Why two California Indian tribes grow their own food and why it’s not easy

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Joseph Miller holds a glass cob of corn. | Photo: Clarissa Wei

Watch our documentary Tending The Wild on KCET TV, February 7 at 9:00 p.m.

Joseph Miller, a member of the Big Pine Paiute-Shoshone tribe, shows me around his town’s garden. There are two hoop houses with herbs and fresh lettuce heads sticking out of the ground. Tomatoes are in abundance, with so many hybrid varieties that it’s hard to keep up.

“What we’re working towards is being able to not only create a sustainable food source, but also create food security,” Miller said. “We want to give our people the right to know without being in the dark and being wary of where their food comes from or how long it is in a truck.”

Miller is the Community Garden Specialist for the Big Pine Reservation Sustainable Food Program. Launched in 2012, the agricultural project spans approximately six acres. There are large glass corn stalks on the outside, but most of the food right now is confined to the hoop houses. Winter is coming and the plants are preparing for the cold.

Seventeen miles to the north, the Bishop Paiute tribe has a similar program. Dubbed the Food Sovereignty Program, it consists of two lots totaling half an acre and an acre, respectively. On the half acre lot, the harvest season has just ended. There are beans, basil, tomatoes, Swiss chard and eggplant. Long, pink stems of amaranth have just been plucked – the seeds can be used to make flour or burst, like popcorn.

“We made granola bars with popped amaranth and honey,” says Jen Schlaich, Food Programs Specialist at Bishop.

Jen in the amaranth patch
Jen Schlaich in the amaranth patch. Photo: Clarissa Wei

In the herb garden there is oregano, rosemary, catmint, thyme, and calendula, the latter being made into an infused oil for the skin. Dyer’s chamomile grows in abundance; the flowers can be used as a natural dye. There is also green ephedra – a native plant that the Paiutes use for its stimulating properties.

A few blocks on the half-acre lot, the Food Sovereignty Program installed a beehive for honey and an aquaponics system for raising tilapia. Peppers are plentiful there and lettuce is growing. A couple of turkeys and chickens run in a cage; the turkey will be killed in time for Thanksgiving. The Bishop program holds frequent workshops for children and there is an impressive seed library that they develop for the community. The products are sold at their farmers’ weekly market or given to the elders of the tribe.

But this lush pink cornucopia of food is not representative of what most people eat on reservations.

Greens in the Hoop House in Big Pine
Greens in the Hoop House at the Big Pine Paiute Reservation | Photo: Clarissa Wei

Most of the tribe’s food does not come from these gardens, although that is the end goal. On the contrary, the products are transported by truck more than three to four hours away. Located 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the Big Pine and Bishop reservations are in the Owens Valley, an area considered by many to be a food desert. There is only one freeway, the 395, and the road can be compromised in the event of a major storm. In addition, the economics of transporting produce increases the cost of food in local restaurants.

“The tribal community and the community at large really rely on corporate suppliers to provide the majority of the food in this region,” said Schlaich. “This translates into poor quality diets and reduced access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods. “

The region was not such a desolate food desert; at least not from the Native American point of view. Owens Valley was once a kind of Eden. Snow runoff in the Sierra Nevada mountains, coupled with extensive irrigation systems created by the Paiutes, made parts of it slightly swampy.

The Native American tribes who lived there had used irrigation canals to improve their food supply for thousands of years.

“The whole valley was our garden,” says Harry Williams, an environmental activist from Bishop Paiute.

The Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada
Owens Valley and Sierra Nevada | Photo: Clarissa Wei

The Paiutes particularly appreciated the taboo (Cyperus esculentus) – which was cultivated for its wild tubers, and nahavita (Dichelostemma capitatum), which was picked for its edible bulb.

In the 1860s, American settlers appropriated land from the Paiute at gunpoint and used the Paiute ditches to begin cultivating Western crops.

