The Indigenous History of Death Valley
Updated: Apr 19
The name ‘Death Valley’ comes not from the original inhabitants of the land but from the gold seekers who came to the area in the mid-nineteenth century and found its extreme heat unbearable. To the people indigenous to this land—the Timbisha Shoshone—the Valley is 'tüpippüh,’ a term that encompasses not just the valley but the surrounding dunes and mountains.
Indeed, the Timbisha people find the term ‘Death Valley’ inaccurate and saddening—their relationship to their homeland is one that celebrates all of the life that exists within the valley. Of the Valley’s name, Timbisha Shoshone elder and activist Pauline Esteves says:
The term 'Death Valley' is unfortunate. We refrain from talking about death...Even more importantly, this is a place about life. It is a powerful and spiritual valley that has healing powers and the spirituality of the valley is passed on to our people.
The Timbisha Shoshone have inhabited the lands in Death Valley “since time immemorial;” the ancestors of the tribe likely arrived in the Valley over a thousand years ago. The tribe’s name, Timbisha, refers to the red ochre found in the Black Mountains of the Valley, ochre which the Timbisha people used to make a paint. This paint was thought to protect the people of the land and the valley as a whole.
The 2018 documentary The Women in the Sand details the perseverance of two Timbisha elders—Pauline Esteves and her sister-in-law Madeline Esteves—in keeping their ancient culture alive. Created by filmmaker Steve Jarvis, The Women in the Sand tells the story of these women's lives in Death Valley as well as their ancestral history in the area. Both women talk in the film about their dedication to the Timbisha tribe and its lands—Madeline Esteves is a traditional Timbisha basket maker, and Pauline Esteves is a long-time activist for the tribe. Much of Jarvis’s documentary covers the clashes that the Timbisha people have had with the government over their homeland and its resources.
The conflict between the tribe and the government during the past century was amplified when President Herbert Hoover proclaimed Death Valley a National Monument in 1933. From the government’s perspective, the Valley was uninhabited; at the time, the Timbisha were not a federally recognized Native American tribe, and thus did not have any legal leverage in this decision. The Death Valley Monument was placed under the jurisdiction of John R. White, the superintendent of Sequoia National Park at the time.
During his first visit to the Park, White learned of the Timbisha presence on the land and stated that “one of the problems [in Death Valley] will be looking after the hundred or two Indians who range within the Monument.” The Timbisha, from the perspective of the NPS, were a problem that had to be fixed. As Pauline Esteves says in The Women in the Sand, “the NPS really wanted us out of here...there weren't supposed to be Indian reservations within the National Parks.” While the Timbisha people viewed themselves as part of the land itself—the Valley was their homeland—the National Parks Service viewed humans as separate entities from the land. This viewpoint thus positioned the Timbisha people as ‘squatters’ on the National Park territory.
Shortly after the creation of the Death Valley National Monument, the NPS forcibly relocated the Timbisha Shoshone. The government provided adobe structures as housing for the indigenous people in the Furnace Creek area of the Valley; these structures slowly deteriorated over the following decades. Instead of repairing these structures, the Bureau of Indian Affairs adopted a new “Indian Housing Policy” in 1957 which allowed NPS officials to destroy homes that appeared to be abandoned. Officials demolished any adobe structures that seemed uninhabited by spraying them with water hoses until they slowly disintegrated. A subset of Timbisha people refused to leave their homes, among them Pauline Esteve’s mother and aunts, in fear of having their homes destroyed.
In the years that followed, the Timbisha people continued to fight for their rights. They received federal recognition in 1983, but remained a tribe without a land base until the Timbisha Homeland Act of 2000. This act created the first tribal reservation within a National Park; it transferred 7,753.99 acres to the Timbisha tribe and was certainly an important step in declaring the Timbisha people’s right to their land (and, more broadly, Native Americans’ rights to their lands). But this act didn’t come easily—it required years of activism by tribal members like Pauline Esteves—and it did not magically solve the Timbisha people’s problems.
While the Timbisha people have secured their physical homeland, their challenges today are largely cultural. “Our way of life is a shadow among the mainstream of the world,” says Trevor Sneed, a Te-Moak Western Shoshone, in an interview in The Women in the Sand. As Esteves discusses in this documentary, it’s common today for young members of the Timbisha tribe to move away from the Valley to seek work and live elsewhere. Elders in the tribe, like Esteves, wonder how Timbisha traditions will continue in the years to come; much is uncertain in the tribe’s future.
And yet, the Timbisha are a people of perseverance. “The history of the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe is a testament to the ability of a native culture to persist through times of great adversity" (Catton). For park visitors today, it’s important to acknowledge the deep history of the place that we know as Death Valley; many tourists are surprised to learn of the Timbisha tribe’s existence in the park. When we visit Death Valley, we’re visiting the Timbisha Homeland, a land that’s inextricable from the people who have inhabited and nurtured it for centuries.
Catton, Theodore. “To Make a Better Nation: An Administrative History of the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act.” University of Montana, 2009.
The Women in the Sand. Directed by Steve Jarvis, performance by Pauline Esteves, Madeline Esteves. Leomark Studios, 2018. Amazon, https://www.amazon.com/Women-Sand-Edward-James-Olmos/dp/B07JKJY2K4.