This week I join the Bishop Paiute and thousands of others who mourn the loss of Harry Williams: an elder, a Water Protector, and the world’s foremost expert on the ancient irrigation systems of his ancestors, who managed the Owens Valley when its waters flowed freely.
Harry was my close friend and colleague for over thirty years. Every time I visited we spent time clambering over rocks in some corner of the Valley: tracing the imprints of the First Hydrologists. He devoted his life to discovering and mapping countless waterways, canals, ditches, dams, and pools created over centuries by Pauite engineers who wild-cultivated Indian rice grass and hundreds of other native plants in the lushness of Owens Valley until Los Angeles Department of Water & Power sucked it dry.
Harry was one of the eldest of the Water Protectors of Payahuunadü, prominent indigenous water rights activists working on behalf of the Owens Valley Indian Water Commission and local tribes. Most recently, he served alongside president Sarah Ryan (Tribal EPA Director for Big Valley Rancheria) as vice-president of the CalEPA Tribal Advisory Committee.
Through his fierce, relentless, humorous devotion to water rights, Harry changed the lives of hundreds of tribal members, students, practitioners, filmmakers, reporters, and visitors to his lands.
Harry’s testimony features in the documentary Paya: the Water Story of the Paiute, made by then-USC School for Cinematic Arts film student, Jenna Cavelle. He guest-lectured in the UC Berkeley course, “Water in the West,” taught by Patricia Steenland.
You can listen to a March 2016 interview with Harry, recorded by Nikishna Polequaptewa of Legendary Skies, below. (Notes from the interview, along with the lyrics of the original song, “Paya for the People,” by Obsidian Dome are on this link.)
Harry taught all of us to look much more deeply into the landscape: to not take its aridity at face value. He never stopped advocating for the return of water rights to the First Peoples of the Owens Valley.
In the early 20th century, Los Angeles came and diverted most of the Owens River, drying up Owens Lake, to quench the growing city’s thirst. Their surface water diverted south, settlers dug wells to tap into local groundwater. Los Angeles Department of Water and Power systematically obtained the settlers’ lands along with the water rights associated with them. The water is shunted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct; the Paiute were left empty-handed.– ClarrisA wei, kcet, “how the owens valley paiute made the desert bloom“
Like so many elders we have lost recently, his passing leaves a tremendous, unfillable void in our understanding of the world. Devastating grief is too tame a description of our loss.