Interview with Jolie Varela on Payahüünadü, "The Place of Flowing Water"
We meet where Barlow Lane ends and opens up to a grassy valley. At the south end of Bishop where her ancestors are buried sits the Sunland Cemetery. Just outside its entrance Jolie and I eat burgers and fries on Jolie’s tailgate and find joy in watching a rabbit move casually back and forth across the dirt cul-de-sac. Jolie calls him “uncle,” and speculates that he is on watch. He sits still for a little while, then moves to another spot. The moon is walking across the Payahüüunadü landscape as the sun settles down behind the White Mountains. Payahüünadü means “the place where the water flows.” To those who do not speak the the Paiute language, this refers to the Owens Valley. Jolie describes what it was like to grow up here. She talks about how she can feel her ancestors when she speaks the language, when she hears water, when she moves through the mountains, when she laughs, when she cries, when she sings, when she prays.
Payahüünadü is home of the Paiute-Shoshone people in the Eastern Sierra Nevada of California. At the conclusion of the Mexican American War, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, which meant Mexico gave up what is now Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Southwestern Colorado, and Southwestern Wyoming to the United States of America. Two hundred thousand Indigenous peoples occupied 90 percent of California at the time and by the turn of the century, only 20,000 Indigenous peoples were living in California. These communities were significantly decimated by the Spaniards, and then when the Gold Rush hit, both State and Federal authorities incited enslavement, kidnapping, murder, and extermination of the tribes. Jolie and the Paiute-Shoshone who are still here – Jolie’s Mom and stepdad, Grandma Diane, Kris Hohag, Kinsintau Joseph, Kathy Bancroft, Monty, Paul, to name only a few close to Jolie – those who live in Bishop and the surrounding communities today, are here because their ancestors survived. The Indigenous peoples who continue to live in Bishop and in the surrounding towns today, are here despite facing ongoing genocide.
Entering her 30th thirtieth year, Jolie has now dedicated her life to the health of her people. Since going to Standing Rock to resist the North Dakota Pipeline, Jolie has sought ways to bring the momentum home to Payahüünadü. She has organized many events to spread awareness about the water war going on between Payahüünadü and Los Angeles. South of Lone Pine, California sits the dry Owens Lake, which once held significant water. In 1913, due to the water being diverted into the Los Angeles Aqueduct, as well as for the use of cattle ranching, the Owens Lake water levels dropped. Now, as of 2013, Owens Lake is the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States. For NPR, Kirk Siegler reported, “…it’s a salt flat the size of San Francisco, and when the wind blows, it can churn up huge dust storms with high levels of particulates that are dangerous to breathe.”
Following in the footsteps of her elders, Jolie has already dedicated so much to her community with her much needed vibrant hope and energy. Jolie tells me stories about the valley through tears and big laughs, and describes the “puffy jackets” that come in and out of Bishop who don’t realize that this land is sacred. She is determined to honor her ancestors by advocating for sovereignty, economic self-sufficiency, a more adequate standard of living, and to preserve Paya (water). With the start of Indigenous Women Hike, it is Jolie's hope to re-indigenize, decolonize, and establish a cultural revitalization within her community.
At the end of our twilight talk, we watch "uncle" hop off into the sagebrush.
Tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Jolie Varela. I am Paiute and Yokut I come from Payahüünadü, the place of flowing water, which is now known as the Owens Valley. I have traveled all over the world but there is no place more beautiful, no place that I feel more connected to than Payahüünadü.
What are you focusing on right now?
Right now I am focusing on becoming a healthier person. I want to live a life that my ancestors would be proud of and that's how Indigenous Women Hike was born.
What inspired you to take on Indigenous Women Hike?
I see a great need for healing in the Indigenous community. Especially here in Payahüünadü. I believe that healing will start with our women and then radiate outward to everyone. Indigenous Women Hike is about more than just hiking. It's about reconnecting with our homelands, reindigenizing, asserting our sovereignty and using our voices which have been silenced for too long.
Did you always know it would be Indigenous Women Hike?
No, I didn't. I knew what I would be doing would be cultural revitilization I just wasn't sure how exactly. Indigenous Women Hike is the best way that I can see real healing happening on reservations throughout Payahüünadü.
You are a community leader and organizer. What events have you put on this last year?
We've done a lot of movie screenings like “Awake: A Dream From Standing Rock,” and “Paya: the Paiute Water Story.” The idea behind screening these movies is to raise awareness about the water issues we face here in Payahüünadü. We held signs at the Mule Days parade that read, “water rights are human rights,” and “water is life.” I was asked to go to UCSD to be a part of the panel discussion for “Paya.” I helped to organize a candlelight vigil in solidarity with Charlottesville.
