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Timbisha Shoshone one step closer to land base in Death Valley

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DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL MONUMENT, Calif. - The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe is one step closer to regaining some of their ancestral lands. The Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act that would authorize the establishment of tribal lands in Death Valley National Monument has passed the United States Senate.

The 300 member Timbisha Shoshone have been federally recognized since the early 1980s but have had no land base. The current congressional bill would authorize the tribe to have over 300 acres in the park and 7000 acres on neighboring lands currently managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Death Valley is one of the largest parks in the National Park Service with 3.5 million acres. The lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level, is within the park. It has also recorded the second warmest temperature on earth - 136 degrees in 1911. The Timbisha Shoshone have long endured the inhospitable climate and terrain as they have maintained a presence in what is now the park for several thousand years.

The Homeland Act began with the federal 1994 Desert Protection Act whose language paved the way for the Timbisha Shoshone, among other tribes, to reclaim some federal lands. Senators Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced and sponsored the Homelands Act.

Calls to the senators were not immediately returned.

Dick Martin, superintendent for Death Valley National Monument says that he wants to be able to put the past behind.

"There has been whole lot of finger pointing over the last 60 to 70 years. We want to enter into a new era with a government-to-government partnership," Martin says.

Current negotiations have been going on for more than two years, he says. The National Park Service has been the lead agency for the federal government and the bureau and several other agencies have been involved.

They have agreed to fund the Legislative Environmental Impact Report, which is receiving comments from local governments and citizens.

Martin also confirms that the tribe will be able to do some economic development in the park. He says he is pleased with their suggestions. These plans do not include gaming, although tribal sources say it has not been indefinitely ruled out.

Some suggestions include tribal housing, a gift shop, hotels and an interpretive center. Timbisha Tribal Administrator Barbara Durham says the interpretive center is particularly important to the tribe.

"I don't see why our tribal history has to be done by someone else. Tourists, particularly from Europe, are always asking about Indians and tribal traditions. It should come from us and not a park ranger."

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Timbisha was concerned about certain managerial decisions in Death Valley. The National Park Service was alarmed that the tribe wanted a voice in park management, Durham says. The initial solution was to give the tribe a 99-year lease it thought unacceptable.

"We wanted something more permanent, so we could know that this land was finally ours and we could teach our children the old ways," Durham says.

The Timbisha effort was bolstered by support from several other tribes who signed a resolution and held demonstrations for the tribe.

Housing is an important element for Timbisha. Of the 280 tribal members only about 40 live in the park. Durham feels a land base with economic development will allow more tribal members to live and work in the park.

Dorothy Alther works for California Indian Legal Services in Bishop. Her agency has been helping in negotiations by providing the tribe with legal counsel. She says that the National Park Service has been hailing the Homelands Act as a successful example of tribal-federal relations.

Alther says that the Homelands Act will go to the House Resources Committee where her agency is interested in creating a bill identical to the Homelands Act.

"It's an election year and Congress is distracted so I have no idea how long this will take. For right now, we'll have to wait," Alther says.

Waiting is something Timbisha Tribal Chairwoman Pauline Estevez is used to. She has been chairwoman on and off since the early 1970s and blames ignorance for the federal government failing to negotiate sooner.

"Euro-Americans in general have no idea of what a tribal government is. They need to teach about it in the schools. This issue is all about sovereignty. If we don't use it, we'll lose it," Estevez says.

She says she feels the biggest obstacle facing the Homelands Act is reaction from local governments and citizens. She singles out Inyo County where she says local "political plays" have created problems in negotiations.

A meeting is scheduled for mid-August where the tribe will meet with the local governments to try to lessen their fears.

Estevez says she has seen too much to be overly optimistic yet she remains hopeful.

"Everyone tells me to think positively, but at my age and after all the things I've seen, it's hard. Maybe if this bill goes through my trust will come back."