The Timbisha Shoshone Indigenous People and Death Valley National Monument, USA

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Audrey Standish, Bailey Sutherland, Jonny Warschauer, and Noa Mayer.
Map of Death Valley National Park. By National Park Services via Wiki Commons Public Domain.

Timbisha Shoshone Historical Land Management

Anthropologists have found evidence of an indigenous presence in Death Valley dating as far back as 1,000 years[1]. Therefore, in terms of what can be classified as 'time immemorial', the Timbisha Shoshone tribe has occupied much of the land now deemed 'Death Valley National Monument' (DVNM)[2]. Many of the customs practiced by the Timbisha Shoshone people recognized environmental limitations to ensure maintenance of the ecosystem's integrity. This was most clearly seen through their tribe "migration" where they travelled up and down the valley in attempt to escape extreme heat and harsh living conditions. The Timbisha Shoshone also relied heavily on the environment for sustenance, as native piñon pine nuts and mesquite pods were staples of their diet[1]. Despite this history and connection to the land it was not until 1983 (50 years after the establishment of Death Valley National Monument) that the US government formally were recognized the Timbisha Shoshone as a sovereign nation. During 50 year period between when the DVNM was founded and the tribe was declared sovereign, the Timbisha Shoshone continued to live on the land but were barred from any involvement regarding management practices. This change in management practices from traditional Timbisha methods to those developed and followed by the National Park Service (NPS) caused a shift away from management under the recognition of the lands' intrinsic value to a primary emphasis on the instrumental value of the land. This was resolved through the creation of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland act in 2000, which allocated a portion of the park to the Shoshone people and also allowed for dual management between the tribe and Park Service.[2]. Today less than 100 Timbisha Shoshone tribe members live and maintain the territory that their ancestors once occupied and work to reverse the ecological damage the Park Service's mismanagement left behind.

National Park Service Management Methods

The United States National Park Service was created as an official branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson. Founded upon maintaining the pristine land within the United States, their mission is to "preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations." [3] In the last year, the 84 million acres of preserved National Park land across the country received over 330 million visitors, achieving the goals set by the mission statement.

Problems caused by NPS Management Goals

The NPS goal of preserving DVNM in a manner that would reflect an untouched and surreal image of nature often excluded Indigenous and other sovereign groups who held claims to the land in their own right. Implementation of management methods to achieve NPS goals often denied these groups of partaking in practices essential to the preservation of their culture (e.g. fishing and gathering within the bounds of the designated monument in order to ensure it's preservation).[1] However, within the past two decades, more leniency has been granted to these indigenous groups. Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, is an example of this change, where in land is returned and recognized as Timbisha Shoshone territory and co-management methods are becoming increasingly accepted between the tribe and the NPS.

Timbisha Shoshone Tribe Community in Death Valley. By Generic1139 via Wiki Commons. CC BY 3.0

Establishment of Death Valley as a National Monument

When Herbert Hoover signed an executive order establishing Death Valley as a National Monument (DVNM) it was done by ignoring indigenous presence within the monuments boundaries. The Herbert administration stated that the 1,601,800 acres encompassed in Death Valley National Monument were "virgin land" ignoring formal documentation of the Timbisha Shoshone in the area.[4] They also did so despite the Federal and public figures and members of the National Park Service (NPS) who recognized the Timbisha Shoshone's occupation of land in that area. The occupation of this land by the Timbisha Shoshone was ignored for several reasons: acknowledgement of their presence may have hindered or prevented the designation of DVNM, the government would have been tasked with removing the Timbisha Shoshone from within the monuments boundaries and having to engage in discussion with the residing nation regarding land rights and title.[4] It was easier for the Hoover administration to claim that DVNM boundaries were empty land and that is where the root of the problem lies.

