Fight continues to save Sacred Shoshone Cedars massacre site |

Fight continues to save Sacred Shoshone Cedars massacre site

By Monte Sanford | Special to First Nation's Focus
Tribal Elder Rupert Steele on site at the Swamp Cedars in 2017.
Photo: Courtesy Abby Johnson
Editor’s Note This article first appeared in the Great Basin Water Network’s Fall 2017 “Water Gab” newsletter. This article is also a follow-up to the November 2017 First Nation’s Focus story, “Sacred Shoshone ‘Cedars’ massacre site in central Nevada at risk.”

WHITE PINE COUNTY, Nev. — The effort to protect Swamp Cedars began after federal agencies signed Stipulated Agreements with the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA), withdrawing their protests to SNWA’s water rights applications in eastern Nevada and negating their trust responsibility to protect Tribal rights and resources in exchange for Monitoring, Management and Mitigation Plans (3M Plans).

Thus, the Confederated Goshute, Ely Shoshone and Duckwater Shoshone Tribes took a stand to protect Swamp Cedars.

The Tribes requested the Bureau of Land Management to expand the boundaries of the Swamp Cedars Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC).

We also requested that the BLM designate Swamp Cedars as an Indian Sacred Site and that BLM continue to provide access to the site in perpetuity as required under Executive Order 13007. In the spring of this year, we landed Swamp Cedars on the official list of the National Register of Historic Properties as a Traditional Cultural Property.

What does it mean to have Swamp Cedars listed on the National Register? It means that the federal government — through the National Park Service — recognizes the exceptional historical, cultural and spiritual significance of Swamp Cedars pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act.

In part, the significance comes from the fact that it is the place of repeated massacres of Goshute and Western Shoshone peoples (the Newe).

The first massacre was carried out by the United States Army in 1859 and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500-700 Newe who were involved in a ceremonial gathering. It was the largest Indian massacre in the history of the United States. The other massacres occurred in 1863 and 1897.

Today, Swamp Cedars is more than a place of remembrance. It has always been a place for Tribal ceremonial gatherings and it still remains a place for ceremonies.

The spring water is, as Tribal elder Delaine Spilsbury has said, “the milk of Mother Earth.” That water has special power used for healing and for medicine.

Swamp Cedars has many other special attributes, such as a place to gather traditional foods and medicinal plants, a place to pass down traditional cultural knowledge, and a place to honor Newe ancestors who were massacred. Their spiritual embodiments are the swamp cedar trees.

This is sensitive material, and the Tribes provided it as testimony before and during the recent hearing on SNWA’s water rights applications, on remand after Judge Estes found that SNWA’s 2011 3M Plans were severely flawed.

It was shocking then that the information about Swamp Cedars — including the fact that Swamp Cedars was listed on the National Register encompassing 14,175 acres (three times the size of the Swamp Cedars ACEC) — were not even mentioned in the SNWA’s new 2017 Spring Valley 3M Plan.

More shocking: SNWA’s 2017 3M Plan allowed for 100% destruction and loss of swamp cedar trees before SNWA would consider its groundwater pumping impacts to have an “unreasonable effect.”

SNWA’s 3M Plan also allowed for any amount of destruction to Swamp Cedars for five consecutive years before any management and mitigation would be required.

But the Tribes took the stand. Tribal elders Virgil Johnson and Rupert Steele provided powerful testimony on the importance of Swamp Cedars, the water, the trees and the Tribes’ cultural and spiritual practices.

Dr. Monte Sanford provided expert testimony on the Tribes’ legal protection efforts for Swamp Cedars, especially the listing on the National Register. Lead attorney, Paul Echo Hawk, guided the Tribes through the rapids of the hearing and into an even stronger legal position.

While the Nevada State Engineer prepares his new ruling, the Tribes are moving forward to obtain higher levels of protection for Swamp Cedars, including national-level significance under the National Register and a National Historic Landmark designation. Our highest goal is a Swamp Cedars National Monument.

Monte Sanford is a consultant for the Tribes mentioned in this article. Abby Johnson of the Great Basin Water Network provided this article, with permission, to publish in First Nation’s Focus.


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