Timbisha Shoshone Tribe


“The spirit of Timbisha has received many travelers from other lands, and all of Mother Earth’s belongings; the home of the Timbisha Shoshone Newe (Peoples), has been used as a commodity of sorts. Timbisha is not a “valley of death” – it is a valley of the Red Ochre. Red Ochre is used spiritually by the Newe with its “Healing Power.” Not of death but for life. Waters from the mountains to the east and west flow underground into this valley. Overflows of nearby springs once formed streams of surface water by its own course, bringing life.”

–  PAULINE ESTEVES, Tribal Elder


Long before pioneers and prospectors ever set foot on this expansive feral landscape, people have lived here. It was a time when the first humans had migrated across an exposed land mass far northwest. Descendants continue to live in the region, a land they call the Valley of the Red Ochre.

As the rapid expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century pushed ever westward on a continent of seemingly limitless opportunity, and citizens enticed to seek new lives in the unknown lands migrated in large numbers, people from other cultures began to feel the negative effects. Social collectives had been living across the countryside from Atlantic to Pacific for an untold number of years, from times that predated recorded history, and existed in ways foreign to the new wave of folks eager to become owners of land and possessors of the earth’s mineral resources. Human history is replete with examples of what occurs at the convergence of differing cultural ideologies, and the course of events in the Death Valley territory follows this common trend of ethnic turbulence.

The Shoshone Nation existed over many miles of this western land, in the region now marked by the states of Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and California. There were three major divisions of the Shoshone Nation, the Northern, Eastern, and Western. One member of this great nation was Sacajawea, the young woman who provided critical advice and guidance to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the Corps of Discovery, on their trek to locate and acquire land and waterways for the United States government in the early 1800s. This voyage of discovery, assisted by descendants of the earliest people of the continent, played a significant role in the populating of the west by people whose roots emanated in England and Europe. The shear numbers of emigrants from the newly formed United States, east of the Mississippi River, overwhelmed the folks who were already living in this region. The arrival of so many was difficult for all concerned.

The cultural expectations of the new eastern people moving into the land of the Shoshone Nation were radically different than those of the Shoshone. Conflicts arose, and over time it became apparent that peaceful resolution was needed. A significant step of this process came to pass in the form of the Western Shoshone Treaty, signed at Ruby Valley in the Territory of Nevada on October 1, 1863. It was signed by James Nye and James Doty, commissioners on behalf of the United States of America, and also by twelve Chiefs, Principal Men, and Warriors of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians. This signing was witnessed by a U.S. infantry officer, an Indian agent for the Territory of Nevada, and an interpreter.

The treaty consisted of eight articles, drafted by the U.S. government, essentially stating that: all hostilities would cease; all routes then in use by the white man would remain open and free for unmolested travel; telegraph, stage, and railroad lines would be allowed to operate and expand as deemed appropriate by the U.S.; the Shoshone country would be explored for mineral riches, and mined as seen fit by the U.S. and its citizenry; the Shoshone would submit to being placed on permanent reservations as deemed appropriate by the U.S. President; the U.S. would pay $5,000 per year for twenty years to the Shoshone bands represented at the treaty to compensate for any inconvenience that the influx of the white settlers might cause, being full compensation for the loss of game and rights. The treaty was ratified on June 26, 1866 and proclaimed on October 21, 1869. The Chiefs, Principal Men, and Warriors of the Shoshone signed the document with the mark of an “x” since none of them could make the writing of the white man. The success of the official U.S. interpreter at explaining the written contents of the Treaty of Ruby Valley may also be open to interpretation.

Culturally distinctive groups of people had their own ways of living, unique beliefs, and visions of the future. The Panamint Shoshone people inhabited this area that is now popularly described as Death Valley National Park. Relatively recently, the Panamint Shoshone have become known as the Timbisha Shoshone, due primarily to the fact that they inhabit the land of the valley more than that found in the Panamint Range to the west. Currently, there are approximately 320 members of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, about 25 to 30 of whom live at the area now known as Furnace Creek. It is thought that less than 20 of the Tribal Elders still speak the native language. Timbisha translates as red ochre, a natural earthen coloring found in deposits of iron oxide, which is prevalent in the Death Valley territory (such as Red Cathedral).

As the United States’ societal and governmental expansion reached contemporary epic proportions, compared to the relatively sparse populations of white people in the 1800s, the Timbisha Shoshone were increasingly losing their Homeland to the laws of the federal and state governments, which viewed land ownership, political division, and social control as key factors of their operational paradigms. Essentially, two existence models were encountering profound philosophical conflicts, and as is often the case, the financially weaker minority began to succumb. The Timbisha Shoshone were being eliminated from the record, and powerful governmental attempts were made to remove them from within the boundaries established by the Department of the Interior in its creation of Death Valley National Monument in 1933.

