If you’ve watched The Lone Ranger or How the West Was Won, you’ve seen the Alabama Hills. On the eastern slope of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, this National Scenic Area stretches over 18,610 acres of ecologically sensitive desert landscape, filled with graceful natural arches and curious rock formations. It’s a landscape so striking that hundreds of movies and shows have been filmed here since the 1920s, transforming Alabama Hills into the face of the American West. Now the area attracts thousands of hikers, rock climbers, mountain bikers, and other recreationists.
But amid nationwide calls to reconsider places, monuments, and organizations whose names have racist origins, the Alabama Hills is also drawing attention. In 1863 the area was given the name of a Confederate warship, CSS Alabama. Now public land advocates, conservation groups, and tribal entities find themselves in the middle of a divisive debate. Does this place need a new name?
Those in favor think it’s up to the land’s ancestral stewards to decide. And now the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe may have the chance to bring a truer story of their land to light.
A history of stolen land
Payahuunadü, meaning “the land of flowing water,” is the original Paiute name for the valley encompassing the Alabama Hills. The Paiute have lived here for thousands of years, creating sophisticated irrigation ditches to capture melted mountain snowpack and develop a once abundant landscape.
In 1845, explorer (and later senator) John C. Fremont renamed Payahuunadü to Owen’s Valley in honor of his guide, a renowned “Indian fighter” who likely never set foot there. As miners came looking for silver and gold, they clashed with the Paiute, taking over their land and much of their food supply. A harsh winter, during which Paiute people killed miners’ cattle for food, sparked the 1862-1863 Owens Valley Indian War. Settlers massacred 200 Paiute and forcibly removed a thousand others on foot to a distant army outpost.
Some Paiute escaped en route; others eventually escaped the outpost and hid for a time in the mountains. When they emerged, settlers used them as laborers because they knew the valley well.
At the turn of the century, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) began building a controversial aqueduct that carries water from the valley more than 200 miles south to the now giant metropolis. Signed into Congress in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt, the aqueduct slowly drained Owen’s Lake (which the Paiute call Patsiata), eventually turning it into one of the country’s biggest sources of dust pollution. When the Paiute protested, the LADWP declared an “Indian problem” and worked with the Department of the Interior to create three reservations (Bishop, Big Pine, and Lone Pine). No water rights were allocated to the Paiute in this exchange—a disparity the Tribe is still trying to resolve.
This violent history doesn’t appear in school textbooks or the many Hollywood narratives filmed in parts of this same valley. The 1974 movie Chinatown tackles the injustice of the Owens Valley aqueduct—but leaves out the anti-Indigenous racism that turned the Paiute’s land of flowing water into an arid dust bowl. Western movies also perpetuated an enduring myth of a righteous cowboy “taming” a frontier filled with stereotyped Native Americans. Many of these racist caricatures were portrayed by white actors in redface.
At Lone Pine’s Museum of Western Film History, cowboy memorabilia and exhibits on actors like John Wayne pay homage to the Western genre. Recent years have seen efforts to offer more nuanced information about the way Natives have been depicted in media.
The education gap
Colonial erasure of Indigenous place names has long eroded people’s cultural identity and history, causing generations of harm; reclaiming those names is part of healing.
So is revising the inaccurate Indigenous history taught by schools and parks systems for decades. In 2018, California passed legislation requiring schools to broaden their curriculum on Native American history. Governor Gavin Newsom later issued a public apology for the mistreatment of California Natives and created a Truth and Healing Council. His statement began with a land acknowledgement, a formal way to honor an area’s Indigenous peoples as traditional stewards of their territory.
But there’s a long way to go—for parks in particular. While the National Park Service (NPS) website includes some information and educational materials about Native history, that material can be out of date, and it doesn’t always reflect the interpretation carried out at individual units. The Bureau of Land Management—which oversees the Alabama Hills Scenic Area in partnership with other local groups—offers even less information about the area’s Native heritage.
That may be changing. Education initiatives and land acknowledgement ceremonies could help bridge the gap—and renaming the area would be a good start, proponents say.
A county deliberates
It’s not the first time the question of renaming has surfaced. Locals have discussed the issue for decades, says Kathy Jefferson Bancroft, board president of the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group (AHSG), a nonprofit instrumental in the scenic area’s 2019 designation.
This year’s protests stirred new discussion.
“It’s a contentious issue,” says Wendy Schneider, executive director of Friends of the Inyo, another local nonprofit involved in the area. “As soon as there was renewed talk of the renaming, a petition came out, letters to the editor, people saying ‘you’re trying to erase history.’”
At first, it seemed that the Bureau of Land Management would make the decision; now that responsibility lies with the AHSG. For now, they’ve chosen to focus on conserving the landscape rather than making a name change. But Bancroft—one of two Indigenous people on the majority-white board and granddaughter of an Owens Valley Indian War survivor—says the conversation will continue.
Renaming the Alabama Hills to a Paiute name isn’t an end in itself, she says. Instead, she’d rather “educate people on why these [places] are called what they are, and why they’re important to us.”
A way forward
Today, the Lone Pine Paiute have a great working relationship with the Bureau of Land Management, says Bancroft. As part of a coalition involving many local groups, the Paiute played an instrumental role in securing the 2019 legislation. In recent months, they proposed taking on a larger role in co-managing the Alabama Hills Scenic Area.
In late July, the Bureau held a public hearing to discuss the land management plan. The hearing showed educational videos about the area’s geography and fragile, hundred-year-old vegetation, including a “don’t crush the brush” campaign. But there was nothing about the landscape’s Indigenous history.
Steve Nelson, a local Bureau land manager, says his organization would “absolutely” create such a new video, but only if the Tribe led the project. “We would never step out in front and try to tell or share, even if we knew the tribal story,” he says. “That’s just not our place, and we tend to be very respectful of that.”
When it comes to renaming, Bancroft wants a consensus. She also hopes the people passionate about renaming the area would show the same interest in conserving her ancestral lands.
“If I could just have that magic solution to making people care and to protect this place,” she says, “it’s really all I wish for.”
Libby Leonard is a freelance writer. Find her on Twitter.