It is the story . . . that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story; rather it is the story that owns us and directs us.

—Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah

The Bancroft Library, the special collections library of the University of California, Berkeley, sits across from the graceful campanile that can be seen from miles away, on the crest of a slope that ascends to the Berkeley hills. The Bancroft houses archival materials of inestimable value, among them fragile palm leaf Buddhist sutras from Indochina, ancient Egyptian papyri, illuminated medieval manuscripts, and perhaps the most comprehensive collection anywhere on the history of California, including the Sutter's mill nugget whose discovery caused the Gold Rush and thus irrevocably changed the West. Scholars come from all over the world to study in the hushed and formal reading room, surrounded by precious texts. In the words of one campus librarian, speaking to freshman students, "Every campus, every school has a library. But only a few places in the world have a special collections library like the Bancroft. The Bancroft is part of what makes Berkeley, Berkeley."1

Three hundred miles away, in what has been called the most remote area of California, the Bishop Paiute reservation sits on nearly 900 dry acres in Inyo County, one of five Paiute reservations in the Owens Valley. It is a narrow valley, 6 to 20 miles wide and approximately 100 miles long, at 4,000-foot elevation. On its western side, one of the most spectacular parts of the High Sierra, John Muir's beloved Range of Light, forms a sheer wall, with 14,000-foot peaks dropping 10,000 feet straight down to the valley floor. To the east, the White Mountain range forms a similar natural barrier. The most direct route between Berkeley and the Owens Valley is through the Tioga Pass, closed for most of the year due to snow. Reaching the valley often means taking a roundabout route of many miles, skirting the Sierras to the south, near Death Valley, or to the north, near Lake Tahoe. Most people who come through the Owens Valley are on their way to somewhere else. Nevertheless, it is a place of great beauty, a landscape that evokes the Romantic notion of the sublime.

Two places, seeming on the surface to be so different from each other, geographically, culturally, and historically. But an unusual partnership involving a Berkeley instructor and students, a Bancroft curator, a teaching librarian, and a Bishop Paiute tribal elder and water activist has brought to light the extraordinary connections that exist between the university and the valley.


I. The Class

The partnership was sparked by the story of a river. The Owens River flows from its source deep in the Sierras through the Owens Valley. Its original destination was the saline Owens Lake at the valley's southern end. But just over a hundred years ago, the mayor of Los Angeles, Fred Eaton, and the city's chief engineer, William Mulholland, found in the Owens River the answer to the growing problem of a sufficient water source for Los Angeles. The story of the theft of the river and the ensuing land grab has been often told, and was famously fictionalized in the movie Chinatown.

The story of the Owens River became a focal point for a new class that I was asked to create. The request came from Jane Stanley, the director of College Writing Programs, who envisioned a template course that could serve as a model for a series of classes. The course was also to be adopted by the American Cultures Program at Berkeley. The result was CW 50/150 AC, Researching Water in the West, which explores its topic using a multi– genre, multidisciplinary approach. The story of the West, observed Wallace Stegner, is at the heart a story about water (1987). Water informs the history of California at every major juncture and provides a fascinating and rich entry into the exploration of the contested narratives of California past and present. Another intended focus of the class was primary source research. Teaching librarian Corliss Lee and Bancroft curator Theresa Salazar worked with me to produce assignments that would allow students to draw upon primary sources in order to reach a deeper historical understanding.

The study of water in California is often confined to specific academic disciplines. This course was designed instead with an integrative approach, tracking the history of water issues in particular places as they have evolved over time and involved different populations. Here was where the case study of the Owens Valley came into focus. Various sources document that the Owens Valley was originally inhabited by the Paiute people. The tribe was forcibly displaced by white settlers, who found themselves dispossessed of land and water rights when Mulholland and Eaton claimed the water of the Owens River for a growing Los Angeles. Left barren and dry by the diversion of its water, Owens Valley was later selected by the federal government as one of ten sites for the Japanese American internment camps of WWII—the camp named Manzanar, a place seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with no apparent marks of human history, chosen for its very desolation.

