How the Timbisha Shoshone Got Their Land Back


“In our religion we don’t practice within four walls. Our religion is written in all these mountains and in the valleys, in the waters, in the wildlife—everything that belongs to the Creator. So, we’re in church everyday. That’s what we say.” —Pauline Esteves, 92, Timbisha Shoshone Elder, November 2015

It is no secret that many Native Americans were displaced and in some cases removed outright from ancestral lands during the founding of some of America’s most prized national parks. Death Valley National Park is no exception. When President Herbert Hoover established through executive order two million acres of Death Valley and the surrounding region as Death Valley National Monument (DVNM) on February 11, 1933, it was done under the presumption that this “uninhabited” wilderness had no permanent residents.

Scattered prospecting and mining activities had occurred within the proposed monument boundaries during the mid- to late nineteenth century onward but only Pacific Coast Borax Company managed to have any lasting commercial presence here. After relocating their borate operations to more economically productive areas elsewhere in the Mojave Desert, company brass successfully lobbied the federal government to create the monument—which conveniently supported their foray into the hospitality tourism business while making use of the existing but now obsolete borax shipping rail line. Instead of hauling borax the trains would convey adventuresome tourists into Death Valley to stay at their swank, newly constructed Furnace Creek Inn, built in 1927. Outside of this development, along with the nearby Harmony Borax Works and a handful of other private inholdings and mining claims, Death Valley was considered “vacant” and thus ideal for national monument status. This determination discounted the fact that an aboriginal people—the Timbisha Shoshone—did indeed occupy this valley—especially the area at Furnace Creek and had done so for an eternity.[1]

Tümpisa (Timbisha) is the Shoshone name of red ochre earth sourced by the Old Ones from the Black Hills overlooking the popular Furnace Creek recreational area. This medicinal material is smudged onto their faces and used in their homes to “strengthen their spirituality.” At times Tümpisa was provided to other Shoshone bands that traveled to the valley in order to obtain it because of its “powerful healing properties.”[2] The Timbisha have in fact resided in Death Valley—a contemporary place name that many Timbisha loathe—for thousands of years. Vast physical artifacts affirming their occupation can be found throughout its borders including the often overlooked Grinding Rock at the Furnace Creek Inn’s lower parking lot with foot deep holes on its surface that were created from the continuous grinding of mesquite beans into flour over time.

The decision by the federal government in the 1930s to exclude the Timbisha from the monument was a conscious one. After all, the Timbisha had no treaty rights because they were not officially recognized as a tribal entity with no sovereign land base to call home—rendering any bargaining power that the Timbisha may have had as nil. Rather than admit that the Timbisha had a long and enduring presence here, federal officials simply chose to “pretend” that the Indians did not exist in Death Valley to allow the proposed national monument to proceed as planned.

Tüpippüh is the Timbisha name for their ancestral homeland. Tüpippüh encompasses the valley floor, playas, dunes, springs, meadows and mountains—every landform and ecology within the borders of today’s national park and the surrounding region. Although anthropologists believe that their Uto-Aztecans ancestors migrated into the region more than 1,000 years ago, the Timbisha state that they have been here from time immemorial.

Both Timbisha oral traditions and archeological findings recognize that traditional Timbisha people moved seasonally between semi-permanent villages throughout greater Death Valley. At these encampments they made use of or harvested a variety of plant and animal resources when seasonally available. Winter villages were located in four different areas within Death Valley proper but also within Panamint and Saline Valleys plus other locations. In the current vicinity of Furnace Creek, families lived in conical brush houses among three to ten related family groups near native mesquite groves that are still present in the valley. This location was ideal as meticulously managed groves provided ample cover for small game to be tracked and hunted plus the mesquite’s beans provided an important winter food source.

