D is for Death Valley: hottest, lowest and driest place in California


Death Valley, a plain of salt that lies 86 meters below sea level is one of the hottest, lowest and driest places in California, if not the world. But the valley also offers colorful desert vistas and it’s a place with a fascinating flora and fauna as well as history.

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What you don’t see when you enter the valley floor is the fate of the Timbisha Shoshone Indians who called this uninhabitable place home for centuries. They built desert dwellings that kept out heat, and the women refined their skill of basketweaving so much that their baskets wouldn’t let out a single drop of water. With the seeds of Mesquite trees they made sustainable food, a diet which was supplemented with game and pine tree nuts (Paleo Diet, baby!)

In 1849, their lives were crudely interrupted by the first gold seekers from Utah who tried out the southern route to reach gold country in California. This meant they had to cross Death Valley. These migrants were the first palefaces who would see Death Valley and, for some, this was the last landscape they would set their eyes on, as many died of thirst and exposure. There’s an urban myth that one of the survivors looked back on the valley and said “Goodbye, Death Valley,” but it’s unlikely that that name was coined for the first time in 1849. It’s more probable that the valley first got its name when the Nevada Boundary Survey surveyed the land in 1861.

For the Indians who lived there, the name was an insult, but what was worse was that in subsequent years, the valley was exploited for mines which led to the fact that the natural water reservoirs which the Indians had been using for generations, were taken in and used.

When President Hoover named the valley a National Monument this was more bad news for the Indians: they were driven off their land and forced to settle in the Timbisha Indian Village near Furnace Creek.

In 1960, there was another attempt to get rid of the Indians: they were hosed out of their adobe dwellings with fire hoses. The Indians resisted, which led to the rather late Timbisha Homeland Act of 2000. They were given back land within what is now Death Valley National Park thanks to Clinton’s initiative of 1994.

But the story doesn’t end there. The important source for survival, the Mesquite trees, were taken out to such an extent that this led to a further erosion of their cultural heritage and identity.

The story of the Native Americans is a forgotten story in the US and, aside from Disney schmaltz like Pocahontas, their story is a repetitive drama of expropriation of land, and at its worst, actual and cultural genocide.

So when you enter the dry and dusty valley floor in your air-conditioned car, remember the fate of the Timbisha Indians and if you see an Indian woman by the side of the road, buy one of those waterproof baskets. It doesn’t make up for what the white man did, but it’s a way to acknowledge the Timbisha Indians who have been persecuted ever since the first white man rested his gaze on the valley of death in his greedy quest for gold.

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