By Benjamin Spillman
Reno Gazette Journal
RENO — For most drivers on U.S. Highway 50 in northeastern Nevada, the Spring Valley is a blur of open road, trees and windmills between Ely and Great Basin National Park.
For Rupert Steele, it’s a place to slow down and sing the songs Shoshone people have passed person-to-person across generations since time immemorial, and to remember hundreds of ancestors killed in 19th century massacres.
“I always sing songs for my people,” Steele, chairman of the Confederate Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, told the Reno Gazette Journal. “When a relative passes away, their remains go back to Mother Earth … those songs will come up in the water. That’s why water is life.”
In the Spring Valley, the soil and water nurtures an unusual stand of trees — known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone and the swamp cedars by non-native speakers — where tribal people gather to celebrate and pray.
But under a proposal by the Southern Nevada Water Authority, groundwater from Spring Valley would be pumped and piped 250 miles (400 kilometers) to Las Vegas, to serve as a crucial resource for continued development and an alternate to dwindling supply from the drought-stricken Colorado River.
That plan, according to Shoshone people and scientists who have studied it, would deprive the trees of water and sever the timeless connection between the living and dead.
“I feel like if they actually run water through that pipeline, then everything is gone,” said Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone tribal elder.
Officials with the Las Vegas-based Southern Nevada Water Authority declined an interview request for this article. An authority spokesman said the agency has “no intention of challenging any of the tribes’ statements or evidence,” regarding the native history or significance of the trees.
In a written statement, the agency stated it “respects and values,” the tribes’ concerns and said the pipeline project would “not impact the tribes.”
For the Ely and Duckwater Shoshone in Nevada and Goshute in Utah, demonstrating the cultural significance of the swamp cedars is central to fighting the pipeline.
The tribes won National Park Service recognition of the site as a Traditional Cultural Property in 2017.
The listing in the National Register doesn’t stop a pipeline. But, “it calls greater attention to what it means to the tribes,” said Paul Echo Hawk, an attorney for the tribes.
It’s easy to see why native people made the swamp cedars a place for ritual and refuge.
The surrounding Snake and Schell Creek mountain ranges offered protection. Springs and a shallow water table attracted golden eagles, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and elk — and nurtured thick stands of bunchgrass and flowers later decimated by non-native livestock grazing.
“They had everything here to survive … a good place to have ceremonies, to have a good time,” Steele said.
The trees themselves, Rocky Mountain juniper, are an anomaly. Typically, the species grows on mountainsides. But in Spring Valley, the trees provide shelter from the wind and sun on the valley floor.
“It is the same place tribes went to several times a year, year after year for thousands and thousands of years,” said Monte Sanford, a researcher who compiled the Traditional Cultural Property application.
Sanford said the peace and spirituality of the site before it became a memorial to massacres magnifies the importance of protecting it.
That the pipeline plan remains on the table despite tribal objections shows how broader society disregards native culture in general and the Shoshone of Nevada and Utah specifically, he said.
Sanford compared damaging Bahsahwahbee to sacrificing the Vatican in Rome or Arlington Cemetery near Washington, D.C.
“It would be so sacrilegious,” Sanford said. “But when it comes to Indian tribes, people are looking out at the landscape and they don’t see anything.”
Because there is no temple on the site, the researcher said, “people don’t recognize it as anything more than empty land.”
The tribes are working with federal and state agencies including the Nevada Department of Transportation to erect a highway kiosk marking the site.
As non-native people moved into the region during the 19th century, mining, livestock grazing, settlement and transportation networks pushed the Shoshone away, often with military force.
By the 1850s, there were reports of mass starvation among native people in the Great Basin, as plants and game were depleted.
“That caused friction,” said Greg Seymour, an archaeologist who works extensively in the Great Basin. “The military had to enforce the rules, the new set of rules.”
In the Spring Valley, according to the Traditional Cultural Property application, there were three distinct massacres.
A military attack in 1859 killed an estimated 525 to 700 native people, which would place it among the deadliest massacres in U.S. history.
Another military attack in 1863 killed dozens.
A third mass killing, in 1897 after the military had left, is thought to have been committed by local vigilantes.
Although the first massacre occurred outside the boundaries of the modern Traditional Cultural Property, the Shoshone view the swamp cedars site as a memorial for all three.
“We were surprised at the lack of recognition this area had given the size of the massacres that occurred there,” Echo Hawk said.
Seymour said no one would be talking about the history today “if not for threats to the site.”
“It’s sad we don’t include these in any of our history teachings to tell the truth about what really happened to the American Indians,” Steele added.
The fact that descendants of 1897 attack victims remain in the area also contributes to the cultural and spiritual importance of the site.
Dozens of native people were said to have been murdered and mutilated, but two little girls survived. One was the grandmother of Spilsbury, the Ely Shoshone elder.
The trees offer “the only real tie we have with the past because everything else is gone,” Spilsbury said.
The water rights applications are being fought in the state government and courts.
The state engineer, Nevada’s top water official, had approved the Southern Nevada Water Authority applications in 2007, 2009 and 2012.
In 2013, a state court judge in Ely directed the water engineer to address issues with the previous approvals.
Most recently, the state engineer denied water authority applications in the region, including some in Spring Valley, because they would threaten swamp cedar areas of critical environmental concern.
Echo Hawk said he thinks the tribes’ efforts to document the significance of the swamp cedars affected that decision.
But the denials and other issues are still the subject of a court battle.
Officials say the entire case will likely end up at the Nevada Supreme Court.
Steele and others fighting for the trees say they won’t rest until the pipeline threat is gone for good.
“American Indians, we’re very resilient. We’ve lived through very hard times,” the Goshute tribal chairman said. “But taking our water away? I’m not sure we can survive that.”