As the valley floor became unbearably hot during the summer months, family groups traveled to the cooler mountainous elevations to camps at Wildrose Canyon where piñon nuts, seeds, roots, berries were communally harvested, and to hunt a variety of game including bighorn sheep, mule deer, yellow-bellied marmot and black-tailed jackrabbit.[3] Normally about fifty people gathered together at these summer camps. During particularly plentiful annual harvests, more than 100 individuals could be present. The summer communes also served an important social function where relatives could reacquaint themselves or where marriages were arranged. All hunting, food gathering and travel to seasonal camps were banned after the founding of the monument, with the exception of a few special-use permits to collect pine nuts and some other native foods within its boundaries.

By 1933 plenty of hard evidence supported the existence of semi-permanent Timbisha Shoshone encampments within Death Valley and monument administrators were certainly aware of this conflict. Just a few months after DVNM was established, newly appointed superintendent John R. White—who was concurrently heading Sequoia National Park—stated on an October 1933 radio broadcast that “one of the problems there will be looking after the hundred or two Indians who range within the monument.”[4] White’s indifferent response subtly reflects the cornerstone of contemporary wildlands conservancy which was first spelled out in the groundbreaking 1964 Wilderness Act, stating that Wilderness is a place where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain” and precludes aboriginal people from these same places even if their ancestral tenure goes back thousands of years.[5] In White’s and his colleagues’ view, the Timbisha simply did not belong here any longer. Thus began the conscious effort by federal officials during the mid-twentieth century to attempt to sever Timbisha’s deep attachment to this particular landscape.

Historically, only one federally recognized Indian claim existed within the monument prior to its founding, belonging to the relatives of Hungry Bill, a Timbisha Shoshone who filed on acreage in Johnson Canyon in 1907 but failed to receive his patent upon death in 1919. Bill’s heirs persisted and managed to secure the 160-acre allotment by the late 1920s.[6] By 1936 complications arose when another Timbisha named Robert Thompson filed another successful claim at Warm Springs, and like the claim of Hungry Bill, the land was located on the eastern slope of the Panamint Range. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) supported this effort in order to protect land that Thompson’s family had farmed since the 1880s from a group of determined miners that were at the time leasing the property and had contested Thompson’s right to ownership in order to take control of it for their mining operation and profit.

Reacting to the Thompson case, White commented, “I do not believe that these Indians should be allowed to patent the springs which are of the greatest importance for public use and for monument development.” Thompson did receive his patent but no other Timbisha man (or woman) would do so afterwards. By the 1950s, the combined 200 acres of Hungry Bill’s and Thompson’s allotments had been back sold to the federal government with BIA support.[7]

Grinding Rock, an ancient Timbisha mesquite grinding site pictured in the foreground at Furnace Creek Inn's lower parking lot. In recent years part of the remaining rock artifact washed away during a flash flood. No sign or marker designates this historical site. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

It is interesting to note that several early-twentieth century newspaper articles shared the popular account of “Panamint George” Hanson, a Timbisha Shoshone born in the Death Valley in 1841, who as a young boy witnessed the forlorn Jayhawker ’49er party struggling across the desiccated playa near Furnace Creek near where his family’s winter village was located.[8] Growing up, I was led to believe that the ’49ers existed in some kind of cultural vacuum—as if they were the first humans to gaze upon what they consequently regarded, because of their adverse experience, as “Death Valley.” My middle school history lesson did not include the memoir of a ’49er corroborating Hansen’s account describing a “big Indian camp” in the vicinity of Furnace Creek.[9] I wonder what went through George’s mind as he watched the Jayhawkers in bewilderment when they burned their wagons and slaughtered their oxen in their gold driven lust turned into a survival-of-the-fittest nightmare?

Other early records documented area Indian settlements including an 1891 report of government expedition, stating that “Panamint” Indians (the name given to the Timbisha at the time) had been long cultivating “acres of corn, potatoes, squashes and melons in the southern end of the Death Valley” confirming public documentation of Timbisha occupation within the valley prior to 1900.[10]

White’s previous comment clearly references the 1916 National Park Service Organic Act mandate promoting public use of the country’s national park resources in a manner that would “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” He and other agency officials were additionally concerned that the Timbisha would require federal assistance down the line—an issue that the agency was not prepared to address or fiscally take on. Visiting tourists naively described the Timbisha as “destitute” in their “squalid” village adjacent to Furnace Creek which only made matters only worse for monument officials. However, some humanitarian-minded individuals in the NPS and the BIA came together to lay groundwork to “improve” the lives of the resident Timbisha through an official memorandum agreement, “Establishing a Colony of Indians on the Death Valley National Monument,” signed on May 23, 1936.

