Two Courageous Women


Two women, Two cultures, One goal


A story of valor and achievement

by Steve Greene

As the evening sun sets, thick clouds of dirt and dust still churn fiercely through the sizzling valley air, having long since sent all area humans into the nearest convenient shelters. There is no ignoring wind gusts up to seventy miles per hour, their only redeeming factor being a marginal cooling effect in the afternoon’s dry 123 degree heat.

With the darkening sky, two Death Valley residents prepare for sleep. Although their homes are separated by less distance than a mile, their cultural backgrounds are worlds apart. One woman’s ancestors have inhabited this territory for a few thousand years, while the other woman’s lineage migrated to the eastern seaboard much more recently.

* * * * *

Pauline Esteves was born at Furnace Creek in 1924. She is a Tribal Elder of the Timbisha Shoshone people, and lives on a small plot of land returned to her tribe by the United States government a few years ago. 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. This is Pauline’s native home.

Sharon Funck was born in Orange, California in 1947, grew up in the Mojave Desert town of Palmdale, and later moved to Morro Bay. Sharon is a waitress for the Wrangler Steakhouse in Furnace Creek, and lives in the employee housing area of Xanterra Resorts. She first visited Death Valley in 1980, fearful of what she might think of the area, but quickly came to embrace the desert’s special environment. In 1984, her dream of living here was realized when she was hired by the resort as a breakfast cook. This is Sharon’s adopted home.

Both of these women are unpretentious dwellers in Death Valley National Park in southeastern California, yet their passionate beliefs and activities have stirred others to take notice, in ways that are inspirational for many. Although from vastly divergent pasts, each woman has embraced a fundamental goal similar to the other, that of boldly confronting fear and suffering, then moving forward in decisive manners that change the future for the better. Each gal is an activist and a leader of people. Pauline and Sharon consistently beat the odds, taking charge as necessary to help themselves and others live better lives.

* * * * *

Pauline’s people, the Timbisha Shoshone, lived here harmoniously with the land until the growing influx of gold-seeking Europeans began to change things in the latter 1800s. What was once free and open land on which her people could exist, was gradually taken away by a new culture that believed in land ownership. Eventually, commercial corporations and the United States government took the land of the Timbisha Shoshone for their own financial and political uses, leaving Pauline’s people without a home.

She completed her eighth grade education in a one-room schoolhouse at the ranch, and then attended four years of high school in Lone Pine, California, which was the nearest school, 100 miles distant. Pauline never married or had children. She spent time with her elders, and learned of their desperation. “What’s going to happen to us?” They felt so defeated. They could barely speak the American language. Their human rights as the “Newe” (people of the land) were violated by the newcomers.

Pauline entered into a life dedicated to righting the social injustices perpetrated on the tribe. She fought to have their land returned to them, from a government that had claimed it as its own as part of a national “manifest destiny” mindset. The new people called this place Death Valley, in stark contrast to beliefs of the Timbisha Shoshone, who see it as a valley of life.

Today the US government recognizes the Newe as a tribe. This is largely due to Pauline’s powerful efforts to help her people over the course of numerous years. Pauline Esteves led ongoing efforts to bring change to this oppressed segment of the Shoshone Nation. Through many long and arduous times of dedicated toil, including testimony in Washington DC, this drive ultimately proved victorious, and in 1983, the United States government officially recognized the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe. Later, during President Clinton’s administration, the passage of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act presented over 7,700 acres of non contiguous land in California and Nevada to the tribe – land that was once theirs is once again.

Pauline is now retired, but still involved as an activist nationally and internationally on matters her elders taught to her as a young girl. She is a member of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Council.

* * * * *

Sharon’s first visit predated the US government’s acceptance of Pauline’s tribe as a sovereign entity, but by the time she permanently moved to Furnace Creek in 1984, the Timbisha Shoshone had made significant strides forward with their freedom. Sharon was just happy to be here, likely sharing some of the same appreciation for the countryside that Pauline held.

The story of Sharon Funck is one of victory over personal fear, which then morphed into a tragic situation that was ultimately turned into a means of helping people in times of severe need. Like Pauline, Sharon is a woman who moves forward and takes charge, putting her own needs behind those of others, thereby ensuring the greater good.

One thing she was afraid of was sleeping alone in the desert. Sharon would go into the desert by her cabin, then the first coyote or scorpion she heard or saw would immediately cause her to pack up and hightail it for home. In order to overcome this fear, she decided to walk to Stovepipe Wells, a small settlement 24 miles northwest, camping at the midpoint. This would force her to confront the fears head-on. No matter how scared she would become, she could not get back home.

What this did for Sharon’s spirit and love of the land was significant enough that she continued doing this two-day walk every year during the first weekend in May for the next ten years. In 1998, she met and married a local plumber. When her new husband learned about the walk, he was ready to go with her. He was disappointed that it was something she had to do alone.

Devastatingly, a 2006 cancer diagnosis changed her life forever. She had to drive five hours a day, on a roundtrip to Las Vegas for medical treatments, many times over the months, thereby suffering a heavy financial burden. The treatments prevented her from doing her walk that year. Her daughter did it for her. Several other friends also did the walk for her to show their support.

From these fearful beginnings, the Death Valley Walk For Life began. Now, several years later, an ever growing group still does the walk, but they have started an official non-profit organization, with the goal to raise money through bake sales, golf tournaments, silent auction, and donations. The members give emotional and financial support to help employees of Death Valley fight cancer.

People from all over the United States now come to Death Valley to walk, including folks from the east coast. Last year saw participation of seventy walkers. They carry a scroll from Furnace Creek to Stovepipe Wells, with  names of people who are currently fighting, have survived, or have passed from cancer. After the first day’s walk, they enjoy a meal together at their overnight camp, and have a candle lighting ceremony to honor those on the scroll. These courageous folks also enjoy activities like foot baths and massages, and sitting around comparing blisters.

* * * * *

The paths of Pauline and Sharon are fundamentally different. They grew up with different teachings and philosophies, different challenges, and different viewpoints regarding this country’s government. Through life circumstances, they now share the same legendary land as their home. Both of these women have made a difference for themselves and others fortunate enough to be associated with them. Both know what it takes to be the change they want to see in the world.

* * * * *

In the fall of 2009, I was privileged to personally meet Pauline and Sharon. I had ridden a human-powered tricycle from the central Oregon coast to Death Valley after having been invited to speak about one of my Death Valley books at the 60th annual Death Valley 49ers encampment. I had been in touch with Pauline via telephone for the past year prior to meeting her in person. I learned of and met Sharon for the first time as a customer at the Wrangler Steakhouse at the end of October.

Pauline personally made me a mouth-watering Indian taco. Sharon personally brought me a delicious salad. These two women, modest gals who have achieved great things in their lives, both humbly provided me with food. They served me, even though they have served so many others in ways that far eclipse anything I have ever done regarding the public well-being. It is a testament to their sincere passion for easing the pains of life’s burdens … as well as my appetite.

Thanks ladies. My hat is off to you both! May the winds remain calm …

* * * * *

Pauline Esteves and Steve have an afternoon chat after the Indian taco lunch

Sharon Funck and Steve at the Wrangler Steakhouse


Read Pauline’s story HERE. Read Sharon’s story HERE.







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