Your donation supports our high-quality, inspiring and commercial-free programming.
Support Icon
Discover all the ways you can make a difference.
Support Icon
The Leadership, Advancement, Membership and Special Events teams are here to help.

Why Two California Indian Tribes are Growing Their Own Food, and Why It Isn't Easy

Support Provided By
Joseph miller holds an ear of glass corn
Joseph Miller holds an ear of glass corn. | Photo: Clarissa Wei

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

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

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

Miller is the community garden specialist of the Big Pine Reservation’s Sustainable Foods Program. Launched in 2012, the farming project spans roughly six acres. There are grand stalks of glass corn outside, but most of the food right now is confined to the hoop houses. Winter is coming and the plants are bracing for the cold.

Seventeen miles north, the Bishop Paiute Tribe has a similar program. Dubbed the Food Sovereignty Program, it features two lots that total half an acre and an acre respectively. At the half-acre lot, the harvesting season has just come to a close. There are beans, basil, tomatoes, swiss chard, and eggplants. Long pink stalks of amaranth have just been picked — the seeds can be used to make flour or popped, like popcorn.

“We made granola bars with popped amaranth and honey,” says Jen Schlaich, food program specialist at Bishop.

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

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

A couple blocks down at the half-acre lot, the Food Sovereignty Program has put in a bee hive for honey and an aquaponics system for raising tilapia. Chili peppers are in abundance there and the lettuce is just growing out. A couple of turkeys and chickens run around in a cage; the turkey will be killed in time for Thanksgiving. The Bishop program hosts frequent workshops for kids and there’s an impressive seed library that they are developing for the community. Produce is sold at their weekly farmers’ market or given to the tribal elders.

But this rosy, lush cornucopia of food is not representative of what most people in the reservations are eating.

Greens in the Hoop House at 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, though that is the eventual goal. Rather, produce is trucked in from over three to four hours away. Located 200 miles north of Los Angeles, both the Big Pine and Bishop reservations lie in the Owens Valley – an area considered by many a food desert. There is only one highway, the 395, and the road can be compromised in an event of a major storm. Additionally, the economics of transporting produce drives up the cost of food in the local restaurants.

“The tribal community and the community at large really rely on corporate suppliers to the provide the majority of food in this region,” Schlaich says. “This results in low quality food and decreased access to healthy and culturally appropriate foods.“

The area didn’t used to be such a desolate food desert; at least, not from the Native American perspective. Owens Valley was, once upon a time, an Eden of sorts. Run-off from the snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, coupled with extensive irrigation systems created by the Paiute made parts of it slightly swampy.

The Native American tribes that had lived there had been using irrigation canals to enhance their food supply for thousands of years.

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

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

The Paiutes especially enjoyed taboose (Cyperus esculentus) — which was cultivated for its wild tubers, and nahavita (Dichelostemma capitatum), which was gathered for its edible corm.

In the 1860s American settlers appropriated the land from the Paiute at gunpoint, and used the Paiute’s ditches to start growing western crops.

Thirty years later the valley, with its lush river beds, drew the attention of Los Angeles city engineer Frederick Eaton and superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Company, William Mulholland. They saw the area as a new source of water for the burgeoning city of Los Angeles. By 1913, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) — the publicly owned successor to the private Los Angeles Water Company — had completed a 233-mile-long aqueduct to move water from the Owens Valley to L.A. By the 1920s, so much water was diverted from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles that agriculture became next to 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 subsided, but which to this day hasn’t been resolved.

As partial compensation for the 19th Century appropriation of Native lands, LADWP agreed in 1939 to convey land for three small reservations for the Owens Valley as an incentive to get the Paiute off land the Department desired for their water rights. The agreement stipulated that the reservations would receive a guaranteed annual allotment of 5,565 acre-feet of water for irrigation purposes. Today, tribal members in the Owens Valley argue that they are not getting their fair share. The California drought, they note, has made things even worse.

According to Big Pine tribal members, a broken irrigation pipe on Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power land this year meant that not even half of their scheduled water was received. To add insult to injury, water was leaking from the pipe and went to waste.

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

“This was a rough year. We were forced to let go of our rehabilitated land out there and go semi-fallow,” Miller says. “We used a lot of domestic water to water our gardens when we shouldn’t have to use it.”

Members of the Bishop reservation have a similar complaint.

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

According to the LADWP, the 5,565 acre-feet of irrigation water isn’t entirely their responsibility. The Department says the broken pipe was installed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is not under their jurisdiction.

“LADWP is complying with our requirements for providing water to the Tribes,” says James Yannotta, manager of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. “The other two elements for the 5,565 [acre-feet] also includes the amount of water that the tribes themselves divert off of ditches and streams on their land and the amount of groundwater that they pump. We’ve been asking the tribe to share their most recent data on what they’ve been diverting and what they pump and they refuse to provide that.”

Yannotta is open, however, to letting the tribe on the land to fix the pipe but says he’s had a difficult time getting tribal members to meet with them.

“We’re very amenable to meeting with the tribe and we’ve made every attempt to,” he says. “Last year when they brought the issue up to us, we had been working on giving them a letter of permission to come on city property to do their operations and maintenance work. We’re certainly open to it and will continue to be, but we need to sit down with them to try to figure this out.”

But for Bishop Paiute tribe member and farm manager Monty Bengochia, getting the water the reservation deserves is far more than justice – it’s reclaiming the health of his people. He notes that Native Americans are about twice as likely to have Type II diabetes than white individuals of comparable age. Most of this is attributed to a dramatic change in accessible food, as more high calorie and high fat foods are consumed instead of a traditionally agriculturally-driven diet.

“A lot of the food today is laced with fungicides, herbicides, insecticides,” he says. “A lot of the foods that are coming out of the corporate farms are causing us to have diet-related diseases 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 that in mind, the tribes are determined to pave their way to food sovereignty despite the obstacles. At Bishop, Schlaich says that the gardens are designed to be educational models so that people can replicate them in their backyards. At Big Pine, Miller is moving forward with expansion and says the key to getting more folks to eat local is getting the produce into the grocery stores. His next step: to create a food forest and have livestock. 

“With chickens we can have community members come out and tend to these animals and become a co-op group,” he says. “We also want to grow more trees and make this more like a food forest.”

Of course, a lot of that is dependent on water.

“Unfortunately the water table keeps on dropping and dropping,” Bengochia says. “It’s been doing that every year, for as long as I have been working with the land.”


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

Support Provided By
Read More
Paiute man protests at the LADWP Board of Commissioners meeting | Photo: Big Pine Paiute Tribe

LADWP Finally Fixes Broken Pipeline on Big Pine Paiute Reservation

Tribe's vegetable gardens died during long repair dispute.
Smoke from a 2013 controlled burn | Photo: Mob Mob, some rights reserved

Part of Sequoia National Park is On Fire Right Now, And For a Good Reason

If you smell something burning this week as you visit Sequoia National Park, that might just be two centuries of cultural misunderstanding going up in smoke.
Salmon jumping at the Ballard Locks, Washington | Photo: Ingrid Taylar, some rights reserved

Klamath River Tribes in Crisis as Salmon Disappear

"Our tradition says that if we don’t catch salmon, they’ll stop coming back.”