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water ways

They Lost Their Land to the Park Service. Now They’re Losing It to Climate Change.

The Timbisha Shoshone are legally permitted to live in Death Valley National Park. But the vegetation vital to their traditions and livelihoods is dying.

A road stretches out to hills with little vegetation on either side.
George Rose/Getty Images
The road to Bad Water Basin in Death Valley National Park viewed in black and white on December 15

The high temperatures in Death Valley National Park attract tourists from all over the world. Big groups come in shiny luxury buses. Visiting Badwater and Zabriskie Point, the park’s most frequented attractions, you’re likely to run into at least one film crew or fashion shoot from nearby L.A. And the luxury hotel the Inn at Death Valley boasts a forest of whispering palm trees, a lush golf course, a swimming pool, and gourmet seafood entrees in the middle of the hottest place on earth.

Barbara Durham lives down the road from the Inn, in the Timbisha Shoshone Village—a small piece of reservation land created in 2000 by the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act. The law made Death Valley the first and only U.S. national park to legally allow its Indigenous inhabitants to remain where they have long lived, by returning land that was taken when the park was established.

Today, the village of 25 households is still fighting for survival, but no longer against the park service. Now their enemy is extreme heat. And the legal right to live inside the park, once the most important thing to the Timbisha, is no longer enough to protect their way of life.

Durham was born and raised here, becoming tribal historic preservation officer, or THPO, for the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe a decade ago. Around the same time, the new visitor center, devoted in large part to rebranding the park as Timbisha Shoshone Homeland, was unveiled to visitors. Inside the dark, comfortably air-conditioned space, a movie featuring Durham and tribal elder Pauline Estevez explained the most important aspect of the Homeland Act: Not only can the Timbisha live in the village forever, but they can continue their seasonal movements around the park, to cope with dramatic changes in climate. Most importantly, they can spend summer—when the village is too hot—in the Panamint Mountains, during the annual piñon harvest. Moving between the valley and the mountains has made it possible for people to live in this extreme and variable climate for thousands of years. The right to live permanently in the village was just as important to survival as the annual migration into the mountains. What the film does not tell visitors is that there has been no piñon harvest for the past three years.

Theodore Catton, author of the Homeland Act’s officially commissioned administrative history, referred to the battle over the village as “the Tribe’s Sarajevo.” Durham now compares it to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “That’s what was done to us,” she said, when the park service established Death Valley National Monument in the mid-1930s. The summer migration was used to drive the Timbisha away. For years, when the people moved into the mountains for the summer, park rangers were sent to the village with high-powered hoses to wash away their adobe huts. Estevez, born in 1924 and now almost a century old, remembers the systematic destruction of the homes.

In order to fight the park service and receive the government aid they needed to continue living where they had always lived, the Timbisha needed tribal recognition. But without a land base, they could not be recognized. In 1983 the Timbisha became recognized as “non-ward Indians,” a tribe without a land base. Tribal government moved to Bishop, California, a three-hour drive away, leaving behind two deserted administrative buildings and a defunct radio station in the village. These days, Durham told me, few council members have even been to the reservation.

For Estevez, the battle was always about winning back the land base, not about tribal recognition. “We’re not a ‘tribe,’” she explained to me. “We’re just the people who have always been here.” Their efforts included traveling to Europe to raise awareness of the situation, organizing with Greenpeace, and a formal appeal to the United Nations for protection from genocide. The Timbisha’s historic preservation meetings still consist of five elders, including Estevez.

In April 2023, Mandi Campbell took over the THPO role from Durham, who had suffered four strokes and is now in her early seventies. Campbell, also born and raised here, explained to me that, while the older generation fought the park service to win back their homeland, her generation (she is in her late forties) is working together with the service to preserve it. This is also part of the Homeland Act, which stipulates co-management of the land between the Timbisha and the park service. But the village population is dwindling, and the median age keeps rising. At present, there is only one household with children.

Despite how small, remote, and economically challenged the village is, Durham sees the Homeland Act as a key player in the country’s environmental and cultural healing. Death Valley is the only case in which the U.S. government has returned park land to its Indigenous inhabitants. Much of the opposition to the Homeland Act was on the grounds that it could set a precedent according to which other tribes would demand the return of federally managed land. The future of the Homeland Act, therefore, matters not only to the residents of the village, or to the Death Valley region, but to the future of the entire National Park Service, whose director, Chuck Sams III, is the first Native American in that role.

And something even bigger is at stake. Death Valley is the largest federally designated wilderness in the lower 48 states. This makes it central to the new national climate strategy, which focuses on wilderness as a primary tool in climate change mitigation. In the era of Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous secretary of the interior, environmentalists are looking to native knowledges and Indigenous land use across the globe more than ever to fortify wilderness conservation strategies.

But the Timbisha need more than just the right to their ancestral land. Living in the hottest place on earth, they need active, ongoing help with stewardship. Durham was happiest during the Covid closure, with all the park staff and tourists gone—“I miss it,” she said. “It was like it must have been long ago, was when it was just us.” But at the same time, she hopes for more involvement from the park service in protecting the Timbisha way of life. For the past three summers, the temperature in Furnace Creek has reached 130 degrees. The pine nuts have been drying up earlier in the year than they used to, pushing the harvest into August rather than September. But August is too hot, and the migration has become too dangerous to continue without housing to protect from the heat. As a result, there has been no piñon harvest for three years. According to Durham, the Timbisha want to use the existing park service housing in the Panamint—uninhabitable after decades of standing empty—to live in during the hottest months, and they are waiting for the park service to fix up those homes. (Multiple requests for comment to the park service went unanswered.)

Durham also worries that, as the number of residents dwindles, the village will become less of a priority to Tribal Council. And along with the village, the Homeland Act will simply be forgotten, like some archaic piece of legislation. Campbell confirms that fewer and fewer Timbisha from the surrounding regions visit the village. The younger generations have stopped coming, she says, and as a result, “they don’t know the story.” She then adds, with emphasis, “I don’t know the story. I’m trying to learn.”

Campbell is focused on the piñon nuts disappearing. Rising temperatures have changed all the vegetation beyond recognition. Piñons are becoming scarce for hundreds of square miles, not just in the Panamint, due to attacks by beetles following the recent excessive rains (the park saw its heaviest rainfall ever this past August). At the same time, in this land of extremes, dryness is killing the honey mesquite, which the Timbisha use for food, juice, and firewood. The Furnace Creek area has been so dry that the ground turns to dust and rises into the air—a condition the Timbisha call “whiteout.”

The Timbisha Shoshone’s struggle to preserve their culture now mirrors the struggle of their surrounding ecosystem. And that’s no coincidence—these were never separate things to begin with. The Timbisha’s autonomy is not a legal idea separate from where and how they live, or from their seasonal movements and their ability to take care of their environment. It’s not an abstraction separate from everyday life. It is their everyday life.

I asked Campbell why she stays. “I want to try and protect what I can and build something for generations to come, so younger people will want to come back. Right now it’s just falling apart.” After a long pause, she added softly, “It’s home.”

Death Valley is proof that returning the parks to the tribes is just the beginning. The Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act guaranteed the right to live in the park, but this alone is no longer enough. It was never enough. As temperatures continue to rise, the residents of the Timbisha Village will need more and more help actually living that life—taking care of the nature on which, in the end, all life depends.