Timbisha -Shoshone a Step Closer to Homeland

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - Dreams of the Timbisha Shoshone for a homeland, a base for financial self-reliance, where they can preserve language and traditional culture and values, are sustained in a bill before Congress.

The Senate Committee in Indian Affairs heard testimony March 21 on S.2102 which would give the Timbisha Shoeshine a place they could legally call home.

This, I can say, is a great day," said Sen. Daniel Inoyue, D-Hawaii, who introduced the measure co-sponsored by California Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

The bill would provide the Timbisha with a permanent land base within their aboriginal homeland, an area within Death Valley National Park and other areas of California and Nevada. Much of this land is administered by the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

"I have waited all my life for the moment when my tribe could come before the U.S. Congress and ask the federal government to restore my people's ancestral land," said Pauline Esteves, tribal chairwoman.

Beginning in 1850, the Timbisha were driven from their land by homesteaders and ranchers, followed by mining interests.

In 1933 President Herbert Hoover established the Death Valley National Monument, the largest National Park in the lower 48 states. However, the order creating the monument failed to address the legal status of Timbisha land. Since 1936, the tribe has lived and governed its affairs on approximately 40 acres of land near Furnace Creek in the park.

The Timbisha received federal recognition in 1983.

In 1994, as part of the California Desert Protection Act, Congress recognized the Timbisha struggles by requiring the Secretary of the Interior to study and identify lands suitable for a reservation. As a result, a joint tribal-federal negotiating team drafted a comprehensive plan to establish a homeland for the tribe.

Donald Berry, Interiors assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, said S. 2102 would implement the recommendations of the team.

I think this bill had to surmount many challenges, from water rights to gaming ... its something we should not support grudgingly, but willingly," Berry said.

He added that concerns expressed by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., about tribal gaming, are addressed in a provision which prohibits gaming on trust land within the park.

The bill would transfer five parcels of land with 7,540 acres in trust to the Timbisha. This includes 300 acres of Furnace Creek in the park and 7,240 acres of land close to the park in California and Nevada. It would also authorize the park service and land management to designate certain areas as special-use areas under federal law. These areas would remain in federal ownership, however, tribal members would use them for low-impact, ecologically sustainable, traditional practices pursuant to jointly established management plans.

According to bill language, since the tribe used and occupied the Furnace Creek area, its membership has grown. Tribal members have a desire and need for housing, government and administrative facilities, cultural facilities, and sustainable economic development to provide decent, safe, and healthy conditions for themselves and their families."

Tribal administration and community facilities are virtually nonexistent. Our offices are two mobile homes sitting next to one another," said Barbara Durham, tribal administrator.

In a statement read by Sen. Inouye, Sen.Frank H. Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, expressed support for the bill. It said his committee would not stand in the way of passage. "The issue has been delayed enough."

The final Environmental Impact Statement will be completed by July and a draft will be available for public comment in a few weeks.

The bill also gives tribal members access to the park without fees, provides for government-to-government agreements to establish cooperative partnerships and protocols for the review of planned development within the park. The Park service and land management would be authorized to provide training and technical assistance to the tribe and give preferential hiring to qualified members.

We will have land where we can live our lives as a healthy self-governing and financially self-reliant community. We will once again have a homeland where we can teach our young people the Timbisha Shoshone language and the Timbisha Shoshone cultural traditions and values. At last we can save our unique way of life from extinction," said Esteves.