Indigenous Southwestern Marvels Nearly Forgotten

Harry Williams overlooking one of the Bishop area ancient irrigation ditches originally constructed by ancestral Paiute. There It Is-Take It! © Kim Stringfellow

Harry Williams overlooking one of the Bishop area ancient irrigation ditches originally constructed by ancestral Paiute. There It Is-Take It! © Kim Stringfellow

Every year Americans travel across the sea to experience the ancient architectural wonders of the world such as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Great Wall of China, and the Roman Aqueducts. Few realize that North America is also home to great architectural wonders. The Hohokam built canals to feed what is now the City of Phoenix in order to create a habitable environment. The Paiutes also built ditches that connected the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range to Owens Valley, California. Most of these architectural achievements are lost in history, as America has chosen to forget its Indigenous past.

The Pueblo Grande Museum in Phoenix exhibits the story of the Hohokam and their canals. They preserve a Hohokam site where visitors may experience ancient village ruins. From the site the old canal ways are visible, but not approachable. This is because early settlers found that the Hohokam canal passages were constructed so well, that they decided to use them themselves. Early Phoenicians built their own reinforced canals on the ancient passageways.

The current system takes from the Salt River that descends from the North of Phoenix through the Salt River reservation, through the City of Mesa, and to Phoenix. The Salt River Project manages eight dams to direct and divert the water from the Salt River so that by the time the river arrives to the Phoenix Valley, there is no longer a drop left in the now dry riverbed. The water is directed to Tempe Town Lake where tourists enjoy recreation from the water, and then it is taken to a treatment plant where it is dispersed throughout the city. When I lived in Mesa, Arizona, I drove everyday through the dusty riverbed two minutes from my home during my morning commute. I asked myself what happened to this once great river, which flowed in the Phoenix Valley. Now I know that this dusty river still flows through the Phoenix Valley, but instead of through the river, it flows through the lead infrastructure of the city.

"Hohokam Canals" (arizonaexperience.org) Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

“Hohokam Canals” (arizonaexperience.org) Courtesy Arizona Historical Society

Harry Williams is a member of the Bishop Paiute Nation from the Owens Valley in California. He speaks to the public about another great controversy regarding water rights. For years the City of Los Angeles has taken water from the Bishop Paiutes which has negatively altered the environment. The city channels water 275 miles through a system of canals. Williams also informs that the ancient Paiutes were also able to perform a spectacular architectural feat rendering the already arid valley livable. The Paiutes dug ditches that ran from the Sierra Nevada Mountain range to their valley.

According to an interview with tribal member and water coordinator of the tribe Alan Bacock the Paiutes created these elaborate ditches and canals to irrigate the land, and to use it communally. During the 1860s settlers came to use the land for ranching, so they divvied up the land and introduced to the Paiutes land ownership. The Paiutes naturally did not understand why fences were put up, nor did they understand why water was not being used communally, nor did they understand why the water was not being used efficiently.

View of the original Los Angeles Aqueduct (distant upper right) and the second aqueduct (left) at the Cascades near Sylmar, CA. Photo: Library of Congress. There It Is-Take It! © Kim Stringfellow

View of the original Los Angeles Aqueduct (distant upper right) and the second aqueduct (left) at the Cascades near Sylmar, CA. Photo: Library of Congress. There It Is-Take It! © Kim Stringfellow

The ranchers used Paiute canals for their own purposes and then later the City of Los Angeles took water from the ranchers, which is the system that is currently in place. There is no park to commemorate this great architectural achievement, and there are no tourists who ascend the slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to witness them. Like many Indigenous achievements they are left to be forgotten in time.

Artist and educator Kim Stringfellow has created, There It Is—Take It!, “a self-guided car audio tour through Owens Valley, California along U.S. Route 395 examining the controversial social, political, and environmental history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system.” You can access the website by clicking this link: There It Is—Take It!

By: Brian D. King

Works Cited

Stringfellow, Kim. “Track 8: Harry Williams, Bishop Paiute Tribal Member | THERE IT IS-TAKE IT!” THERE IT ISTAKE IT. Kim Stringfellow, 2012-2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

Stringfellow, Kim. “Track 2: Alan Bacock, Big Pine Tribal Member | THERE IT IS-TAKE IT!” THERE IT ISTAKE IT. Kim Stringfellow, 2012-2014. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.

About the author: Farina King

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.