Death Valley. The name evokes a bleached and desiccated ox skull on a vast alkali flat, a desert night snake hiding in the cool shade of its cranial vault. The name whispers of parched Gold Rushers killing their pack animals for food, of ferocious winds and murderous heat.
Death Valley, a place of cursed extremes.
Before Death Valley was given its grim moniker, however, it was the home to the Timbisha Shoshone, ancestors of the Uto-Aztecans, who moved into the region more than 1,000 years ago. For them, this was no Death Valley, but rather a challenging but manageable sliver of land in a larger, 11-million acre grocery store with everything they needed to survive, so long as they worked hard, and were smart.
It is, however—and was—the hottest, driest and lowest place in North America. If you were to measure the vertical drop from the highest mountain in Death Valley, the 11,049-foot Telescope Peak, to Badwater Basin 282 feet below sea level, you’d find that it’s twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. This is a place that has had 154 straight days of temperatures at or above 100 degrees (summer of 2001) and 40 consecutive days above 120 (1996). On July 15, 1972, the temperature at Furnace Creek, a tiny oasis village located in the valley, was 201 degrees.
Why is it so dry and so hot? The dearth of moisture can be blamed on the four major mountain ranges that lie between the valley and the Pacific Ocean. These natural barriers are moisture-robbers, sucking the passing clouds dry so by the time they arrive in the valley, they’re often nothing more than dry “rainshadows.” The intense heat is due to the valley’s depth and shape. At 282 feet below sea level, walled in by high, steep mountains, the heat flourishes in the clear and dry air, with little plant cover to offer cooling shadows. Heat bakes the desert surface, and radiates back up from the soil and rocks, and gets trapped in the valley. Summer nights are a cool 90 degrees, so as the heat rises, it gets trapped by the mountain walls, and gets cooled and recycled back down to the valley floor in pockets of descending air. These pockets are compressed and reheated by the pressure of the low elevation, becoming superhot masses of moving air that sweep through the valley, creating those extreme temperatures.
So when—and how—did the Timbisha Shoshone not only live here, but thrive? Linguistic evidence indicates that they moved to what is now called Death Valley in 900 A.D. They survived by coaxing the specific bounty that existed in and around the valley and by being ruthlessly logical: When it got too hot, they moved to cooler country. They had to plan seasons ahead, managing a terrain the gold seekers and borax miners of the mid-19th century found so deadly they changed its name to its current dark moniker from Tümpisa, which means “rock paint,” referring to the clay in the valley they made into red ochre paint.
The Timbisha spent the months preceding winter gathering non-perishables such as pine nuts, mesquite beans and seeds. Winter in the valley is relatively mild, which allowed them to live in modest conical brush houses, allowing breezes to move through the arrow weed walls. They usually built these homes near mesquite groves, which were natural habitats for small game animals and birds that they hunted to round out their diet. The mesquite trees were crucial to the Timbisha; they harvested the tree’s beans in winter. These forbidding environs made them fairly safe from Mojaves, known to attack the Arizona and Southern California tribes during the winter months.
In the summer, when the heat was untenable for humans, the Timbisha moved to cooler elevations—the Grapevine Mountains to the northeast or the Panamint Range in the west. They foraged for berries, roots, seeds and pine nuts. They hunted mule deer, yellow-bellied marmot, bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbit, chuckwalla and other small game. They stayed in the mountains until the first snowfall, then returned to their winter homes in the valley.
Like other Great Basin tribes, they knew they had to set fire to scrub vegetation in order to clean riparian areas of unwanted plants and stimulate the growth of others, like tobacco, and to increase seed production. They pruned the low branches of the vital mesquite and pinion pine trees so their beans would be easier to harvest. The pruning also protected the mesquite grove from the constant blowing sand, which would collect around low-hanging limbs and form dunes that killed the beans. They pinched the new growth at the tips of each pinion pine branch to stimulate more cone production.
In short, the Timbisha Shoshone found the valley to be anything but a death-sentence. They managed to flourish there for a millennium. The valley was a sacred place for them, and they believed they had been placed in the region by the creator, Appü. They integrated their subsistence hunting and gathering with spiritual practices that honored the mesquite groves and mountains, meadows and springs. They believed they were living in a magical valley, a place of abundance.
