Friday, January 20, 2012

Death Valley: Reclaimed Homeland

Last winter around this time my mom and I were trying to decide where to travel together. Some place sunny, some place we’d never been. Death Valley, she suggested. Perfect.

On the way north, from the eight-lane interstate to the two-lane highway, we marveled about how only a few years earlier, as she battled cancer, we thought she’d be gone. Now she’d get to see Death Valley before she died. We speculated about the wildflowers which might be great – or not – the wildflower watch on the Internet urged us not to get too excited. So there we were on the open road, not knowing what to expect or hope for.

Even before the trip I’d been thinking about reclamation, about hydropower and dams and how the combination of outsized vision and the communal will of New Deal America managed to reclaim so much. For better and for worse. When I was young, I harbored Ed Abbey fantasies of dams blasted to smithereens, and I am as happy as the next monkey-wrencher to see the Elwha come tumbling down. But lately I’ve grown a strange and desperate faith in reclamation in all its meanings:

To take back. To make right. To make useful.

So there we were in Lone Pine. We spent an afternoon at Manzanar, the former internment where Japanese-Americans have reclaimed their history. Then the next morning, we entered the park in all its stark grandeur, and we passed this sign:
Check out the phrase at the bottom: "Homeland of the Timbisha Shoshone." I was floored. I know enough of the sordid history of Indians in National Parks to know how uncommon such an acknowledgement is. When I opened the park map and saw that it was not merely a nice gesture, but reclamation at its most raw and right. The Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act in 2000 had granted 300 acres in the park and more than 7,000 in the surrounding lands back to the Indians.

Since then I’ve read everything I can find about the tribe’s history and their activists like Pauline Esteves and Barbara Durham, and I’ve interviewed several of those involved in the Homeland Act negotiations including Charles Wilkinson, author of a terrific history of modern Indian movements, Blood Struggle. My obsession with reclamation has grown even bigger and more unwieldy (outsized?) moving in several directions at once … like the very best projects. But despite my best efforts, I have yet to talk to the Timbisha. I have not given up hope.