History and Evidence of Native American Presence

The Timbisha Shoshone possess strong oral history describing their arrival in Death Valley. They believe that a native woman sent Coyote with a basket full of children westward to the middle of the world which we know to be Death Valley. Once Coyote the little beings sprung from the basket and continued to reside there from that point onward. Furthermore, there are many colonial accounts documenting indigenous presence in Death Valley[4]. For example, In 1875 Lieutenant Roger Birnie Jr. wrote a report that made reference to small scale farming practices carried out by a member of the Timbisha Shoshone with in Death Valley which highlights two things: the presence of indigenous peoples in death valley before the establishment of DVNM and that they were a fairly developed and civilized people who occupied and used the land in a way that colonial powers could recognize.[4] Moreover, after the Northern Californian Indian Association was founded in 1875 Timbisha Shoshone presence in Death Valley was not only documented but also quantified.[4] To their knowledge there were at least nine families (40 individuals) residing in Death Valley at the time this research was being carried out.[5]

Death Valley as a National Park

In 1994, U.S. President Bill Clinton signed the California Desert Protection Act, something hailed as a victory by both the Timbisha and allied environmentalists. The act upgraded Death Valley from a monument to a National Park, meaning the area was deemed a territory of significant aesthetic and cultural value worthy of greater attention and support from the National Park Service. Furthermore, the Act transferred an additional 1.2 million acres to the Park, making Death Valley the largest National Park in the continental United States.[6]

Ignoring the Existence of the Timbisha Shoshone

Other cases of national monument and park establishment dealt with indigenous presence via threat and/or force. In Yellowstone National Park, military threat was used to remove Shoshone, Crow and Bannock from within the designated boundaries. When Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919 they relocated the Havasupai nation to a reservation west of the park.[6] However, in the case of Death Valley, the lack of formal policy pertaining to the proper procedure for dealing with indigenous presences within park boundaries resulted in the unprecedented overlooking of the Timbisha Shoshone in Death Valley.

Conflict existed between the Shoshone and the NPS simply due to their presence on monument designated lands and by 1970s their small collection of adobe casitas and trailers was the topic of much debate.[6] Their presence raised questions concerning how wilderness and natural land uses were defined and what the proper management and conservation of parklands should be. The unprecedented conflict that occurred in Death Valley between these two parties lead to significant development and reconstruction of the public policy surrounding indigenous presence and land use in parklands.[6] Allowing the Timbisha Shoshone to reside within the DVNM boundaries revolutionized the American perspective on preservation outlined by figures like John Muir, where an absolute separation from human influence was considered a necessity to preserve the pristine wilderness of protected areas.

Through the historic struggles of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe attaining autonomy and territorial rights through the National Parks Service (NPS) for decades, the passing of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act in 2000 allowed for the indigenous community and the NPS to resolve their issues and collaborate to protect and preserve the Death Valley National Park. The structure of co-management allows for cooperation between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples to share governance over an area of protected land. It is also a distinguished management system that integrates all potential users of a natural resource, or shared common land. [7] Through systematic co-management policies, today the Timbisha Shoshone tribe and the National Parks Service work in collaboration to preserve the ecological and cultural facets of Death Valley National Park.