The first improvement was the relocation of the Indians to an out-of-view forty-acre sandy tract. With $5,000 provided by the BIA, a collection of 11 discrete adobe houses were built in 1938. None of these structures had electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, heating or cooling.[11] A fee of $3 was established for maintenance but never collected by NPS rangers, so repairs were never completed over the years that they stood in the location. Employment within the monument was not offered to Timbisha men, so many left the area in order to find work to support their families. A laundry and trading post where Timbisha women would be on display creating and marketing native crafts were the only economic opportunities that the NPS provided and these endeavors were short lived.[12]

The BIA had initially funded the project in an effort to create a Timbisha land holding that would eventually transfer into Indian trust territory, allowing the Timbisha to gain recognition under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Unfortunately, the BIAs attempt was shortsighted in that only an act of Congress could transfer public land out of a national monument. This failed effort left the Timbisha without a sovereign homeland. The federal government continued to view them as “ward” Indians who could not obtain official standing without land. So the Timbisha became viewed as “squatters” in their own ancestral home well into the latter part of the twentieth century.

By mid 1950s Furnace Creek’s Indian Village was in a deplorable state. Several of the adobes were now crumbling down even though families continued to occupy them. Rather than repairing them, the NPS (who was actively eliminating NPS inholdings wherever possible)—with approval of the BIA (who was under pressure from Congress at the time to “get out of the Indian business”) decided to consciously eliminate the community through a planned administrative policy that annulled the previous 1936 memorandum of understanding.

Referred to as the “Death Valley Village Indian Housing Policy,” this program (adopted in 1957) gave implicit permission for NPS officials to destroy homes that appeared abandoned and also forbade repairs without NPS approval. The policy was particularly cruel in that the NPS administration was well aware that the Timbisha undertook annual trips to the high country during the extreme summer months just as their ancestors had done so ages before them. Homes left temporarily would be targeted for destruction.

Incoming DVNM superintendent Fred W. Binnewies ordered five of the “unoccupied” partially collapsed structures to be hosed down with water, which dissolved due to their earthen composition.[13]

This act completely demoralized Timbisha onlookers, including Pauline Esteves, 92, who was in her early thirties at the time. As a child Esteves had witnessed three separate forced relocations of her people’s village to increasingly less desirable locations in the vicinity of Furnace Creek. Out of fear of having all of the homes destroyed—most likely leading to their forced eviction—Esteves’ mother Rosie and four of her sisters collectively refused to pay the special-use permit fee and remained within their homes in defiance of the NPS’s official removal policy until monument officials some years later halted their plans for eviction, anticipating that the remaining village occupants would abandon it once the women passed away. [14] Monument officials were foolishly unaware that younger, insuppressible Timbisha would take their place.

After years of the persistent activism of Pauline Esteves and many others—along with assistance of the California Indian Legal Services—the Timbisha Shoshone received federal tribal recognition as a sovereign entity in 1983. However, they continued to be landless, and this status remained the community’s priority issue into the 1990s when it escalated into a crisis.

To provide a context, Congress supported a provisional study for trust lands suitable for the Timbisha inside the monument that was included in the California Desert Protection Act (CDPA) signed into law by President Clinton on October 31, 1994. The act also renamed the monument as Death Valley National Park (DVNP), increasing its holdings by another 1.3-million acres, creating the largest U.S. national park with the exception of those in Alaska.