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Thirty years later, the valley, with its lush river beds, caught the attention of Los Angeles municipal engineer Frederick Eaton and Los Angeles Water Company director William Mulholland. They saw the area as a new source of water for the booming city of Los Angeles. By 1913, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) – the public successor to the private Los Angeles Water Company – had completed a 233 mile long aqueduct to transport water from the Owens Valley to LA. In the 1920s, so much of the water was diverted from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles, farming became nearly impossible. By 1933, Los Angeles had a monopoly on the valley’s water supply.

The water diversions to Los Angeles sparked the fiery Owens Valley water war which has calmed down, but to this day has not been resolved.

In partial compensation for the 19e Centenary of indigenous land appropriation, the LADWP agreed in 1939 to cede land for three small reserves for the Owens Valley in order to induce the Paiute to vacate the lands the ministry wanted for their water rights. The agreement stipulated that the reserves would receive a guaranteed annual allocation of 5,565 acre-feet of water for irrigation purposes. Today, Owens Valley tribesmen argue that they are not getting their fair share. The drought in California, they note, made matters worse.

According to members of the Big Pine Tribe, a broken irrigation hose on Los Angeles Department of Water and Electricity land this year has meant that not even half of the planned water was received. To add insult to injury, water leaked out of the hose and was wasted.

Broken pipeline at Big Pine on LADWP lands |  Photo: Paiute Big Pine Tribe
Water leaks from the broken pipeline on the LADWP land in Big Pine. | Photo: Paiute Big Pine Tribe

“It was a difficult year. We were forced to abandon our rehabilitated land there and set it aside, ”says Miller. “We used a lot of domestic water to water our gardens when we shouldn’t have to use it.

Members of the Bishop reserve have a similar complaint.

“For the 2014 irrigation season, the Bishop Tribe received only 1,441 acre-feet of water, but were to receive 3,500 acre-feet,” said Teri Red Owl, Executive Director of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission.

According to the LADWP, the 5,565 acre-feet of irrigation water is not entirely their responsibility. The ministry says the broken pipe was installed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is outside its jurisdiction.

“LADWP complies with our tribal water supply requirements,” said James Yannotta, director of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. “The other two elements for the 5,565 [acre-feet] also includes how much water the tribes themselves divert from ditches and streams on their land and how much groundwater they pump. We have asked the tribe to share their most recent data on what they are hijacking and what they are pumping and they are refusing to provide it to us.

Yannotta is open, however, to leaving the tribe in the field to fix the pipe, but says he struggled to get the tribe members to meet them.

“We are very willing to meet the tribe and we have done everything possible to do so,” he says. “Last year, when they brought it up to us, we were working on giving them a letter of authorization to come to town property to do their operations and maintenance. We are certainly open to this and will continue to be, but we have to sit down with them to try to understand this. “

But for Monty Bengochia, member of the Bishop Paiute tribe and manager of the farm, getting the water the reserve deserves is more than justice – it’s getting back the health of his people. He notes that Native Americans are about twice as likely to have type II diabetes as white individuals of comparable age. Most of this is attributed to a drastic shift in food accessibility as more foods high in calories and fat are eaten instead of a traditionally agriculture-focused diet.

“Much of the food today is mixed with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides,” he says. “A lot of the foods that come off corporate farms cause us diet-related illnesses like cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure.”

Paiute Garden Expert Joseph Miller in Big Pine
Paiute Garden Expert Joseph Miller in Big Pine | Photo: Clarissa Wei

With this in mind, the tribes are determined to forge their way to food sovereignty despite the obstacles. At Bishop, Schlaich says the gardens are designed to be educational models so people can replicate them in their backyards. At Big Pine, Miller is moving forward with the expansion and says the key to getting more people to eat local is to bring the produce to grocery stores. His next step: to create a food forest and have livestock.

“With chickens, we can ask community members to take care of these animals and become a cooperative group,” he says. “We also want to grow more trees and make them a nourishing forest.”

Of course, a lot of it depends on the water.

“Unfortunately, the water table keeps dropping,” says Bengochia. “It has been doing this every year, for as long as I have worked with the earth.”

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with Autry’s groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.

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