To trace this story, the course relied on a variety of different genres, asking students to critically examine the lens, or perspective, that each genre provides. For example, students examined Chinatown; Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert and the ensuing PBS documentary of the same name; Jeanne Wakatsuki's memoir of life in Manzanar; Ansel Adams's photographic essay on the camp; and Dorothea Lange's photos taken for the War Relocation Authority of the same site. Students also perused the website of LA's Department of Water and Power to learn the story from the agency's point of view.

However, the information on the water history of the Owens Valley before white settlement seemed oddly inconsistent. Scholars agree that there was some kind of irrigation system developed by the Paiute before the arrival of white settlers. But its nature and its origin were up for debate. For years, the accepted theory was the one voiced by UC Berkeley anthropologist Julian Steward in his definitive "Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute," namely that the Paiute had irrigation without agriculture: "Irrigation increased the natural yield of several wild seed plots in the Owens valley. Tilling, planting, and cultivating were unknown"; in other words, the Paiute redirected water, but only to native plants in their natural setting, a kind of strangely in-between formulation (Steward 1933, 247). Only a very few scholarly studies devoted space to this subject, and even fewer credited the Paiute with any significant achievement.2 Even a recent treatment, Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, gave just a sentence or two to the topic, stating that the Paiute had irrigation, but that they had learned it from the Spanish (1993, 59).

A related problem arose when I was looking for texts that had to do with the experience of the Paiute in the Valley. All of them were from an outside perspective. I could not find a text that provided a first-person perspective from the Paiute themselves. Feeling this to be essential, especially given the contradictory accounts of Paiute irrigation, I began my search, and through a series of connections I was led to make a phone call to Harry Williams, a Paiute tribal elder and water activist.


II. The Community Scholar

Harry Williams had grown up on the Bishop reservation and from boyhood had seen the traces of an ancient irrigation system on Owens Valley land that was now bone dry. His childhood curiosity and imagination sparked, he wondered about these constructions. Who had made them? How had they been made? What was their purpose? A lifetime of study, reading, and close examination had led to expertise and deep knowledge. Williams believed there was a remarkable story to be told.

Figure 1: Harry Williams walking ancient Paiute site in Owens Valley.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Cavelle.

Drawing upon his own fieldwork and the work of anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians, Williams pieced together the story. For the hundreds of years, perhaps longer, that the Paiute had lived in the Owens Valley, they had transformed it into a remarkable and beautiful habitat. Over the course of time, and before white contact, they had learned to engineer the water that came down in creeks from the Sierras into carefully constructed channels designed to flow at a specific gradient. The canals were allowed to come to an end and drain into the valley land before reaching the river, thus over time raising the level of the water table. The tribe periodically elected a head irrigator, who decided when to open the canals for water flow, and where to channel it. Plant species were selected and harvested. The valley bloomed. "Water is life," says Williams. "When they brought the water, the animals came, too. Hunting was easier." The irrigation system, far from being the kind of in-between, half–consciously constructed creation envisioned by Julian Steward, was a sophisticated engineering marvel. "Who was the genius who thought this up?" wondered Williams. And why was this story of his people's history not better known?3

This blossoming landscape is what drew white settlers to the Valley. They took the land and the water from the Paiute, using the ancient canals for their land and cattle. A thriving communal practice became private property, a people were dispossessed, and the history of this achievement became obscured and largely forgotten. In time, the movie Chinatown became the best-known story about the Owens Valley—a narrative in which the Paiute are nonexistent.

The land on which these ancient canals were built now belongs for the most part to LA's Department of Water and Power. The public is not allowed here. But many of the canals can still be traced in the dry land, and since boyhood, Harry Williams has walked the Valley in search of these traces. He pictured in his mind what the Owens Valley must have looked like less than 200 years ago. He was hoping some day to find someone who wanted to hear the story.

