Members of the Big Pine Paiute Tribe of the Owens Valley are reseeding tradition thanks to a $37,500 grant from the First Nations Development Institute of Longmont, Colo. for the creation of a Sustainable Food System Development Project.
The funding, made available to the Tribe in April, will help the Big Pine Paiute Tribe sew a permaculture demonstration garden, which includes perennial fruit trees and berries, as well as traditional crops of tomatoes, squash, and more, and will also help generate an organic seed bank for the Tribe. “Our hope is that it brings healthy overall lifestyle choices to the Tribe,” said Big Pine Paiute Tribe Water Program Coordinator Alan Bacock. The new demonstration garden, located on the site of the community garden just off U.S. 395, will provide Paiute Tribe members with an opportunity “to be out working the garden like our ancestors did,” Bacock said.
In fact, he noted, the new garden project at the community garden rests on the site of an ancient Paiute irrigation ditch network that once spread throughout the Owens Valley. The ditch irrigation system was “pretty unique,” said Bacock, “in that Southern and Northern Paiutes didn’t have the same type of activity going on. There was a small, unique knowledge base that rested here.”
According to UC Berkeley Visiting Scholar Jenna Cavelle, that knowledge base stretches back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Cavelle, who is currently working on a documentary film about the ancient Paiute irrigation system in the Owens Valley, explained that a white surveyor named A.W. Von Schmidt created the first documented evidence of the irrigation network in 1856 when he was hired by the Department of the Interior to create townships and section lines in order to establish the Owens Valley as a place for settlement. Von Schmidt noted each irrigation ditch he happened upon as part of his extensive mapping effort, describing a “very sophisticated irrigation systems” on “a mass scale.”
Recently, Cavelle undertook the project of remapping the remains of the irrigation network, working to uncover the long-buried story of ancient water practices in the Valley. Together with Paiute elder Harry Williams, who knew the irrigation intimately from boyhood walks along irrigation ditches, Cavelle discovered “that the irrigation systems that were concentrated in Big Pine were some of the most extensive in the Owens Valley,” she said.
However, she added, “Over time, development had wiped out much of that ancient irrigation system.” White settlement, which began in the 1860s, gradually appropriated and covered over much of the vast network of irrigation ditches. This makes the Sustainable Food System Development Project that much more significant, Cavelle said. “There is a deep, deep indigenous water story that’s embedded in this place,” she said. To see the rebirth of irrigation at the Big Pine community garden “is incredibly remarkable. The members of the Tribe today are creating a whole new water story that’s dynamic and changing.”
Bacock agreed. “There’s what I called a forced amnesia that happened to our people as a result of settlement,” he said. “All of a sudden, water had ownership; land had ownership. That really changed things for us as folks came up into the Valley.”
The new permaculture garden and organic seed bank will allow the Big Pine Paiute Tribe “to look at how we can best use water and land in light of the current-day issues that surround us,” he said. In addition, the Tribe will provide opportunities for entrepreneurship through a new farmers market on Friday evenings along 395 near the tribal offices. The first market will be held on July 12 from 5-8 p.m. According to the Tribe press release, the farmers market will offer not only fresh produce, but also prepared foods such as Indian tacos, as well as arts and crafts. “Really this is a demonstration to see what our people can do on their own,” Bacock said.