Death Valley National Park
In this National Park that receives almost a million visitors each year, few people are aware that there is a Native American tribe living in the heart of Death Valley.
The ancestors of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe came to the area more than a thousand years ago. The land provided them with all of their needs. There were plants, springs, and many kinds of wildlife from bighorn sheep to rabbits and lizards. The people ranged over the land in a seasonal pattern to harvest the fruits, seeds, and plants. Pinyon pine nuts and mesquite beans were major parts of their diet. Family members gathered to listen to storytellers who told the history of the world, the animals, and the people. People were close and religion was an important part of life. Different dances were held for healing and to influence the weather. All things were seen as part of a whole. Group hunts and gatherings for dances, games, and socializing brought people from different villages and districts together.
Men made bows and arrows and hunted, while women collected plants and made baskets. The people used rouge paint in ceremonies, which symbolized where the tribe got its strengthfrom the earth. The word Timbisha means "red rock face paint" and would later become the official name of the tribe.
In 1849 emigrants from the East who became lost in this area, not only brought news of Death Valley to the outside world, but also started the end of the way of life for the Panamint Shoshone people. With the advent of mining and boom towns in Death Valley, Panamint Shoshone Indians could no longer pursue their traditional way of life. Watering areas were inhabited by Anglos. Pinyon pine trees were cut down for wood and mesquite bushes disappeared. Eventually the people revolted at this encroachment of their way of life. Hostilities between Anglos and Native Americans surfaced in the 1860s and resulted in the deaths of both miners and Indians.
In 1866 Congress ratified the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which was a statement of peace and friendship that granted the United States rights of way across Western Shoshone territories. Some married prospectors like Montillion Murray Beatty, founder of the Nevada town named after him.
In the 1920s they worked in construction jobs at Scotty's Castle and the Furnace Creek Inn. In the 1930's, when Death Valley became a National Monument, the Timbisha were living in Grapevine Canyon, Wildrose Canyon, and at Furnace Creek. In 1936 the National Park Service set aside 40 acres of land for the people. With help from Indian Service funds, Civilian Conservation Corps, and local Shoshone labor, a village of 12 small adobe structures was built. In the years following, 14 more structures were added to the camp.
Forty acres is not a lot of land, especially for a people who once inhabited the entire area. The 1994 Desert Protection Act contained a provision that the various branches of the Department of the Interior, including the Park Service, would work with the Timbisha people to find land suitable for a reservation. However, at a meeting in March of 1996, federal officials told the Timbisha that there was no land. Further negotiations between the tribe and the government were scheduled for January 1998.
Training has not been readily available to the people to help them learn skills needed in the job market. The traditional skills of basket making have not been lost entirely, even though no market has been developed for the sale of modern-made Timbisha basketry.
In spite of the challenges the tribe faces today, there are bright spots to be seen. In 1983, the Timbisha Shoshone became a federally recognized Native American tribe by the government. A greater emphasis on preserving their history has been encouraged by some members of the tribe. The modern challenges are many, including mandates to cooperate on a governmental level with a number of county, state, and federal agencies, limited employment and training possibilities, and lack of a land base (which the Tribe feels has affected their economic development).
Today several members of the tribe work for local companies and organizations. Included in the tribe's current population are members who went to college and came back to work for the tribe: one counselor associate in the youth program; one member who has traveled all over the world working with environmental groups on the nuclear testing issue through the Western Shoshone National Council; one Tribal Chairperson who implements the decisions of the Tribal Council; and several members who are compiling an oral history of the tribe and mapping out sites of significance to the tribe from a National Park Service grant. A number of years ago, one member of the tribe compiled a Shoshone dictionary and stories so that younger members of the tribe could learn the language. Several of the younger members are studying the Shoshone language today and the tribe is getting more involved with issues related to their homeland and conservation. These matters include the recycling program and water issues facing this part of the country.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication