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When Green Groups Fought Native Rights: The Timbisha Shoshone in Death Valley

Death Valley NP sign with Timbisha Homeland banner
Death Valley NP sign with Timbisha Homeland banner | Photo: 4johnny5, some rights reserved

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With recent broad green support for not only the campaign at Standing Rock but President Obama’s designation of two new National Monuments that will protect Native sacred sites, you might find it hard to imagine that many environmentalists were dead-set against recognizing Native culture in one National Park just 17 years ago. But it’s true: In 2000, environmentally concerned Americans had a chance to lend their support to a groundbreaking project in which traditional Native culture would restore the landscape in one of the country’s largest National Parks. Those environmentally concerned Americans largely blew that chance.

In that year, Congress passed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, which ordered the National Park Service to craft a plan by which some of the Park’s land would be transferred back to the control of the Timbisha Shoshone, who had lived in Death Valley and the surrounding valleys and mountain ranges from time immemorial. The passage of that law was the result of a hard-fought campaign by the Timbisha Shoshone and their allies, which KCET’s Kim Stringfellow ably described here in July 2016

Many non-Native environmental activists supported the idea of the Timbisha Shoshone gaining a formal homeland, recognizing that the Tribe had long been ill-treated by both their white neighbors and the National Park Service. Most — but not all — supported the idea of maintaining a Timbisha village at Furnace Creek, near the Park headquarters and main tourist lodgings. But Timbisha were after more than just a cluster of government houses from which they could collect support checks: they wanted to continue tending Death Valley the way they had for millennia. And there were environmental activists who didn’t like that one bit.

Death Valley got its current name from one of the first groups of non-Native settlers to traverse the place in the winter of 1849-50, a testament to the hardships they faced in escaping to the west. To the Shoshone who then lived in the valley, those hardships may have been a little hard to imagine: people had been living in the desert here for a very long time, finding even the floor of Death Valley a hospitable place, especially in winter.

The Shoshone took advantage of opportunities provided by the extreme variations in their home landscape. When warm season temperatures began to climb, the mountains were right there — the Grapevine and Last Chance mountains, the Panamints, oases rising out of the scorching summer temperatures. On the floor of the deserts, at sea level and below along washes and streams, mesquites provided a reliable source of food: the flesh of their pods, was pounded in mortars to strip it away from the less-edible seeds. In the heights, piñon pines provided nuts, which were gathered in autumn and stored for long periods of time. Bighorn sheep were hunted when possible, though rabbits — being more plentiful and accessible — made up more of the Shoshone’s daily diet, along with chuckwallas, marmots, and deer.

And then there were the herbs; roots, and seeds, spring greens, berries and other fruits. The young shoots of two species of prince’s plume were eaten as a spring vegetable, then left to regrow, bloom, set seeds and endure. The beautiful blazing star, with its abundant and nutritious seeds, was especially prized.

But despite the common stereotype of hunter-gatherers, the Shoshone weren’t mere passive consumers of the desert’s bounty. Like other California Native people they molded the landscape, intervening in natural processes to help ensure abundant food and medicinal plants. Fire was an important tool: set either to encourage the subsequent growth of plants or to drive rabbits toward hunters, the Shoshone’s cultural burning helped increase the biological diversity of the landscape. Blazing star grew and bloomed more abundantly after a fire in the desert valleys, as did native tobacco — an important medicinal and ceremonial plant — at higher elevations.

Fire also helped clear springs of dead and decaying vegetation, and kept encroaching plants like cattail, willow, and three-square bulrush under control, increasing water flows. Burned willow also responded to fire by growing straight shoots the next season, an important source of basketry materials.

The Shoshone had other tools in their kit. Both mesquites and piñon pines had a tendency toward shrub-like behavior, growing branches low to the ground. The Shoshone pruned those lower branches from the trees up as high as six feet, making it far easier to harvest their seeds. Perhaps coincidentally, this pruning may have served to limit the growth of sand dunes around the bases of the mesquites, allowing the trees to thrive and maintaining downwind habitat for sand-reliant animals such as fringe-toed lizards. 

Mesquite trees swallowed by sand in death Valley
Mesquite trees swallowed by sand in Death Valley | Photo: Gabe, some rights reserved

The Shoshone’s sensible habit of living in the shade of the pruned mesquites had a few other benefits for the trees. Aside from additional sources of moisture and organic matter provided by people carrying out the tasks of daily life, the act of stripping pod flesh from seeds in mortars “scarified”  the mesquite seeds, scratching their resilient coats to allow water to penetrate. That aided germination, thus eventually increasing the number of mesquite trees.

Up in the highlands, nut harvesting was much easier under the pruned piñons; people needed merely walk beneath the trees and pick up cones, rather than searching through scratchy foliage. Nut harvesters also knocked cones from the trees using long poles. They then whipped the trees’ foliage with the poles, a practice said to increase pine nut yield in subsequent years. The whipping likely damaged terminal buds on dozens of branches at a time, encouraging branching and increasing the number of places on the tree where pine cones could develop.

