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Nevada tribes push for a monument to commemorate historic massacres

The proposed designation of Bahsahwahbee National Monument would protect a religious site known for its juniper groves.
Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
EnvironmentTribal Nations

For centuries, a well-saturated water table beneath an expansive valley in Nevada’s Great Basin has nourished healthy springs and a rare stand of Rocky Mountain junipers. The trees commonly grow at higher altitudes, but some of the ones at Bahsahwahbee — “sacred water valley” in the Shoshoni language — are 30 or 40 feet tall, towering over the valley floor.

The Western Shoshone and Goshute (Newe) people have long cherished Bahsahwahbee for the special healing properties of its water. Historically, it was a place for dances and religious ceremonies; people would camp out at Bahsahwahbee for weeks at a time. It was, for hundreds and hundreds of years, “like a little oasis — with all the water and animals you need,” said Alvin Marques, chairman of the Ely Shoshone Tribe.

It was also the site of three massacres: In 1859, 1863 and 1897, the U.S. military and well-armed vigilantes killed an estimated 1,000 Newe people at religious gatherings. The 1859 massacre alone killed between 500 to 700 people.

For the past three years, the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, the Ely Shoshone Tribe and the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation have urged the Biden administration to create a national monument at Bahsahwahbee, just outside of Great Basin National Park. The tribes are campaigning for co-management of it, hoping to work with the National Park Service to tell the history of the sacred site and the massacres.

Nevada’s two Democratic senators, Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen, visited the area  last year and expressed support. Cortez Masto’s office said that she is working on legislation to designate a monument, in addition to calling on the administration to issue an executive order creating one.

Federal officials have already designated portions of Spring Valley as traditional cultural property and places of environmental concern, but at about 25,000 acres, a monument would provide more long-lasting protection for a larger amount of land. The area has long faced numerous threats, including Las Vegas’ recently shelved plan to export groundwater from the valley and pipe it hundreds of miles away.

“The tribe’s history here is the nation’s history,” said Monte Sanford, the Bahsawhabee National Monument campaign’s director. “And I think sometimes the nation forgets that.”


Massacres against the Newe people were not confined to Bahsahwahbee or Spring Valley, and the campaign believes a monument here could help commemorate the full scale of the atrocities, as well as preserve the broader history of the region’s tribes. It would also protect a culturally and ecologically significant landscape known for its abundant water and wildlife. The monument would join other sites that commemorate tragic moments in U.S. history, including the enslavement of Black Americans and the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Over the years, Charlene Pete, a Goshute elder and the tribe’s education director, has had to correct the mistaken idea that the tribe was completely wiped out by the massacres. A monument could provide a space to counteract that historical erasure, as well as a place for healing, she said: “We need to have something there, some type of recognition.”

The coalition wants Biden to act with urgency, given the uncertainty surrounding the November election. The administration has a strong record of protecting culturally significant land: Last year, Biden created a national monument of about 500,000 acres in southern Nevada to honor Avi Kwa Ame, or “Spirit Mountain,” a sacred place for Yuman-speaking tribes.

This week, Sanford and an official from the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with White House officials and representatives from the U.S. Department of the Interior.    

Organizers hope that a swift decision will help give tribal elders — some who heard firsthand accounts of the massacres from survivors — a voice in how the monument would be managed. For years, the Newe people shared stories about the massacres only within their families. But when the prospect of a Las Vegas pipeline became a serious threat, they began to share their stories more publicly. Now, Marques said, “the whole story needs to be told.”

“This needs to be done,” Marques said. “Politics needs to be left out. It’s just something that needs to be done, and it needs to be protected forever.”

Protection is necessary, monument advocates say, because developers have coveted Spring Valley’s land and water since the 1800s. The area, which lay downwind of atomic testing during the Cold War, fell within the MX Missile Project testing area, a plan to place hundreds of nuclear warheads in the Great Basin. For the past century, settlers regularly sought to establish ranches in Spring Valley, seeking to develop desert homesteads as recently as the 1990s. Today, there is a wind farm near Bahsahwahbee.

When Marques was about 10 years old, he went on a road trip with his grandmother. He recalls how she pulled the car over in Spring Valley and recounted what she knew of the largest of the three massacres. It was a story that had long been passed down through her family.

His grandmother described the U.S. Cavalry riding toward the valley, swinging their swords, followed by the sound of gunshots. Bodies were left lying everywhere on the ground. 

“There was no mercy,” he said.

Everyone who knows the story experiences the memory of Bahsahwahbee differently. But today, five decades after he first heard about the massacres, Marques feels a sense of peace whenever he returns to Bahsahwahbee.

“Our people are still there. Their spirits are still there,” Marques said. “They live in the trees. That’s the reason why you protect it. It is a cemetery.” 

When he visits Bahsahwahbee today, Marques said, he recalls a time when it was a sacred site for large ceremonies and religious gatherings. 

“There’s more good than bad” at Bahsahwahbee, he said.


Ely Shoshone tribal elder Delaine Spilsbury in the juniper groves at Bahsahwahbee. (Daniel Rothberg/High Country News)

On the first day of spring, meadowlarks chirped amid the juniper groves as Ely Shoshone tribal elder Delaine Spilsbury explained how her ancestors relied on the area for harvesting nuts, berries and small animals like jackrabbits. “It’s a tribute to a way of life,” she said.

Delaine and her son, Rick Spilsbury, also a tribal elder, stressed how important protecting this land — and its water — is to the survival of the trees, which are imbued with the spirits of their ancestors.

Navigating through junipers and stopping every so often to reflect upon the calmness of the morning, Rick Spilsbury said the landscape looked healthy. “It means something is alive, because they died here,” he said. “It gives you a sense of closure.”

The Great Basin tribes first began to speak publicly about the painful history of the massacres in the early 2000s, when the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the municipal water supplier for Las Vegas, released an updated version of a proposal to export Spring Valley’s groundwater to the growing city. The tribes presented evidence to Nevada’s top water official, showing that pumping could dry up the springs and groundwater that Bahsahwahbee relies on. 

In 2018, the state agreed in part with that finding, and by 2020, the pipeline project had been shelved.

During public comment at a water hearing in 2011, Rupert Steele, a Goshute leader who passed away last year, emphasized the importance of protecting the groves of Rocky Mountain juniper groves, known locally as “swamp cedars.”

“We believe that one’s last resting place is hallowed ground, a place so sacred, blessed and to disturb this last resting place is morally wrong,” he wrote.

To protect the area, Steele talked with other leaders, including Marques, about sharing the story more widely. Marques, like many tribal members, was initially reluctant to speak about it, but he came around to the view that the story needed to be told. 

“I feel honored to be one of the people that carry that story,” he said, “so I feel honored to be one of the people that protects that area.”

“We were there,” he added. “We’re still here, and we’re going to be watching over these things as long as we can.”

This article first appeared on High Country News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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