Figure 2: Harry Williams walking ancient Paiute site in Owens Valley.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Cavelle.


III. The Partnership

Harry Williams's first visit to the class marked the beginning of an ongoing and evolving collaboration. Students heard and were fascinated by his first-person account of his years-long research of the irrigation system. He also introduced them to the Valley's continuing water struggles with LA's Department of Water and Power. This fight has become even more charged given the extreme circumstances of California's drought. His story became one of the essential texts of the class. Students began to see how an accepted historical narrative might have gaps that can be examined and questioned, and possibly filled. The issue of who tells the story came to the forefront.

A further and unexpected development happened when the librarians entered the picture. From the beginning of the course, teaching librarian Corliss Lee and Bancroft curator Theresa Salazar had been involved with assignment design and discussions of how to connect students with primary sources related to the course subject matter. As Harry Williams became more involved, it soon became apparent that holdings in the Bancroft collections were directly related to Paiute history and culture. The Bancroft held evidence that helped support Williams's narrative of his people's achievement. It was known that a nineteenth-century surveyor, A. W. Von Schmidt, had drawn maps of the ancient irrigation system when he had been sent on an expedition to chart the California-Nevada border. The drawings were invaluable evidence documenting the complex Paiute system, as it existed before white contact. But Von Schmidt's notebooks proved notoriously difficult to trace. Thanks to the diligent efforts of an intrigued and dedicated student from the class, Jenna Cavelle, the crucial notebook was found to be in the possession of the Bancroft (Cavelle 2011).4 What seemed an amazing coincidence proved to be the start of a research journey to locate more materials in the Bancroft related to Paiute history.

Figure 3: Notations from the notebook of A.W. Von Schmidt recording the presence of Paiute irrigation canals.
BANC MSS C-B 583, box 1: Alexis Von Schmidt, Notebook containing Survey notes, 1856. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.


Figure 4: Surveyor's drawing from the Von Schmidt notebooks, indicating Paiute irrigation canals in proximity to a stream in the Owens Valley.
BANC MSS C-B 583, box 1: Alexis Von Schmidt, Notebook containing Survey Notes, 1856. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

This journey provided a new focus for the collaboration with the librarians. Bancroft curator Theresa Salazar helped to locate many materials for the class, assembling them for special sessions at the Bancroft for both students and Harry Williams. Along with many invaluable documents, diaries, and maps related to the history of the Owens Valley and its water wars with Los Angeles, were key materials directly related to Paiute history. The materials included the Von Schmidt notebook, which Williams had specifically wanted to see. Also present were materials that were new to Williams, such as some of the photo albums of C. Hart Merriam, a naturalist who had travelled the Owens Valley in the 1920's–1930's and had taken many photos of Paiute in daily life. These albums are part of a larger collection bearing his name at the Bancroft. Some of these photos are digitized, but many are not, and thus are difficult to see without a visit to the Bancroft. An important addition to this growing body of materials was the location of Paiute oral histories taken down in the 1930's, found in an extensive and important collection, the Ethnological Documents of the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley. Drawing upon available WPA funds, two graduate students from the anthropology department traveled to the Owens Valley at the height of the Great Depression to conduct oral histories. Some of their participants were 80–90 years old, thus they would have been small children at the time of the 1845 Walker–Fremont expedition that mapped the Valley. The collection was a treasure trove of traditional tales, personal histories, information about plants, and water stories. They were recorded in simple bluebooks, now fragile with age. They have not been digitized or published and can be seen only on microfilm machines at the Bancroft. They represent an astonishing collection of traditional materials and knowledge now largely lost to the tribe. For Harry Williams, the stories contained within these faded notebooks represent a lost patrimony of the Paiute people, waiting to be restored.


