federal and state officials”.

“We cannot bring the dead back, and memorials and historic sites are not a panacea,” he added. “But they are important steps toward addressing what the city, state, and federal governments owe to California Indians.”

While the National Register does not require conservation, it will require consideration of cultural and tribal resources associated with the lake bed and surrounding rugged high desert terrain in planning activities. long-term future planning, project implementation and management.

The heavily litigated area needs all the help it can get. While about 98% of the land within the boundary is public land, there are about two dozen private landowners and a significant city stakeholder – the LADWP. The utility has for years claimed that extreme weather conditions are making it increasingly difficult to meet state and federal requirements and court settlements.

Earlier this month, the LADWP asked a judge to nullify a fine totaling more than $587,000 imposed by the air force district for failing to install a vegetation reclamation project needed to extinguish dust on a section of the site. 5 acres of lake bed. Officials say the amount of fines is growing at a rate of about $5,600 per day.

The company states that constructing such a project in a “culturally sensitive area with a high concentration of sacred artifacts” requires the formal approval of all five indigenous tribes in the Valley. Owens Valley, according to documents filed in Sacramento Superior Court.

LA declared the fine as invalid, because at least one of the tribes opposed the project.

However, county officials argued that compliance with state and federal environmental safety and public health requirements was not “subject to the tribal council’s final recommendations.” , court documents said.

The case is expected to go to court on May 20, when the fine against LA will increase to nearly $1 million.

The legal dispute underscores the kind of acrimony that has simmered in the Owens Valley since white settlers arrived here more than a century ago with dreams of making money from gold mining and cattle ranching, while clearing history and culture of the first indigenous people there. .

Now, between the aqueduct that gave birth to LA and the sage plains of the windswept Owens Valley, the collaborative conservation efforts of exterminated tribes and land managers Local, state and federal are gaining traction. In part, they were guided by a chorus of songs tribal members had heard for centuries: the gentle whisper of cotton and pines, the rustling of leaves, the soothing warmth of a new morning.

“We have a tribal story of courage and survival in the face of impossible hardships to share with the world,” Bacoch-Gutierrez said. “And we have an inherent right to defend the true story of our history and its connection to this sacred land and its wildlife.” Owens Valley tribes seek historic site nomination

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