Before the LA Aqueduct, Paiute Indians irrigated Owens Valley

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Paiute elder Harry Williams refers to a map on one of his expeditions in the Owens Valley. Photo by Alex Schmidt. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

2013 marks the centennial anniversary of the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s construction. The water wars that drained the Owens Valley, enabling the existence of one of the world’s great megalopolises to the south, are today the stuff of literary and cinematic legend.

But one group’s story has been left out of the tellings. Before the arrival of white settlers in that region of California in the mid 1800’s, Paiute Indians had an extensive and sophisticated water system of their own that crisscrossed the Owens Valley. Water was so central to the group’s existence — family units, cultural and religious practices — that their very name, Paiute, translates as “water people.”

Now a documentarian is working to uncover the systems that once sustained that native community, mapping the old aqueducts with the few Paiute who remember them and creating a documentary film that will be released this summer. Alex Schmidt has this story.