The Honey Mesquite Tree. By Katja Schulz via Wiki Commons. CC BY 2.0

Ecological Preservation Case study: Restoration for tree species

Through the continuation of restoration and preservation of Death Valley National Park, The Timbisha Shoshone specifically requested co-management with the NPS and Bureau of Land management out of concern for the two most crucial traditional tree species of the Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and the single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla).[8] This case study was conducted by Catherine Fowler, an anthropologist working with the NPS and Timbisha Shoshone to aid in the restoration of the two tree species. The honey mesquite and single-leaf pinyon are important tree species to the Shoshone people; as a food source and as a cultural ritual. Once the mesquite and single-leaf pinyon harvest cycle begins, the tribal elders address the trees in Timbisha language, thanking them for their food and life that they will be provided.[8] The fleshy seed inside the endocarp is used as a food source, and celebration and communal ceremonies are held to mark the beginning and end of the mesquite and pinyon's harvest cycle. In the 1940's, the NPS instituted a policy that instated a 'hands-off- approach of the honey mesquite and single-leaf pinyon species aimed directly at the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, despite their past knowledge and experience on the preservation of their cultural tree species.[8] During this policy, the trees greatly suffered and their food sources that were once produced became almost non-existent. After the passing of the Homeland Act in 2000, in 2001 the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe initiated a pilot project with the NPS and Bureau of Land management to restore and protect the trees. The pilot of the project embodied three facets of management strategies. The first aspect of the project gathered as much information on the ecological characteristics of the honey mesquite and single-leaf pinyon and its habitats. The second feature of the project was to establish small study plots in different ecological environments that could be monitored; such as recording tree health and frequency of flowering and fruit production. The third management feature was to initiate traditional care of the tree species, which included pruning, cleaning and discarding of the seeds.[8] Through the completion of the pilot study, the Timbisha Shoshone is continuing to negotiate with Death Valley National Park and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that will ensure funding for a long-term study of preserving the two-tree species within their land.[8]

Cultural Preservation: The ongoing efforts to reinstate traditional culture

While co-management between the Timbisha Shoshone and the NPS are establishing efforts to preserve the natural environment of Death Valley National Park, both parties continue to reinstate the Tribe's traditional culture and society. The shared administration targets multiple small-scale work plans to aid in the cultural preservation as a continuing process. The Tribal Historic Preservation Committee (THPC) is continuing to work with the NPS to locate and conduct inventory on historic resources, protecting tribal lands, and maintain the oral history of the Timbisha Shoshone language . The THPC and NPS are locating and conducting inventory on the Tribe's historic resources in order to acquire artifacts for a museum display case, honouring and acknowledging the Timbisha Shoshone.[9] In managing tribal lands, the THPC and the NPS are to attend meetings and conduct a framework for natural and cultural resource management. This incorporates water resources, tourism, recreation, and how these will be implemented and affected on the Tribe's land.[9] Preserving the Timbisha Language is a significant aspect that the THPC is expressing as a high importance in cultural conservation. Park authorities are assisting the Tribal Council on a language program, in aims to teach tribal members and the community on the language before it is lost.

The environmental and indigenous policies ratified by the United States Federal Government in the case of the Timbisha Shoshone serve as important precedents for future indigenous-colonial disputes over land occupied by native peoples. In the example of the Timbisha, it took years (officially from 1933 until 2000, but colonial encroachment existed long before then and persists to this day) of protesting and political lobbying by members of the tribe and their allies (including organizations such as Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and California Indian Legal Services (CILS)) before the Federal Government, specifically the National Park Service (NPS), recognized the basic rights of the Timbisha to not only occupy the land they have lived on for 1,000 years, but to also interact with the local plant and animal life in a manner that their ancient heritage calls for. However, there is still more that can be done if indigenous-colonial relationships are to strengthen and stay strong both in the United States and around the world.

For the United States Government

The task of increasing indigenous representation in all political issues - not just those pertaining to the NPS's immediate jurisdiction - requires greater indigenous involvement in all sections of government. An important stepping stone in this process is government outreach. This could partly be accomplished through the mitigation of indigenous "othering" as caused by the underfunding of reservations that are by extension lacking in resources and adequate social services. There is also a history of prejudice that unfortunately bleeds into the present day that public service outreach programs - things like an increased indigenous focus in public school curriculums, for example - could help remedy. Today, only 1.7 percent of the entire federal workforce is of Native American descent, and the majority of these government employees work for either the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Indian Health Service.[10] The United States government could begin elevating indigenous representation by increasing funding to Native American reservations and their corresponding social services. The United States has adequate funds, it is simply a question of distribution. In Canada, there are government programs specifically designed to increase aboriginal employment through outreach and government mandates calling for a minimum percentage of federal employees to be aboriginal.[11] Through efforts like these, the actors determining the state of indigenous issues could more often actually be indigenous in the future. Furthermore, greater federal employment of indigenous people across various departments would reduce the ideological siloing that has plagued the government in the past. Even if there is supposed progress in one area of the government, there may still be theoretical outlooks in other sections of government that are effectively holding back indigenous autonomy.

