Tribe seeks to regain a homeland
WASHINGTON – Death Valley is an unfortunate name given to an area that for thousands of years has been the lifeblood of a displaced band of Indians known as the Timbisha Shoshone tribe.
The desert, the tribe believes, has a spiritual power to heal. Only when white men arrived in the late 1800s was the Timbisha tribe exposed to disease, and they pushed the tribe off its homeland and nearly out of existence.
A bill moving through Congress could help the tribe.
At a hearing last week before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, tribal members, federal officials and scholars urged lawmakers to approve legislation that would direct the Department of Interior to transfer about 10,000 acres of federal land in California and Nevada in and around Death Valley National Park to the 280-member tribe.
The tribe wants 2,800 acres of Bureau of Land Management land at Scotty’s Junction just west of Nellis Air Force Bombing and Gunnery Range, and 2,800 acres near Lida. In addition, the bill would authorize the Interior Department to buy 2,430 acres of private ranch land near Lida on behalf of the tribe.
In California, the tribe seeks 300 acres in Furnace Creek inside the park, 1,000 acres at Death Valley Junction and 640 acres in Centennial. The measure would establish a 3,000-acre buffer zone in the park for the tribe to use for traditional uses.
”I have been waiting 67 years, since 1933, when President Hoover seized our land and established the Death Valley National Monument,” said tribal Chairwoman Pauline Esteves, who recalled how members of the tribe were forced to move off the land into other parts of California and Nevada.
The tribe’s government office is in two mobile homes near the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center of Death Valley National Park.
The bill is the result of six years of negotiations between the Timbisha Shoshone tribe and the Clinton administration to find homelands for the tribe, as required by the California Desert Protection Act of 1994.
Catherine Fowler, an anthropologist with the University of Nevada, Reno, testified that the Timbisha people and their closest relatives once occupied 15,000 square miles incorporated into Death Valley National Park and surrounding areas from Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada to Owens Valley, Calif., and from Lida south to Shoshone, Calif.
Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both D-Calif. have sponsored the bill with Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii. Inouye assured the tribe that he plans to move the bill to the Senate floor as soon as possible.
Sens. Harry Reid and Richard Bryan, both D-Nev., are withholding support until they see stronger language regarding Indian gaming on the land.
”What I would rather have is that there would be no gambling,” said Reid, who sits on the Indian Affairs Committee. Despite assurances that the tribe does not plan to pursue gaming, Reid said he is concerned it might build a casino in California.
The tribe has applied for designation in California as a nongaming tribe, which would entitle it to revenues from other California tribes that do run gaming facilities.
A draft report on the agreement between the tribe and the government said the tribe’s economic development plans are focused on establishing a tribal museum, gift shop and inn at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center and houses and small businesses on other California and Nevada parcels.
”If that’s the case, they should put that in the act,” said Reid, who added he might block the legislation.
Bryan said no one from the tribe has requested meeting with him, but because some of the land is in Nevada, he would like to discuss the issues with tribal leaders.
Tribal administrator Barbara Durham said the tribe has requested a meeting with Reid but so far has met only members of his staff, who never brought up the senator’s concerns about gaming.
”I don’t have to meet with them to object to something,” Reid said. ”They can read about it in the paper. I have no obligation to meet with a California tribe.”