We attended the screening of PAYA: The Water Story of the Paiute (the work of filmmaker Jenna Cavelle, many Paiute community members, and others) at the Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont on March 22, 2016. Learn more about the film at PAYAtheMovie.com. The forty-five minute film was followed by a panel discussion with Environmental Mission Scholar Jacklyn Velasquez, Native Water Activist for the Bishop Paiute Tribe Harry Williams, and Environmental Director of Big Pine Paiute Tribe Sally Manning.
The documentary tells the 150-year story of the battle over water rights in the Owens Valley, California. In the 1910s, the City of Los Angeles diverted water from the reservation to the city, leaving Owens Lake dry. The Bishop Paiute have not been compensated for the water. The City of Los Angeles averages fifteen inches of rain per year, which is not enough to sustain the city.
The Owens Valley lies on an alluvial fan on the Eastern Sierra Nevada range. “We are the ones that live in the desert, and they are taking water from us,” said Harry Williams during the panel discussion. The reservation receives a mere five inches of rain per year. Farmers are stymied from growing crops because they lack water. Owens Lake, now dry sends dust into the sky worsening air quality. Williams became involved because one day while driving his car with the windows down he tasted metal in his mouth. He thought to himself, “How could this happen when I am so close to home?” He says that Los Angeles has become a monster, and that cities and communities must support a sustainable way of life. “When we take care of Mother Earth, she takes care of us. When we do not take care of Mother Earth, she will not take care of us,” said the Paiute elder.
At one point, Sally Manning considered her job as monitoring the death of the Owen’s Valley. She left her job as a botanist after realizing that the only way she could make a difference was to connect with the indigenous population. She now works with the Big Pine Paiute and Bishop Paiute Tribes and advocates water rights. Jacklyn Velasquez, a Paiute, attends Vermont Law School. She wishes to bridge the gap between indigenous communities, the government, and different groups. She fears that the government does not understand the needs and wants of the tribe, and that many of the residents of the community do not understand and know the language of law to best represent the tribe. Velasquez aims to tackle water rights and return sovereignty to her people.
The film PAYA Returns will be coming out soon, featuring more of the ongoing Paiute movement to regain control of their water. “Paya” is the Paiute word for “Water.”
Learn more about how to support PAYA Returns at its Kick Starter.
By: Brian D. and Farina King