Then came the gold seekers of 1849, blundering through the valley on their way to northern California. They killed most of their oxen to keep from starving to death. As the story goes, a group of pioneers got lost in the valley in the winter of 1849, and one of their group died. They all assumed the valley would be their mass grave. Then came two young scouts, William Lewis Manly and John Rogers. They led the party out of the desert and over the Panamint Range, when one of the men turned and looked back, and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
The Timbisha didn’t have long to wait until more outsiders came into their homeland, now bearing its new, terrible name. The promise of silver and borax brought prospectors and miners. Panamint City was built in the 1870s, filled with the Chinese and the Basques who had come to work in the borax mines. Borax also brought the famous Twenty Mule Teams that pulled the massive wagons of the mineral, which is used in detergent, cosmetics, fire retardants, insecticides and fiberglass from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek to the railhead stationed near Mojave. This operation lasted six years, from 1883 to 1889, yet became a fixed symbol of the Old West. This 165-mile, 10-day trip was later capitalized upon by some of America’s first radio advertising campaigns that promoted the 20 Mule Team Borax Soap on the Death Valley Days serial.
The Timbisha’s way of life was altered completely. The mining companies obtained legal rights to vital water sources they had used for centuries. Frank M. “Borax” Smith bought Harmony Borax Works in 1890, and changed the name to become the Pacific Coast Borax Company with the 20 Mule Team Borax brand. The Timbisha were relocated several times, but they never left their homeland.
In 1933, Death Valley became a national monument, adding more challenges for the Timbisha. The National Park Service appeared to the Timbisha no different than the indifferent, if not outright hostile, mining operations. Federal policies regarding the park and the Timbisha changed from decade to decade, until finally the Timbisha resettled back in Furnace Creek in 1936. The tribe remained in their village despite the legal ambiguities of their situation, and Pauline Esteves, a Timbisha elder, with the help of the California Indian Legal Services, began petitioning the government for a formal reservation in the 1960s.
In 1983, the Panamint Shoshone finally became a federally recognized tribe, naming themselves the Timbisha Shoshone, making them one of the first tribes to secure tribal status through the Bureau of Indian Affairs federal acknowledgement process, but few of the benefits of being federally recognized were realized.
By 1990 their reservation was a patch of lakeside real estate and their population was down to 200. The National Park Service maintains a study on the site that showcases the daunting federal hurdles the Timbisha continued to face for the next decade: On Halloween of 1994, Congress passed and President Clinton signed into law the California Desert Protection Act, which designated Death Valley a National Park and enlarged the protected area. Section 705(b) mandated a study be done of the Timbisha Shoshone “land situation.”
In late May 1995, a joint meeting of the appointed officials to initiate the study was held at Death Valley. They had four meetings over the course of the summer, and by November they submitted their first report to Congress. In December, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Ada Deer hosted a meeting between Interior officials and a tribal delegation at the Main Interior Building. Then the United States government was shut down for three weeks thanks to a showdown between President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress over Medicare, education, environment and public health funding. By the time the government was back up and running, federal negotiators met in Washington without tribal participation, followed by the Timbisha breaking off talks after a meeting at Cow Creek in Death Valley.
For the next four years, the Timbisha battled the U.S. government for proper land rights, aligned with Greenpeace, wrote President Clinton directly, collaborated with the Alliance to Protect Native Rights in National Parks, and held high-level negotiations with Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Donald Barry. In February 1999, the Timbisha got creative, and submitted The Timbisha Shoshone Tribal Homeland – A Draft Secretarial Report to Congress to Establish a Permanent Tribal Land Base and Related Cooperative Activities to Congress and to the public. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, then requested that the Department of the Interior draft a bill for Congress pursuant to the secretarial report. In March 2000 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation, and on July 19, the Senate passed the bill. Three months later, on Oct. 17, the House passed the bill.
On Nov. 1, 2000, President Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act into law; and 7,500 acres of their ancestral homeland was returned. Their numbers have doubled in recent years, and as they remain in and around their sacred home, the Timbisha Shoshone are alive in a valley they would never call “Death.”