Faculty and students at the University of La Verne acknowledged the struggles of Native Americans at the hands of their oppressors throughout history and reflected on the water Angelenos use at the Indigenous People’s Day event on Monday via Zoom.
The Indigenous People’s Day event started out with a 39-minute documentary called “The Aqueduct Between Us.” The film covers the long history of intrusion and exploitation in the Owens Valley by foreign powers. It was followed by a discussion of the documentary, led by Al Clark, professor of humanities, and Jay Jones, professor of biology and biochemistry. There were 19 people in attendance for the event.
“Hopefully Indigenous People’s Day will help us recognize them again,” Clark said.
According to the documentary, the Tongva and the Paiute – two Indigenous tribes that reside in southern and central California – believe that “paya,” meaning water, signifies life and is sacred.
The long history of oppression that these two tribes experienced over the course of history began with the landing of the Spanish in California. The Spanish forever changed the region and threw everything out of balance with the founding of the mission system. The Natives adopted this new religion and the mission system out of fear and in order to preserve a future for their children. With new Mexican rule starting in 1821, many of the Tongva and Paiute had died from a disease that the Spaniards brought, and the few who remained were used as cheap labor along with other Native people from the interior of America. The rise of the United States to power brought a campaign of genocide and removal against the remaining Native people across America.
Since its founding, the city of Los Angeles has relied on the water from Owens Valley in order to survive and expand. The Los Angeles aqueduct was necessary for the city of Los Angeles to have a constant supply of water and no thought given to how it would affect the Tongva and Paiute.
Fast forward to today and Owens Lake has been almost completely drained by the city of Los Angeles. It has caused a loss of life and vibrance in the ecosystem of Owens Valley where the Native people reside. To make matters worse, toxic sediments from the dried lake bed are picked up by the wind and have caused illness for the Tongva and Paiute who still live nearby.
Clark said that there is a major issue surrounding the current water supply in Los Angeles. Owens Lake was a big supplier of water in the past and the Owens River partially supplies water currently. The two biggest current suppliers of water for Los Angeles are the Colorado River and Sacramento River. He said that the current way the water supply is handled is not sustainable and that eventually, the same problems that occurred with Owens Lake would emerge again.
Clark said that recycling water is the key for the future. The process involves taking the sewage water and purifying it to the point we can drink it. This water then would be placed underground for a time and then retrieved at a later date.
“We have enough water, we just have to use it effectively,” Clark said.
Clark said that even though Los Angeles officials are not listening to the pleas of the Paiute and Tongva, there is hope that change could be possible in the future. He brings up the fact that California celebrated Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day as a shift in public opinion.
Jones explained the environmental impact that exploitation of natural resources can have. Owens Lake used to be a functioning ecosystem that the Tongva and Paiute tribes preserved because they knew they relied on the lake to survive. Now the lake is a disaster area that makes the air around it toxic.
“We treat the environment as a cash crop,” Jones said.
Jones said that this isn’t a problem unique to California or even America; the exploitation of the planet’s natural resources is going on all over the world. He used the destruction of the Amazon rainforest as the most recent example.
Jones said that our current lifestyles are not compatible with the available resources and that the system in place for the usage of water is not sustainable. A philosophical change in the exploitation of Earth’s resources needs to occur. It starts with not only recycling water but also reducing the amount of water used.
“It’s going to take a paradigm shift,” Jones said.
The event was then opened for discussion with the audience.
Jennifer Salaiza, junior chemistry major, expressed her wish that where Los Angeles’ water comes from should be a part of the curriculum taught in schools. She said that it would really help keep people informed.
“It’s sad that as natives of California, we don’t know where we get our water,” Corina Ruelas, sophomore criminology major, said. “It’s important to know about the significance of Natives.”
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