Bishop Paiute Tribe members lead panel discussion during Craggin’ Classic
On Friday, November 3, The American Alpine Club (AAC) hosted a panel discussion titled “Climbing in Payahüünadü & Protecting Public Lands,” at its annual Fall Highball Craggin’ Classic in Bishop. The panel was organized by Jolie Varela, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe and founder of the local group Indigenous Women Hike.
Varela said she pushed for the panel after seeing that Los Angeles Department of Water and Power was a featured sponsor of the event. “When you take sponsorship from LADWP, this entity that is still oppressing Native people here, you are complicit in that oppression,” said Varela, pointing to ongoing disputes between LADWP and local Paiute Tribes over water rights on Tribal Lands. “The climbing community should know what LADWP has done to this valley,” said Varela.
The panel featured speakers Kris Hohag, a member of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, Varela, and Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Lone Pine Paiute Tribe.
Payahüünadü is the original name for the Owens Valley, and it means “the place where the water flows.” At Friday’s panel, Varela told the crowd she can only imagine what the Owens Valley once looked like. As most residents know, the landscape has been altered severely due to surface water and groundwater diversions by LADWP. Additionally, the extensive network of irrigation ditches and agricultural infrastructure that the Paiute people created and used to cultivate native plants for food now lies on public land largely managed by the United State government. For contrast, it is estimated that when Euro-American settlers first arrived in Payahüünadü, there were more than 200 miles of irrigation ditches that spanned the valley floor. As Hohag pointed out, the Bishop Paiute Tribe now occupies a roughly one-square mile piece of land in Bishop.
Another topic discussed was the forced removal of Indigenous people from land in the Eastern Sierra. According to a report by the National Park Service, in 1863, the United States Army forcibly removed 1,000 Paiute from Payahüünadü to Fort Tejon, in the mountains south of Bakersfield. The same year, white settlers massacred at least 35 Paiute men, women, and children on the shores of the Owens Lake. “Native people have always been a part of public lands… but there has been a growing disconnection since colonization, and our people need to re-engage with the landscape,” said Hohag.
Bancroft told the audience that, because the history of Indigenous people is preserved in public lands as artifacts, petroglyphs, and sites of cultural significance, they have a strong desire to steward those places. “Our stories and where we live are what define us as a people,” said Bancroft. “How do we tell those stories if those places do not exist?”