By Benjamin Spillman
Special to The Ely Times
The Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’s decision to remove from its website a document about a sacred American Indian site is drawing criticism. A department official said the decision to remove the document came at the request of the State Historic Preservation Office over concerns it could expose the site to vandalism or looting.
Jim Lawrence, deputy director of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the National Park Service contacted the state historic office and expressed concern that posting the information online put the site at risk.
“The park service called us up and basically slapped our wrist,” Lawrence said.
But Rupert Steele, chairman of the Utah-based Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, whose tribe is among those that consider the site sacred, said no one consulted the tribe about the decision.
The Goshute, Ely and Duckwater Shoshone tribes all consider the site, known as the swamp cedars, sacred and believe the trees are threatened by a proposal to pipe groundwater from northern and eastern Nevada to Las Vegas.
“I want that up there,” Steele said of the removed document. “That way the information can be free flowing to all the people.”
Tribal members are pushing for greater recognition of the site in order to strengthen their case against Southern Nevada Water Authority’s proposal to pipe groundwater from the area to Las Vegas.
The document was filed as evidence in court and with the state engineer as part of a case in which tribes, ranchers and environmental groups are opposing the pipeline. Until its removal, it was included on the web with the other evidence in the case.
Steele said the document is critical for non-native and native people to better understand the significance of the trees in the pipeline fight.
“I did not ask anybody to take it down,” Steele said. “It looked like they didn’t want the tribal members to find out about it.”
Paul Echo Hawk, an attorney representing all three tribes, said neither of the Nevada tribes requested the information be removed.
“We need that document in the record,” Echo Hawk said.
He also expressed frustration that state officials would cite the tribes’ cultural interests without first consulting with them. “The tribes are the last to be contacted and sometimes not at all even though we are the subject matter of it,” Echo Hawk said.
Lawrence said that, in general, state officials are expected by law to protect information about potentially vulnerable sacred sites.
But he acknowledged that, had state officials contacted the tribes before making the decision, they could have learned the tribes want the public to know more about the swamp cedars’ location and its history.
“Something was removed last week, it created a stir and now we are connecting all the dots,” Lawrence said.
“One could argue it was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction and we are digging into this now,” he said. “In my mind it is sometimes better to be safer and be more conservative.”
As of Monday afternoon, the information was still missing from the web.
Memorial to tragic events
The tribes are working with federal and state agencies, including the Nevada Department of Transportation, to erect a highway kiosk near the site to educate the public.
The site, referred to as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone, is located near U.S. Highway 50 between Ely and Great Basin National Park.
It’s an unusual stand of juniper trees the tribes have recognized as a ceremonial site since time immemorial. It’s also a living memorial to the American Indian victims of a series of massacres in the region.
In 2017, the tribes applied for and received recognition from the National Park Service declaring it a Traditional Cultural Property.
The application included documentation of a series of massacres in the area in 1859, 1863 and 1897. Hundreds of people were said to have been killed in the 1859 incident, which would place it among the deadliest massacres in U.S. history.
Tribal members see the trees as a direct, living connection to the people who were killed.