Ever since the days of my youth, I used to imagine what the great open expanses of the wild west would look like. (Some of my visions may have been a result of seeing too many Westerns!) I felt the urge to visit those places some day. I was not disappointed during the trip to Death Valley.
Death Valley was the home to the Timbisha Shoshone group of Native Americans for a long time (about a thousand years) before the White Man made his appearance. They called the land Tüpippüh. It was not an easy place to live in, but the Timbisha did not think of it as a place of death. They adapted to the region and found a way to live off the land using whatever natural resources were available in a sustainable manner. Indeed, if you go to the desert, it is not really devoid of life. There are hardy plants that have found a way to survive in the tough conditions, and even flowers during this spring season which has brought an excess of rain to California.
There is even flowing water in the desert (this picture is from Salt Creek)and animal life that has found a way to survive.
One of the wonders of this desert is the endangered pupfish,
a fish that can survive in the saline waters of Salt Creek. You can see literally thousands of these tiny fish in the clear water.
The White Man was the one who named the place Death Valley. Their initial passage through the desert on their way west in search of gold was not an easy one, and life in the desert has not become that much easier since then.
But the fact that the White People had such a negative impression of the place did not prevent them from eventually trying to exploit the resources of the area. Borax, talc and silver were mined. The Harmony Borax Works was known for their 20 mule teamsthat were used to transport the Borax out of the valley. Development in the desert got to the point where they even built a resort (still in operation as a high-end hotel, The Inn at Furnace Creek), and a railroad line to bring people into the area.But the only things that survive today in the desert from the non-Native American perspective are for the tourist, a tourist who is interested in experiencing the natural wonder of the place, and perhaps even learn something, while willing at the same time to tolerate the extreme weather conditions.
The only places of commercial operation remaining are at Panamint Springs, Stovepipe Wells, and Furnace Creek.The once thriving mining towns are now ghost towns that are only visited by the tourists. We went to the ghost town of Rhyolite just outside the park boundary across the state border in Nevada.
The National Park Service manages the park out of a location very close to Furnace Creek, with a Visitor Center at Furnace Creek itself. It is good to note that the Visitor Center has been upgraded over the years to operate in an environmentally conscious manner.
Death Valley was declared a National Monument, i.e., a protected area, in 1933 and became a National Park only in 1994. While the coming of the White Man and the mining operations in the 19th century began to change the Timbisha’s way of life, the designation of the place as a National Monument actually hastened the loss of their land. The small numbers that remained finally ended up, unofficially, on a little patch of land near Furnace Creek for many years. It was only in the 1980s that they finally were officially recognized as a tribe. They continued to occupy the small space they had near Furnace Creek, but also continued to battle the federal government for more of their land in the courts. It was only in the late 1990s, well after the formation of the park, that they got additional land for their use in the park. These days the park service has formed a partnership with the tribe when if comes to running of the park to ensure that resources within the park and the Timbisha’s traditional homeland are protected and enhanced.
The struggles of the Native Americans is an ongoing story. Consider recent news from South Dakota. I cannot help thinking that because of our greed we are not good at learning our lessons from history.