IV. Student Outcomes

As mentioned before, one of the primary goals of the class was to teach students primary source research. But this research took on new meaning and new dimension when the sources under study had more than academic significance. Harry Williams provided an entirely new perspective. When examining the Merriam photograph albums, Williams was able to identify families whom he knew personally, whose descendants still live in the Valley. Something similar happened when Theresa Salazar assembled the materials from the Ethnological Documents collection. In a small group seminar at the Bancroft Library, with the old original notebooks in front of him, Williams pointed out that the anthropologists conducting the study relied on young Paiute students as translators when talking to elders. These names were penciled in on the covers of the notebooks. Williams knew these people personally in their later years, and still knows their families. Their role in this project has never been highlighted — they have been behind the scenes.

Figure 5: Harry Williams, Bancroft curator Theresa Salazar, and students looking over notebooks of Paiute oral histories, Bancroft conference room.
Photo courtesy of Pat Steenland.

In this way, a profound shift happened. Native Americans—their history, culture, artifacts, even their bodies — have for so long been the object of academic research. Williams's presence and perspective shifted the students' view of Paiute materials and experience, from objects to authors and teachers. He became the educator, shaping their perspective. Student Caroline Dittmann speaks to this in her research reflection from her project studying the oral histories from the Ethnological Documents collection:

I was drawn to this project because it seemed more alive and meaningful than a final paper that would languish in my computer. I didn't have a real understanding of what I was getting myself into. . . . The conference with Harry and Theresa in the Bancroft Library completely shifted the direction of the project. Leafing through the actual composition books that I had spent hours looking at on a computer screen, struck me with a new appreciation and curiosity for the work that had been done to assemble the collection. When Harry started recognizing the names on the composition books and we found the slip of paper the reporters were supposed to elicit from the informants, the contexts and the intent of the collection started to become more tangible. All of these notebooks had come together somehow, and the story, and its characters, were still unknown. (Dittman 2014, 22–23)
The story had taken on new dimensions. For his work with this class, Harry Williams was the first person to be awarded the title of Community Scholar by the American Cultures Program at UC Berkeley.

Figure 6: Harry Williams addressing UC Berkeley students in Bancroft Library conference room.
Photo courtesy of Pat Steenland.

In this collaboration, students have the opportunity to conduct research that has real-life significance. The community scholar has the opportunity to reach students with his or her story, and to begin work to restore a lost cultural heritage. And the employees of a great public university, instructors and librarians, have the opportunity to employ the resources of that institution for discovery of new knowledge, adding to that state's cultural history. The effects extend outside the classroom. Student Jenna Cavelle, upon graduation, began a yearlong residency in the Valley to work with Harry Williams in documenting the ancient Paiute irrigation system. The result is a documentary film, soon to be released. The collaboration continues to take new form and life each semester.


V. Institutional History and Culture Change

This collaboration did not take place in a vacuum, however. An institutional history trailed it from the beginning. Another, grimmer archive also exists on the UC Berkeley campus.

Housed in dark corridors below the ground near the Hearst Museum are over 10,000 Native American human remains. They have not been given a ritual burial. Instead, they are housed as academic artifacts, witnesses to a brutal time when anthropologists harvested Native American burial grounds for their research. While some of these human remains have been repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, many are still there. Among them are Paiute bodies. It is the possession of these bodies that for the most part represents the University and its practices within Paiute communities. To more than a few Owens Valley Paiute, UC Berkeley has a lot to answer for.

History cannot be changed. An institutional history like this one cannot be forgotten, or inscribed over. But it can be remembered and acknowledged. A community partnership that helps prepare the ground for culture change does not simply allow for new knowledge. It allows for a reshaping of the framework of already existing knowledge, and a way to see the past through a new lens. The absent story, excluded for so long, becomes the guide.

