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Filmmaker bringing story of ‘paya’ to the masses

January 15, 2013

Journalist and documentarian Jenna Cavelle is raising funds for a project that will document the Paiutes’ use of water in the Eastern Sierra through Photo courtesy Jenna Cavelle

With the 100-year anniversary of the completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct looming, a filmmaker is asking for help in her effort to tell an untold portion of the Owens Valley water wars.
Jenna Cavelle has been working on her documentary, “PAYA: The Untold Story of the L.A.-Owens Valley Water War” for the past year-and-a-half, and recently launched a Kick Starter page to help raise the funds needed to complete the project by its proposed release date this summer. “Paya” is the Paiute word for “water.”
“For the past 100 years, the L.A. Owens Valley water story always begins and ends with the L.A. Aqueduct,” Cavelle says in an introduction to her documentary at “But there is a greater story, an untold story that is rich in history and human achievement. A story that is as much a part of American memory as the creation of our great cities. This story is the history of the Paiute Indians, who populated and irrigated the Owens Valley for millennia, long before the aqueduct was built. This project sheds light on the pre-history of America’s longest water war, telling the story of Paiute Native Americans and the vast irrigation systems they engineered.”
Cavelle has more than 10 years of experience working as a published journalist, photographer and researcher, in Mexico, French Polynesia, Indonesia, Cambodia and throughout the United States.
She said she got the idea for a project that would tell the history of the Paiutes’ water use in the Owens Valley when Bishop Tribal Member Harry Williams appeared as a guest speaker in one of her classes at UC Berkeley. During Williams’ lecture, “I was just completely lit up” when hearing about the Paiute’s history in the Owens Valley, and also “… saddened that this knowledge wasn’t being passed on to the younger generation.”
When the idea began, Cavelle had planned to create a museum exhibit, website and oral history about the Paiutes’ traditional uses of water in the Owens Valley, but as she began working on the project, it evolved.
“The film really didn’t come from me, it came from the community – people wanted to tell the story and reach a broader audience,” she said.
Cavelle has been working with project advisors, Dr. Pat Steenland of UC Berkeley, and Dr. John Walton, author of the award-wining book, “Western Times and Water Wars,” to design her project.
“With the 100-year anniversary of the L.A. Aqueduct upon us, this project is both timely and urgent,” Cavelle says on her KickStarter page. “By supporting my project, you can rest assured that you’ve backed something that is already in motion and projected to succeed. All I need is that extra push to help my project cross the finish line.”
As of Friday, with 35 days to go in her fundraising campaign, Cavelle had raised $5,338 of the $15,000 she needs to complete the project.
Cavelle has received funding through the 2012 Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize from UC Berkeley, which has allowed her to move to Bishop, where she is currently living on the Paiute Reservation.
The $25,000 has also provided her with transportation between Berkeley and the Owens Valley and covered costs for multiple workshops she has held with local tribal members to hear oral histories and gather maps and surveys of the ancient irrigation systems that will be used in the documentary.
“However, I am still in need of additional funding to help secure various items such as video and camera equipment, a PC computer needed to use cartography software, video editing software, digitizing and printing costs associated with the website and museum exhibits and exhibit materials such as display cases for video, photo and archival items,” Cavelle says on her page.
The project is slated for completion this summer and will include museum exhibits at the UC Berkeley Bancroft Museum and the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center on West Line Street, as well as the construction of a website.
Cavelle added that other museums have expressed interest in her project.
The museum and web exhibits will feature the documentary, photography and oral histories from local tribal members, as well as archival materials from the Bancroft Library and the Paiute-Shoshone Cultural Center.
The documentary will also be screened at various venues and entered into the film festival circuit.
“With your help, I will be able to complete this project, sharing the untold story of Paiute irrigation history through a documentary film and museum exhibits,” Cavelle said. “Ultimately, you have the opportunity to help me restore a critical piece of American Indian history that is in danger of being lost in the Owens Valley landscape through weathering and human neglect, and in American memory through the loss of culturally transmitted traditional knowledge.”

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