LOS ANGELES — Like an empty bucket it sits on the south side of Los Angeles City Hall. The Los Angeles Aqueduct Monument is a white marble fountain beneath large rubber trees. No water flows here. Instead, the stained basins hold shredded plastic, cracked bottles, broken as the fountain.
The rounded lawn of City Hall is a democratic haven amid the increasingly privatized public space of Los Angeles. Shade and grass are abundant. Traffic thins out. Bathrooms are available. You will see a true sampling of society resting, walking, working, talking, looking, biking, photographing, leering, policing, and surviving all in this one spot, with the fountain as its dried up watering hole.
On the summer afternoon I visit, Mardi Gras beads sparkle softly from the edge of the middle basin. I see just above them another basin, and there in the upper center of the monument is a bas-relief bust of Frank Putnam Flint (1862–1929), the senator who devised the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Accompanying plaques explain how Flint was aided in his efforts by Theodore Roosevelt. This portrait of the mustachioed senator and its duplicate mounted on the other façade of the fountain were created in 1933 by Julia Bracken Wendt. The medallions replicate originals, which were stolen in the 1990s. (The fountain was restored in 2006.)
For the last 114 years, Flint’s aqueduct has brought water from Owens Valley in central California to LA. The same system of canals, waterways, and pipes conveys billions of gallons of water to southern California. It might as well come from another planet; with the twist of a wrist, Angelenos can readily relieve their unquenchable thirst.
Invisibly embedded in this monument and others like it is the goal of making us forget Indigenous people. Through this homage to modernity and amenity, we lose touch with what came before. We forget that water is life and can’t be owned. The dry fountain commemorates the journey of water brought to a near-desert where it almost never rains.
In order to consume aqueduct water with a sense of innocence, we have to ignore how it became “ours.” The real history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct is obfuscated by the fountain. And that truth deals more in colonization — land grabs, duplicity, violence, oppression, and starvation — than in legislation and engineering.
Although City Council recently voted to designate the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples Day, no mention of Indigenous people is found on the grounds of City Hall. This designed landscape suggests the city’s history only goes back to the 18th century. The fountain invokes a tranquility that may never have existed. It was installed in the time of segregated drinking fountains and redlining, the same Jim Crow era when many Confederate monuments went up. Without a discourse that can critique Confederate monuments and others, we forget Indigenous people, like the Paiute in Owens Valley. We forget their fight for freedom and struggle against white supremacy.
I come to this fountain the day after the solar eclipse to reinvestigate a place where I remembered resting after the Women’s March. That January evening, I had hopeful conversations with younger, wiser people. I walked around City Hall and finally sat on a ledge. My attention was drawn to signs left behind by protesters: “Asians for Black Lives Matter”; “Jesus was a Middle Eastern refugee”; “Pussy grabs back.” The sheer number of discarded protest signs — all that waste — left me slightly discouraged because these sentiments are not trash, they are recyclable. I turned and realized I was sitting on a monument. There was something quietly dignified about it. I noted the place, recorded a minute-long voice memo, and vaguely plotted to return. Over the ensuing months, the examination of monuments as sites of history exploded into public discourse.
Monuments are memories by their very nature; they cannot be innocuous. This is evident even on the surface level, even in the absence of water in the Los Angeles Aqueduct Monument. In 1967 a drunk man drowned in the monument’s shallow pool , and it has remained empty ever since. Looking beyond the symbolism of the fountain, the aqueduct’s history spills into more tragedy.
Forty-three people died building the Los Angeles aqueduct. The labor force included Indigenous and immigrant workers. They endured extreme weather, grueling conditions, and disease. Largely untold, the story of their plight is absent from the sanitized narrative of individualistic triumph represented in bas relief on the monument. Fortunately, the project’s labor history has been brought to light in recent projects like a series of fictional journal entries written by UCLA students from the workers’ perspective, and Lauren Bon and the Metabolic Studio’s public art project One Hundred Mules Walking the Los Angeles Aqueduct.
Any honest monument to the aqueduct would have to represent not only the workers, but also the Indigenous people who were displaced in order for construction to take place. The monument excludes the Paiute people, the original inhabitants of Owens Valley — where the city’s water comes from — just as the aqueduct itself excludes them from their water supply.
Settler diaries describe discrimination blocking the Paiute from the economy that they developed in the Valley. Beginning in 1859, settlers came to mine, farm, and graze cattle there. These new white immigrants refused multiculturalism through exclusion and violence. In response to this dehumanizing treatment, Indigenous armed resistance movements began around the same time. By 1862, white people were engaging in wars of attrition, destroying Indigenous crops and food storage just as volunteer militias carried out murders of Natives. They were fulfilling the genocidal proposals of California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, who in 1851 said: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”
In March of 1863, in hopes of avoiding forced relocation, several Paiute people fled by swimming into Owens Lake. A few Natives avoided getting shot by US soldiers, but between 30 and 40 drowned in that lake in what would become one of numerous massacres in the era. Regardless, in July of that same year, hundreds of Paiute people were forced into a makeshift reservation at Fort Tejon. Owens Lake has been dry since 1924, but these scars remain.
In the Paiute realm, water geography holds memory. Oral narratives align each of the lakes in the Sierras to a particular sacred component of the world. Even their name for themselves derives from their word for water, “Pai.” Paiute people are still fighting for water sovereignty in 2017. The construction of the aqueduct threw both their cultural and natural landscapes into disarray, and that process continues today.