Students and their research become an essential part of this conversation. Caroline Dittmann, for example, discovered through her research that Frederick Hulse, one of the two graduate students collecting the Paiute oral histories in the 1930's, specialized in physical anthropology, the branch responsible for some of the most racist practices in the discipline. Hulse's area of expertise was measuring the heads of Japanese Americans compared with samples taken from a native Japanese population. He gravitated to the Owens Valley project only because of the availability of federal funds from the W.A., saying in letters from 1941 found by Dittmann, "Most of the legends seem rather pointless to me." Later, during WWII, he expressed a wish to leave the WPA. in order to do "either propaganda or counterespionage work," drawing upon his previous research in the Japanese American community (quoted in Dittmann 2014). Sadly, one can imagine the work he had in mind to present to wartime America, already panicked by racist propaganda about a "fifth column," as a purported expert on Japanese Americans and their culture.

In the research projects done by the class, the historical perspective of these anthropologists becomes something to be studied. And the young Paiute interpreters, whose names had never been part of the scholarly record, suddenly emerge from the shadows to become living presences, opening up new questions and raising the possibility of more stories, thanks to the work of Harry Williams and Theresa Salazar. There is even the possibility of connection with the Paiute community, by making these stories available to the descendants of the translators and storytellers still living in the Valley.

UC Berkeley is only one of many academic institutions housing archives relating to Native American history. This partnership raises the question of to whom these archival materials belong? And how might they be studied? For many years these materials have been seen as the property of the universities in which they are housed, as materials for academic research. But in a larger sense, they may also be part of the cultural patrimony of Native communities—a cultural patrimony that is also part of America's heritage. For example, the Paiute history in the Owens Valley is a fascinating and vibrant story, one that is just as much part of California history as the settlement of the missions. In fact, as California faces one of its worst droughts in years, it may be of especial importance to learn more about a period and a place where the conscious engineering of water use allowed a culture to flourish over hundreds of years. For a long time, however, this history was absent from the academic narrative. Only when the community partner enters the academic conversation as a fellow educator, can this story and others like it enter the culture, opening the door to change.

Figure 7: Pat Steenland, Jenna Cavelle, and Harry Williams at ancient Paiute irrigation site in Owens Valley.
Photo courtesy of Jenna Cavelle.



1 This is part of every semester's introduction to the library.

2 Three remarkable works of scholarship are the exception here. The groundbreaking essay "Agriculture Among the Owens Valley Paiute" (1976): jointly authored by Harry W. Lawton, Philip J. Wilke, Mary DeDecker, and William H. Mason, directly countered Steward's hypothesis with a narrative that detailed the Paiute achievements, drawing upon archival and field evidence, nearly all of it noted for the first time, including the Von Schmidt journals. Much later came the magisterial Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion by John Walton (1992), a fascinating historical and sociological case study of the Owens Valley water wars that devoted significant consideration to Paiute history. The most recent treatment is the fascinating and important work of William J. Bauer (2012), which seeks to revisit and revise the history of the Owens Valley through Paiute sources, and which draws upon the Bancroft archive explored in this essay.

3 Harry Williams has made these comments in personal communications with the author, as well as during class presentations.

4 Jenna Cavelle's final project for CW50/150AC was awarded the American Cultures Student Research Prize.


Work Cited

Bauer, William J. 2012. "The Giant and the Waterbaby." Boom: A Journal of California 2 (4).

Cavelle, Jenna. 2011. "Recovering Cultural Memory: Irrigation Systems of the Owens Valley Paiute." Unpublished essay submitted as final project for CW50/150AC: Researching Water in the West, UC Berkeley.

Dittmann, Caroline. 2014. "Exploring the Bancroft Ethnographic Documents Collection: Frank Essene, Frederick Hulse, and the Paiute Ethnography Collection." Unpublished essay submitted as final project for CW 50/150AC: Researching Water in the West, UC Berkeley.

Lawton, Harry W., Philip J. Wilke, Mary DeDecker, and William H. Mason. 1976. "Agriculture Among the Owens Valley Paiute." The Journal of California Anthropology 3 (1).

Reisner, Marc. 1993. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. rev. ed. New York: Penguin.

Stegner, Wallace. 1987. "Living Dry" in The American West as Living Space. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Steward, Julian. 1933. "Ethnography of the Owens Valley Paiute." University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 33 (3).

Walton, John. 1992. Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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