For the Timbisha Shoshone

It is also a hugely important responsibility of the Timbisha to try and retain their land-based wisdom and knowledge into the future, no matter what kind of legal or technological change might occur within their tribe's homeland. While no one could blame the tribe if such information was indeed lost- colonization would be, and is, at fault for such tragedies- it is important that the Timbisha continue to pass down their ecological knowhow in order for co-management strategies to continue growing and for we humans to occupy a sustainable place in the natural world that brought us into being. Indigenous knowledge and heritage documentation should be a top priority for the Timbisha and all indigenous peoples into the future. Everyone, including the federal government, has a stake in such knowledge retention. If the Timbisha continue to live in a way that allows for both themselves and the land to thrive and they inspire future generations of Timbisha and others to do the same, then both the land and anyone on it will be better off. The outlooks held by the Timbisha and other indigenous tribes on nature and wilderness need to be properly retained and incorporated into prevailing western ideologies in order for co-management and the land it serves to protect to remain in tact.

Gwaii Haanas as an Example of Successful Co-Management

One of the major features that has made the Gwaii Haanas management plan as successful as it has been is the recognition of the difference between the Haida belief in the existence of continuity between humans and the biophysical world, and western conservation science built on the belief that the natural world exists entirely separate from society.[12] To recognize the connection between man and land when considering what methods to implement to achieve sustainable co-existence (between not only opposing cultures but all entities of the biophysical world) is an aspect of co-management that would aid in the case of the NPS (and US government by extension) and the Timbisha Shoshone of Death Valley National Park.

  1. Rothman, H. & Miller, C.(2013). Death Valley National Park: A History. Reno: University of Nevada Press. Retrieved February 10, 2018, from Project MUSE database.
  2. 2.02.1 Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, (2000). Retrieved from
  3. About us. Retrieved from
  4. Crum, S. (2002). Pretending They Didn't Exist: The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley, California and the Death Valley National Monument up to 1933. Southern California Quarterly,84(3/4), 223-240. doi:10.2307/41172134
  5. Crum, S. (2002). Pretending They Didn't Exist: The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe of Death Valley, California and the Death Valley National Monument up to 1933. Southern California Quarterly,84(3/4), 223-240. doi:10.2307/41172134
  6. Miller, M. (2008). The Timbisha Shoshone and the National Park Idea: Building toward Accommodation and Acknowledgment at Death Valley National Park, 1933-2000. Journal of the Southwest,50(4), 415-445. Retrieved from
  7. Plummer, R., & Fitzgibbon, J. (2004). Co-management of Natural Resources: A Proposed Framework. Environmental Management,33(6), 876-885. doi:10.1007/s00267-003-3038-y
  8. Fowler, C. S., Esteves, P., Goad, G., Helmer, B., & Watterson, K. (2003, December). Caring for the Trees: Restoring Timbisha Shoshone Land Manage- ment Practices in Death Valley National Park. Retrieved April 7, 2018, from
  9. 9.09.1 Tribal Council Meeting. (n.d.). Retrieved April 06, 2018, from
  10. Cobert, B. (2015). Championing Native Americans in Federal Service. Retrieved from
  11. Northern Affairs Canada. (2016, December 16). Fifty per cent Aboriginal Hiring Strategy. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from
  12. Townsend, J. (2009). On haida terms: Self-determination and land use planning on haida gwaii (Order No. MR51605). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305042485). Retrieved from

Post image: By Generic1139 via Wiki CommonsCC BY 3.0