In 1939, Congress brokered an agreement whereby Los Angeles forced Native people still in Owens Valley to sell their land or they would be unable to join the federally recognized tribes at the Big Pine, Lone Pine, and Bishop reservations. According to the terms of agreement, water would be provided to the reservations, but water rights were left to-be-determined and never finalized.
Prior to being dispossessed, Paiute communities used sustainable, life-giving water engineering that predates the Los Angeles Aqueduct by thousands of years. The original irrigation builders spent generations maintaining shallow trenches off of rivers that would restore groundwater and quench crops like piñon trees, edible grass, and tubers. The aquifers also served as incubation ponds for brine shrimp, a staple. Centuries before it became a trend, the Paiute were practicing sustainable agriculture.
What would happen if this Los Angeles Aqueduct Monument honored the Paiute Nation instead of one upper-class white man? What would happen if a different monument took shape, a monument in the form of land returned? A monument to freedom that consisted of territory, like Jorge Luis Borges’s story of a map whose scale is exactly to real-world size. The people of the Paiute Nation deserve recognition for their struggle, their resilience, and their aqueducts.
Since the Los Angeles Aqueduct Monument was made, there has been progress in memorial making. The idea of a monument protecting sacred land is not hypothetical; in fact, the best example of this is Bears Ears National Monument. As I write this, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is proposing to cut down the size of National Monument lands, including swaths of land preserved after decades-long Indigenous efforts, including Bears Ears. The cuts would shrink protected land and make way for mining and oil drilling. President Obama designated Bears Ears to have the first of its kind tribal commission, a panel that provides federal managers with Indigenous expertise and historical knowledge. The recent push to exploit and extract value from Native land is predictable — Indigenous nations have always been targets of conquest.
Back at Los Angeles City Hall, though there is no mention of the Paiute, one can find memorials to native living beings: plants. Outside the building walls live various palms, birds of paradise, blue chalk sticks, foothill penstemon, century plants, agave, and grass, all labeled and called by name, and marked “California Native ” where applicable.
A dead Coast Redwood stood until recently on the lawn beside the Los Angeles Aqueduct Monument. The tree, which attained an even fiercer red in death, has vanished since my second visit to the grounds, but the stump still resonates. Redwoods can survive climate carnage that humans cannot — they have already done so for millennia. Dead trees speak through their future form — smoldering embers. With more than 100 million dead trees in California waiting to ignite in wildfire, City Hall’s dead redwood was a reminder that danger is close. Even in controlled urban environments, oases are precarious. Appropriately, a monolithic monument to firefighters stands near where that redwood used to.
We know that the climate changes, and such change in the Sierras is well documented. But there are also less predictable changes: the landslide that cut off the Pacific Coast Highway; the near-collapse of the Oroville Dam; the stress on the watersheds feeding the aqueduct. Such infrastructure has been exposed as fallible. Century-old concrete gray-scapes are still trusted out of convenience, a nonchalant wager that they will endure forever. Even the Los Angeles Aqueduct will stall someday if Sierra snowpack continues to dwindle.
And yet, all is not bleak. While the western world drags its feet to address climate disasters, Indigenous people continue to be the world’s defenders of biodiversity. Consider this interview with elders from the Paiute Nation, Alan Bacock and Harry Williams. The story they envision begins with invasive destruction and plunder, as is contextually necessary, yet concludes with a planted seed. “You can change the world through a garden,” they say.
In the growth of those seeds, a different landscape of monuments and markers is possible. Projects like the Equal Justice Initiative provide a roadmap to that end. Or artists’ projects like Ken Gonzales-Day’s mapped walking tour of lynching sites in Los Angeles, which reveals the city’s hidden history. Lynchings of Black, Indigenous, Chicano, and Asian people were happening in Los Angeles in the 1850s, just as white settlers invaded the Sierras and the Paiute people waged resistance.
A more complete history of Indigenous people is attainable. But standing face-to-face with the Frank Putnam Flint fountain, this struggle evaporates and white supremacy is made to appear neutral. Undoing that process means reading past the face value of our monuments and seeking meaning in the mundane.
I round the corner from the fountain and remember the day that made the journey possible. I would not have learned this history without getting involved, would not have a nation I could connect to the water that flows from my taps. That movement was the Divest LA campaign — a broad movement, led by Native people. Our goal was to end LA’s municipal investments with Wells Fargo, thus divesting the funds from the Dakota Access Pipeline. Ultimately, the campaign was successful, and the city now has to consider alternatives and specific criteria for responsible banking. During the campaign we held marches, collected thousands of petition signatures at other marches, and went to City Hall budget meetings.
When the main Divest LA march concluded on the steps of City Hall in March, Native people bore witness to their struggle. On those steps, I heard children speak Nahuatl. In their words and in their survival they overcome colonization. Such nonviolent social movements for environmental justice connect everyone, from all walks of life and every generation — from the urban and upstream to the rural.
The current of Divest LA and other movements like it around the country, their energy, is decolonization. To decolonize public space is to continue a process that liberates the individual and the community. This dialogue may lead to removing or replacing more monuments honoring Confederate war generals. But truly redressing past injustice means also challenging peacetime monuments, like the Los Angeles Aqueduct Monument. Perhaps on Indigenous Peoples Day we can rededicate Frank Putnam Flint’s fountain to the Paiute people whose water we have been drinking for 114 years. This would be a swell in the vast flow of decolonizing.