Federal Laws Clash Over California Massacre Site

Two federal laws are clashing on the dusty shores of California’s Owens Lake.

The lakebed, dry for 90 years, is the largest single source of particulate matter air pollution in the country. It is also the site of at least one massacre of the Paiute Indians.

Artifacts discovered two years ago but kept quiet to prevent looting and vandalism point to evidence of the massacre of 35 Paiute Indians in 1863, said Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, tribal historic preservation officer for the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Reservation.

“They found musket balls and what looks like bullets, but loaded from the end of a muzzle,” she said. “They’re from the late 1800s, military-issue.”

The discovery wasn’t surprising for the four tribes that live in the area—Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone, Fort Independence, Big Pine Paiute and Bishop Paiute.

“It’s a massacre site that we have known about for many years,” Bancroft said. “We’ve known forever, but we didn’t have proof.”

Kathy Jefferson Bancroft

Various artifacts proving American Indians lived on the shores of Owens Lake have been uncovered since 2000 when the city of Los Angeles was ordered to mitigate dust storms. Tribes surrounding the region are campaigning to keep the site intact.

The artifacts lend a location to oral histories that for generations have detailed the events of March 19, 1863, when soldiers and white settlers attacked unarmed Paiutes. Physical evidence of the massacre was lost for 150 years because of the changing landscape of Owens Valley and the lake itself.

For 800,000 years the 110-square-mile lake held water, though its shores changed drastically along with the climate, said Ted Schade, air pollution control officer for the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District, a government agency that oversees the area.

“Owens Lake … was always shallow,” he said. “A drop of one foot would expose lots of shore. History shows that Native Americans were living here, and when the lake was low they spread out.”

Artifacts found in the area show that American Indians settled on the shores of the lake, Bancroft said. Archeologists have uncovered building foundations and evidence of fire rings.

“You name it, they found it,” she said. “Habitations, houses, milling areas. Because we live in an isolated area, these things have sat there.”

The whole landscape changed in 1913, however, when the city of Los Angeles bought the water rights to Owens Lake and began funneling water out. By the mid-1920s, the lake was dry and producing 80,000 tons of PM-10 per year, or particulate matter so fine it lodges in human lungs and causes health hazards.

In the absence of clean air laws, dust storms were left mostly unchecked until the 1970s, Schade said. By the time Congress amended the Clean Air Act in 1990, Owens Lake was 100 times dustier than air standards allow. Ten years later, the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District ordered the city of Los Angeles to clean it up.

The city’s Department of Water and Power implemented a $1.2 billion project to mitigate dust with flooding and gravel. Efforts have cut the air pollution by 90 percent, but Bancroft said important and sacred artifacts were destroyed in the process. When archeologists stumbled on the massacre site, she decided to speak up.

“Since 1991 we’ve been recovering artifacts, and most of the time we don’t have rights to them and they’re just bulldozed over,” she said. “Because they are linking the artifacts to a massacre now, it’s a game-changer.”

The city of Los Angeles, tasked with completing the remaining 10 percent of the project, is caught between the Clean Air Act and laws that protect artifacts, including the Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“It’s a dilemma for everyone,” Bancroft said. “It’s a federal act against another federal act.”

Tribes have helped draft alternative plans that would leave an estimated 15 percent of the shoreline intact to preserve cultural resources. Although the artifacts are exciting to archeologists and historians, the tribes want them to stay put.

“We want them to just leave the artifacts where they belong,” Bancroft said. “These things don’t belong on a shelf. They belong where they have been for thousands of years.”