What have been the most inspiring moments?
One of my most inspiring moments was speaking to native children who attended the movie screening for “Paya” at UCSD. They were asking so many questions, they were fired up! In that moment I felt so much hope for the future of Indigenous people. Another inspiring moment is when I was marching in Washington DC for the Indigenous Peoples March. I looked around and saw so many of my brothers and sisters from Oceti Sakowin. I knew that everything was changing.
The most challenging?
The most challenging moments are when I feel overwhelmed, when I feel like everything is just too big and I'm just one person. Then I remember that I've got the blood of my ancestors in my veins and I am the miracle my grandmother's prayed for.
Since you grew up in Bishop, what disparities have you noticed?
I grew up on the reservation on North Barlow Lane, you pass the stoplight on to South Barlow and you can tell exactly where the reservation ends.
What have you noticed about the outdoor community in Bishop?
Besides the few friends that I do have that belong to the outdoor community they don't seem very welcoming. I don't see much diversity among these groups. It's kind of weird how you can feel like an outsider when your ancestors have lived here for thousands of years. As much as I hate to admit it there's a lot of segregation here.
You went to Standing Rock. Can you tell me about the effect that Standing Rock had on you?
Living at Oceti Sakowin and being a part of the healing and prayer that went on there has changed my life forever. Seeing Indigenous people lead a movement ignited a flame in all of our hearts. I had been a pretty broken person when I began my journey to Standing Rock but I knew I had to go. It wasn't just riot police, water cannons, rubber bullets and tear gas we had to face it was 500 years of oppression, rape, suicide and broken treaties. Standing Rock opened my heart and every day I'm healing.
In the past you have talked about “bringing the torch home.” Can you explain this idea for our readers?
The sacred fire never went out, it burns in every one of us. Our resistance camp may be gone but our sacred fire traveled to all parts of the world. I brought the fire home and I am using it to try and do good here for my people. I see so many of my relatives from Oceti Sakowin inspiring people in their communities to stand up and raise their voices. It's beautiful.
Often, people in Los Angeles don’t know where their water comes from. And often, people in Payahüünadü (Owens Valley) who have lived there their whole life, don’t realize what is going on with the water. What is your involvement in the fight for tribal rights and the water war with LADWP?
I have to admit that when I was younger I really had no clue. My Mua (grandmother) would drive by the Dry Lake and tell us that coyote was so bored that he just sat there throwing rocks into the lake and that that's how it got that way. It wasn't until I was older that I realized that the truth was much worse. My involvement right now is to learn and try to educate. The Owens Valley Indian Water Commission had a water workshop for tribal leaders, environmental staff and water activists. I was honored to be invited. During the workshop we decided that we wanted to create a curriculum to be taught in schools not only in Payahüünadü but also in Los Angeles so that everyone would know the true history of what happened here and how LA became the thriving city it is. We also thought to make a declaration of environmental disaster to show the impact that LADWP has had on our valley.
Who influences you and where do you draw inspiration?
A woman who has been a huge inspiration to me is Kathy Bancroft. She is a Lone Pine Tribal member and also the mother of one of my dear friends. I've been lucky enough to just hang out with Kathy and talk about the history here. A lot of elders in my community inspire me like Grandma Diane, Monty Bengochia, Paul Chavez, Valerie Taliman, Harry Williams. I am also inspired by the strength of the women in my family especially my mother and grandmother.
What does hiking and being in the Payahüünadü landscape mean to you?
It means absolutely everything to me. I can stand on top of the gorge and look at the river winding through the valley and know with all of my heart that this is home. My ancestors were mudered, rounded up, forcibly removed and still they remained because they felt it too. There's an ancient connection here that cannot be broken or removed.
What do you currently have in the works for Indigenous Women Hike? And where do you see it going?
There is so much work to do. Right now I'm looking into funding for the actual hike but also for a nutritionist and the gear to help in training along the way. I want Paiute people to be excited about the outdoors and to experience that ancient connection to the land. It's been really amazing to have other Paiute women write me and tell me how inspired they are and that they want to start hiking too. That always makes me feel really good. My hope would be that this would be an annual hike that would gather Indigenous women from all over to participate and talk about what's going on in their own communities.
Indigenous Women Hike is more than just hiking. It's about bringing healing to the Indigenous community by remembering our ancient connection to the earth, to Payahüünadü. It's about getting back to the health of our ancestors. We need to fight against suicide, sexual abuse, mental illness, all the genocide and oppression inflicted by the last 500 years. I think that we can start by walking ancient trails, where each step brings us closer in our journey to health, in our journey to healing.