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Desert Indians: Death Valley History

Indian Culture in Death Valley

For millennia, American Indian peoples lived within the area, using the resources and lands to sustain their lives and cultures. These lands have been and continue to be subject to active, often dramatic, and ever-changing natural forces that can alter water supplies, change vegetation zones, make new landforms from tectonic or volcanic events, and include cutting or filling geological processes. Climatic changes that have occurred since the end of the Ice Age have altered moisture in lakes and marshes, affected animal populations and plant life, and challenged humans to adapt. This area is characterized by a series of parallel, northward-draining trough-like valleys between north-south oriented mountain systems that form rain shadows, resulting in more evaporation than precipitation and general aridity. The basic necessities for human life of American Indian peoples are present – water and food, materials for tools, access to routes for traveling, special places for spiritual rites that continue today, and a sense of land association and place identity. These peoples’ presence has resulted in a tangible heritage of cultural materials, remembered place names and associations, and attachments to the land from history to modern times.

Nonnative people describe lands as typical of the Great Basin geomorphological zone and of the Sonoran-Mojave Deserts in biological terms. From valley floors to mountain peaks, a series of environmental zones is described from lower elevation scrub plant communities, through Joshua Tree and pinyon-juniper woodlands, to higher elevations of mixed pine and pinyon woodlands. The valleys often contain dry lakes or playas. Transitional foothill zones are cut by drainage systems, forming seeps, springs, and active seasonal streams. To American Indian peoples now known as Mohave, Shoshone, Paiute, Serrano, Chemehuevi, and Kawaiisu, the lands were occupied and used in many ways, with flexible boundaries among these tribal groups. These peoples are differentiated by language, varied subsistence patterns, and self-identification. Specific historic geographical associations to the planning area and places are known from compilations of information used in Federal Indian Land Claims court cases during the l950s and l960s.

In general, tribal peoples historically occupied their lands in small, mobile social units of related families who traveled in regular patterns, establishing summer or winter camps in customary places with water supplies, often located at a border between scrub or woodland zones. Some localities contained richer and more dependable food resources than others, but the lands did not support large numbers of persons at any one location. Many plants yielded seed, nut, tuber, or fiber foods, prepared for consumption or for storage at convenient caches. Large or small land mammals were hunted or caught, birds such as doves or quail were snared, and reptiles were collected, but not all plants or fauna were sought. The diet for these native peoples was largely vegetarian, supplemented by mammals, reptiles, and insect sources. Certain places on the lands were and are today considered specially significant; for example, landforms named in oral accounts of travels by supernatural beings, "hot" springs that have curative purposes, petroglyph sites believed to be the products of the shamans’ supernatural helpers, or topographic landmarks identified in complex chants known today as "bird songs." In essence, "oral maps" of the planning area still exist today in ceremonial knowledge held by certain Mohave and Chemehuevi individuals. Other tribal members have documented descriptive names in Shoshone language for places of settlement, gathering camps, and other important locations in the study area.

In the past two centuries American Indian peoples inhabiting the area have changed their territorial ranges in reaction to European and later American direct and indirect pressures, as well as intertribal struggles. U.S. military presence increased at Camp Cady, east of Mojave National Preserve, at established posts in the Owens Valley and at Fort Mohave along the Colorado River in response to increasing American settlers, miners, and ranchers. This resulted in establishment of more concentrated reservations and communities by the early 20th century. Earlier movements were caused by groups of families moving toward growing towns, shifting populations from more traditional scattered patterns. For example, from the southern Nevada portion of Southern Paiute-held areas, people now known as Chemehuevi had moved toward the Colorado River valley early in the 19th century. Kawaiisu, Koso (also known as Panamint Shoshone) and Serrano peoples were jointly using terrain around the Granite and Providence Mountain ranges during the 19th century. Four parcels of land held in trust for American Indian families and individuals became established around Death Valley. These Bureau of Indian Affairs allotments of 160 acres each of trust land, made for residential and ranching purposes of families already living in the immediate areas, were called Indian Ranch, Saline Valley Ranch, Warm Springs Ranch, and Hungry Bill Ranch. Lands within Indian Ranch and Saline Valley Ranch are now retained by descendants. Warm Springs and Hungry Bill parcels were purchased for inclusion in the former Death Valley National Monument.

In the l950 –1960s, Federal Indian Lands Claims cases involving Chemehuevi, Mojave, and Owens Valley Paiute tribes included documented occupation and use of many mountain ranges, valleys, and resources in the study area. Today’s tribal governments and communities historically associated with the study area are as follows:

  • Lone Pine, Fort Independence, Big Pine, and Bishop Indian Tribes were originally established by presidential executive order in 1912. These Owens Valley reservations were altered by land exchanges in the late l930s for residential purposes for Owens Valley Paiute populations. Each reservation is several hundred acres but cannot support development of tribal enterprises. Wage work, some small-scale ranching and gardening, and some crafts provide income to tribal members. Each community is from 250 to 400 enrolled persons, including intermarried Shoshone and other individuals.
  • Timbisha Shoshone tribal peoples include those known as Coso, Panamint and Death Valley Shoshone who ranged within a large area including most of Death Valley National Park and nearby Bureau of Land Management Lands north of Ridgecrest, CA, and along the Nevada-California state line. Timbisha Shoshone were federally recognized in 1983 and have approximately 300 enrolled members.
  • The Las Vegas Piute Tribe is composed of "Nuwuvi" people, called Paiute by others, who inhabited present-day southern Nevada from pre-European time to present. In 1911 a small parcel of trust land was established near the town of Las Vegas. Today, the tribe owns the original 16-acre area and a 3,800-acre area north of metropolitan Las Vegas. The tribe numbers about 100 people who gain their economic support from tribal tourism enterprises, retail sales, and wage work.
  • The Pahrump Paiute Colony is a nonfederally recognized community of Paiute families in the Pahrump, Nevada area. This organization has served the social and political purposes of the people for more than two decades. It has an informal council leadership and operates on traditional principles of consensus. Population is unknown.


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