This process proved unsuccessful after intensive negotiation, and in 1938, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a village for the Timbisha Shoshone near Furnace Creek. Still, there was no formal recognition of the Timbisha Shoshone as a valid tribe, and they no longer had any sovereign lands of their own in the eyes of the United States government. Then, in the 1960s, a Timbisha Shoshone woman in her 40s stepped up to make a difference in the lives and status of her people. Born at Furnace Creek in 1924, Pauline Esteves led ongoing efforts to bring change to this oppressed segment of the Shoshone Nation. Through years of dedicated toil, this drive ultimately proved victorious, and in 1983, the United States government officially recognized the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. Later, during President William Clinton’s administration, the passage of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act came to pass, presenting over 7,700 acres of non contiguous land in California and Nevada to the tribe – land that was once theirs and is now again.

In the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, which was agreed to or passed by both the U.S. House and Senate, Congress expressed the following findings:

(1) Since time immemorial, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe has lived in portions of California and Nevada. The Tribe’s ancestral homeland includes the area that now comprises Death Valley National Park and other areas of California and Nevada now administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

(2) Since 1936, the Tribe has lived and governed the affairs of the Tribe on approximately 40 acres of land near Furnace Creek in the park.

(3) The Tribe achieved federal recognition in 1983 but does not have a land base within the Tribe’s ancestral homeland.

(4) Since the Tribe commenced use and occupancy of the Furnace Creek area, the Tribe’s membership has grown. Tribal members have a desire and need for housing, government and administrative facilities, cultural facilities, and sustainable economic development to provide decent, safe, and healthy conditions for themselves and their families.

(5) The interests of both the Tribe and the National Park Service would be enhanced by recognizing their coexistence on the same land and by establishing partnerships for compatible land uses and for the interpretation of the Tribe’s history and culture for visitors to the park.

(6) The interests of both the Tribe and the United States would be enhanced by the establishment of a land base for the Tribe and by further delineation of the rights and obligations of each with respect to the Furnace Creek area and to the park as a whole.

While life circumstances for the Timbisha Shoshone are substantially different than what they were prior to the influx of gold seekers in 1849, they are now an autonomous people once more, and the most powerful government on Earth has granted them a permanent place in their Heartlands, a place they refer to as the Valley of the Red Ochre, a valley of life, Timbisha. The Timbisha Shoshone ancestral homelands encompass what is known today as Nevada and California, spreading through the counties of Inyo, Kern, San Bernardino and Mono in California and Nye, Mineral and Esmeralda in Nevada.

The Timbisha Shoshone have a sovereign government, led by the Tribal Council Elders. Portions of this government include the Elder Council, Tribal Administrator, Constitution Committee, Economic Development Advisory Committee, Election Committee, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, Environmental Director, and Water Technician. The government maintains a strategic role in addressing such issues as they faced in the past, like the California Desert Protection Act and the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act in negotiations with the United States government. Current concerns include issues such as the Yucca Mountain-Nevada Test Site nuclear contamination debate that is vehemently contested by many people from multiple ethnic backgrounds. The tribe has found allies in the white man with regards to this issue.

In the July 13, 2007 issue of the Las Vegas Review Journal, writer Keith Rogers authored an article concerning the Yucca Mountain waste facility. To present an idea of the magnitude of concerns the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe faces, and the crucial importance of maintaining a sovereign government, the opening paragraphs of the article are quoted here:

“The Interior Department has certified the Timbisha Shoshones as the first American Indian tribe affected by the government’s effort to put a nuclear waste repository in Yucca Mountain.

“The four-page, June 29 approval letter from Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Carl J. Artman allows the tribe to participate in planning decisions and receive money to conduct studies and oversight of the Yucca Mountain site, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas. Artman wrote that the Timbisha Shoshone tribe ‘may be substantially and adversely affected by the proposed geologic repository at Yucca Mountain.’

“Allen Benson, Department of Energy spokesman for the Office of Repository Development in Las Vegas, said the tribe is one of 17 the agency has consulted with on Yucca Mountain matters.

“‘We’ve been working with the Timbisha Shoshone for over 10 years and look forward to continuing our relationship with the Timbisha Shoshone. … Whether they support the project or not, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to work with them.”

The tribe’s chairman, Joe Kennedy, said the affected status decision is ‘a big step.’

“‘It’s been a long time coming. We’re very pleased,’ he said this week, noting that the tribe first applied for affected status in 1998.

“On a DOE-sponsored tour of the Yucca Mountain site in 2003, Kennedy described the volcanic-rock ridge as a giant snake slithering westward that ‘is a very scared mountain to Shoshones’ and shouldn’t be used as a dumping ground for highly radioactive waste.” (end of quoted matter)

It is apparent to see from the Las Vegas newspaper article that times have clearly changed. From a few lost wagon trains and wandering prospectors in the mid 1800s to concerns about the deadly waste from splitting atoms in the late 1900s, and from territorial skirmishes of the nineteenth century to sovereign land reclamation in the twenty-first century, the Timbisha Shoshone have journeyed far on their path of continued survival. They are a rugged people living in a rugged land, and they continue to demonstrate a determination that prevails regardless of the dangers facing them at any given time in history. Their story is fascinating, and through this brief introduction, I hope to have presented the essence of the Tribe.

Pauline Esteves, Steve Greene, & Barbara Durham


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