The process to identify trust lands after the signing of CDPA took a contentious turn between the tribal members and their representatives, the NPS and the Department of the Interior after negotiations failed. Impatient with the unproductive dialog between parties, Timbisha Shoshone representatives struck up a partnership with the Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks and organized around seventy-five protestors including several Timbisha elders along with Indians from neighboring tribes and representatives from four environmental groups like Greenpeace. The group assembled in the early morning on Memorial Day 1996 near the village entrance at State Route 190, carrying placards stating, THIS IS OUR HOMELAND and CULTURAL RESPECT NOT CULTURAL GENOCIDE.[15] The group walked in solidarity a half mile towards the Furnace Creek visitor center in near sweltering heat aided by water cooling stations along the route. Their presence stopped passersby traveling along the S.R. 190 who became curious about all of the commotion that had sparked international news coverage.

Considered a success, the protest, in part, brought about restructured and more inclusive “government-to-government” dialog between all parties involved. This led to the eventual signing of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act by President Clinton in 2000 that turned a global spotlight on the tribe’s sixty-five-year struggle to secure a permanent land base within their ancestral homeland. The act transferred 7,753.99 acres to the tribe, including 313.99 acres at Furnace Creek with the remaining acreage as noncontiguous parcels outside DVNP. It additionally specified “designated special use areas in which tribal members are authorized to pursue low-impact, ecologically sustainable, traditional practices under a management plan mutually agreed upon by the Tribe and the NPS.”[16]

The act does allow modest commercial development, including a visitor center and gift shop, plus a “small-to-moderate” desert inn, but prohibits any future Indian gaming within trust lands inside park boundaries.[17] Special-use areas include seasonal camps at Wildrose and Hunter Mountain, plus a “mesquite use area” near the Furnace Creek village allows tribal members to continue traditional mesquite-harvesting practices within DVNP under a cooperative management plan between the tribe and the NPS. Shortly after the act was passed, the acting park superintendent had the subheading, “Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone” added to the park’s entry signage—a modest, but extremely important gesture for the tribe.

This far-reaching policy shift allowing the Timbisha Shoshone to exist permanently within one of our nation’s national parks sets a precedent affirming Native peoples’ land rights within our shared public lands and confirms their legitimate and continued role as managers and stewards of our most valued wild spaces.

Today thirty-five to forty Timbisha Shoshone live year round in their homeland within DVNP, although their tribal membership numbers 400 regionally. Contemporary Timbisha will continue to face uphill challenges: strife among their tribal membership, and a shortage of younger tribal members willing to learn and implement traditional practices. Although the Timbisha have shown their persistence and resilience in one of the planet’s most harsh environments, climate change will additionally affect their ability to thrive within their ancestral homeland well into the future.

The author consulted with Timbisha tribal elders Pauline Esteves and Barbara Durham for this story. This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

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[1] The Timbisha Shoshone were one of the few groups of western Indians to have “escaped the clutches of reservation life” in the early twentieth century.

[2] Pauline Esteves, Preface to the Draft Secretarial Report to Congress, April 1999, interview with Pauline and author, October 20, 2015, at Timbisha Village, Death Valley, CA.

[3] Theodore Catton, To Make a Better Nation: An Administrative History of the Timbisha Homeland Act, Report Prepared Under Cooperative Agreement with Rocky Mountain Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit for Death Valley National Park, October 2009, 19.

[4] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 23.

[5] For further reading see: William Cronon,“The Trouble with Wilderness: Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90.

[6] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 23.

[7] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 30.

[8] Steven J. Crum, “Pretending They Didn’t Exist: The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley, California and Death Valley National Monument,” Southern California Quarterly 84, No. 3/4 (Fall/Winter 2002): 225.

[9] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 20.

[10] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 21. The author suspects that this is a reference to either Hungry Bill’s or Thompson’s allotment, as they were both known to be farming in this same area.

[11] Timbisha Village did not receive electricity until the mid- to late 1970s. Catton, 33.

[12] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 29.

[13] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 29.

[14] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 30.

[15] Catton, To Make a Better Nation, 5.

[16] Bill Text 106th Congress (1999-2000) S.2102.ENR. Section 4. Definitions. (a).

[17] Barbara Durham, personal communication with the author, June 23, 2016: “A faction of the Tribe chose to move our Administrative office to Bishop. The Tribal Council is proposing a Timbisha Shoshone casino outside our sovereign land bases in Ridgecrest, California.”

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