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Untended piñons near the Wildrose Campground, Death Valley National Park | Photo: Ken Lund, some rights reserved

Obviously, if you’re going to thrive in Death Valley, you have to make sure you have adequate water. The Shoshone were diligent about maintaining and improving water sources throughout their land; along with burning back vegetation, they dug out encroaching plants, removed debris from ponds and potholes, and pruned willows to the ground, ensuring a steady supply of water for people and wildlife.

It’s little wonder that many Shoshone prefer not to use the name Death Valley if they can help it, as the valley and its surrounding mountains are actually a source of abundant life. Local Native people often refer to the place by a name for an iron-rich pigment found in local rocks: tümpisa or timbisha, from which the Timbisha Shoshone take their name.

It’s bad form to use the past tense when discussing Native life ways remembered and still used by Native people who are still walking around today. But there’s a reason I’ve used the past tense here: in 1933, President Herbert Hoover declared the Timbisha Shoshone’s homeland Death Valley National Monument, bringing the land under the management of the National Park Service and ending the Timbisha Shoshone’s millennia-old management of the landscape.

For decades afterward the Timbisha Shoshone were outcasts in their own homeland, officially “allowed” to remain in neglected government housing at Furnace Creek — near one of half a dozen large traditional winter camps they had traditionally used, but in an out-of-the-way sandy area without much in the way of natural shade or other resources. Though informal migration to summer gathering sites continued, the Timbisha Shoshone’s traditional life ways were now effectively against federal law.

Park Ranger Howard Parr washes down a Timbisha Shoshone adobe house, April 1958.
Park Ranger Howard Parr washes down a Timbisha Shoshone adobe house, April 1958. | Photo: William C. Bullard/Death Valley National Park Archives

The National Park Service’s attitude toward the Timbisha Shoshone ranged from negligence to active intolerance; at one point in the late 1950s, NPS staff actually hosed down a number of the Timbisha Shoshone’s adobe houses at Furnace Creek, encouraging the mud-brick structures to collapse. This campaign of neglect and harassment continued despite awareness among DVNM staff of the Timbisha Shoshone’s ageless connection to the land.

As Kim Stringfellow relates, the change in fortunes for the Timbisha Shoshone in the late 20th Century is due entirely to the Shoshone’s tenacity. Decades of stubborn persistence, at the cost of significant personal suffering and hardship by the Timbisha Shoshone, resulted in a string of legislative and administrative victories for the Tribe.

Watch Tending The Wild: Living Desert

In 1983, the Timbisha Shoshone were formally recognized as a tribal sovereign entity by the Federal government. This recognition gave the tribe more leverage in dealing with the feds, but it left them essentially landless, with no guaranteed access even to the 40 or so acres of crumbling adobes at Furnace Creek. In 1994, after another decade of pitched activism by the Shoshone and their allies, the California Desert Protection Act directed the National Park Service to study a Timbisha homeland within (the newly upgraded by the same bill) Death Valley National Park.

When negotiations between the Tribe and the National Park Service broke down, the Timbisha Shoshone took to the streets — or to the road, anyway, staging demonstrations along Route 190 in the Park that attracted global attention. Invigorated, the Tribe pursued more legislation, which resulted in the passage of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act of 2000. That Act ordered the Park Service to transfer 7,754 acres within the Park to the Tribe, including 314 acres near the existing settlement at Furnace Creek.

That act was hailed by supporters of Native rights as a landmark victory, and it certainly was.

Demonstration for Timbisha Shoshone homeland restoration, May 26, 1996. | Photo: Courtesy of Death Valley National Park Archives.
Demonstration for Timbisha Shoshone homeland restoration, May 1996. | Photo: Death Valley National Park Archives

It was also a potential victory for the living landscape of Death Valley. The mesquite bosques and pine forests and springs that had been maintained for millennia by the Shoshone had gone unattended since 1933, when that crucial ecological work had been interrupted by Presidential fiat. Under the provisions of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, the National Park Service was directed to draft possible strategies to allow the Shoshone to resume some of those management tasks.

And that did not sit well with some non-Native environmentalists, who saw the National Park’s untended, declining mesquite bosques and overgrown piñon pine groves very differently than the Shoshone did. The Native stewards of the land saw landscapes in crying need of careful, skilled maintenance. Non-Native environmentalists saw what they imagined was a “pristine,” untouched wilderness, where the marks of human activities were limited to historic mines, archaeological sites, and an occasional historic trail.

Portion of a comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS
Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS

When the National Park Service released a Draft Legislative Environmental Impact Statement describing proposals for complying with the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, public response from the environmental sector, offered in formal public comments on the draft, was decidedly mixed. The environmental justice group Greenaction and a few individual commenters applauded the proposal without caveats. A number of groups and individuals objected to a proposed new Shoshone settlement at Centennial Flat, suggesting that there wasn’t enough water in the area to support residences and small businesses. (NPS agreed, and dropped the Centennial Flat plan from its final EIS.)

Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS
Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS

A significant number of commenters objected to proposed Timbisha Shoshone co-management of popular springs in the Saline Valley, one of which — Warm Spring—  had been a popular clothing-optional hangout since the 1950s or so, before Saline Valley was added to the Park in 1994. More Traditional-oriented members of the Tribe had long been reluctant to spend time at Warm Spring due to others’ nudity. That led to some ill-informed fans of the Warm Springs claiming that the Timbisha Shoshone had had no historic interest in the springs, a preposterous idea to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Timbisha Shoshone’s historic lifeways. Saline Valley’s management remains contentious to this day.

Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS
Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS

Some environmentalists voiced concern that the Act’s provisions for modest Tribal economic development were a Trojan Horse that would allow the building of a casino at Furnace Creek, or Shoshone-sponsored mining elsewhere in the Park. (It’s worth noting that 16 years after the Final EIS was approved, no tribal casinos or mines exist: Timbisha Shoshone economic development chiefly affects the Death Valley visitor experience in the form of a small restaurant at Furnace Creek.)

Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS
Portion of a private citizen's comment on the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland LEIS

Overall, comments from environmental groups and individuals suggested that the Draft LEIS contained significant flaws in areas such as the Centennial Flat proposal, an assessment with which the National Park Service eventually concurred, at least in part. And some, predictably, descended into stereotyping and even outright bigotry.

But a major theme running through the comments made by environmental groups and green-leaning individuals was objection to the idea that the people who had maintained the landscape for millennia might have a chance to start repairing that landscape after decades of non-Native negligence. Take for example a passage from extensive comments submitted by Steve Tabor on behalf of the group Desert Survivors, of which he was then Executive Director:

Other comments expressed concern over the possibility of Timbisha Shoshone tribal hunting in the Park, which was in fact implicitly ruled out by language in the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act prohibiting tribal activities that conflicted with the mission of the National Park. The Desert Survivors’ comment was unique, however, in explicitly calling for the Timbisha Shoshone to be assimilated into “urban-suburban” mainstream society.

Other groups were more circumspect in calling for the Timbisha Shoshone’s land-based culture to be restricted or abolished, while approving of increased amenities for individual tribe members. A joint comment by the Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association expressed specific concern over reviving traditional Shoshone land management techniques in the Death Valley landscape:  

A somewhat shorter comment submitted on behalf of a local Sierra Club chapter seemed to imply that the Timbisha Shoshone needed adult supervision in stewarding food and medicinal plants:

It's worth noting that there is little in the wording of the Wilderness Act — which the National Park Service is constrained to follow, at least on paper — that would prevent the use of many traditional Timbisha Shoshone land management techniques. But commenter after commenter expressed concern that visible Native presence in the Park would deprive them of a much stricter standard of wilderness, which could be summed up as the ability to imagine that no human has ever been present in the landscape. And that, in most of California, is longing for a landscape that has not existed for at least 12,000 years.

It’s unlikely that the groups submitting comments intended to deprive the Timbisha Shoshone of their land-based culture. But they did seek to deprive the land of the Shoshone. Many of the groups and individuals commenting urged the National Park Service either to delay the environmental assessment process or to adopt the so-called "no action alternative." That would have meant leaving things as they were with the Timbisha Shoshone still deprived of a homeland.

more on the Timbisha Shoshone

My purpose in highlighting these comments here is not to shame their authors, or groups whose thinking may have evolved in the last 17 years, but rather to point out a widespread misapprehension about the Native peoples of California and the landscapes in which they were embedded. In the 19th Century settlers generally viewed California Indians as sub-human. 20th and 21st Century environmentalists often view Native people as other-than-human, able to live in the wild environment without having any effect on it whatsoever.

The notion that the wild, biologically diverse landscape itself might be the product of human cultural activity doesn’t seem to penetrate. The sublime beauty and thriving ecosystems of California exist not despite the presence of Native people but because of their presence If the Timbisha Shoshone and their ancestors had been shaping the landscape since the modern era began in the desert about 8,000 years ago, the untouched wilderness in Death Valley National Park referred to by many commenters on the LEIS may have been just 67 years old in 2000, a landscape in long-term turmoil after its human element was removed.

That was seventeen years ago. In 2017, those comments are part of history, and the Timbisha Shoshone are working with the Park Service on experimental projects to manage mesquite bosques and other habitats using traditional methods.

But even in a year in which mainstream environmentalists lauded Native activism at Standing Rock and Bears Ears, the old attitudes still persist. In November 2016, the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility blasted the National Park Service for its interest in working with Native people to restore the landscapes of National Parks. The group referred to NPS's support of Traditional Ecological Knowledge as “politically correct,”  dismissing it as “indigenous lore.”

If we’re going to compare ways of erasing Native people from the desert landscape, dismissing their hard-won millennia of knowledge as “lore” certainly beats the 19th Century method of killing Native people outright. But such condescension still deprives non-Native environmental groups of the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the landscapes they ostensibly protect.

And given the leadership Native people have shown at Standing Rock, losing that opportunity may mean green groups get left behind.

Banner: Timbisha Shoshone baskets on display at Scotty's Castle, DVNP. Photo: Dustin Blakey, some rights reserved

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Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.