State balks at tribes’ request to protect sacred trees

swamp cedars
“We’re concerned those trees are just going to dry up and it’ll take our ancestor’s spirit with them,” says Delaine Spilsbury, an elder of the Ely Shoshone tribe, pictured here visiting the Bahsahwahbee, a culturally significant valley to Native peoples. (Photo courtesy of Great Basin Water Network)

Native peoples in Nevada are calling on the state to strengthen protections for an area in White Pine County’s Spring Valley known locally as the Swamp Cedars, which tribes say hold significant spiritual and historical value for indigenous communities. 

Currently, about 3,200 acres of the Swamp Cedars are designated as an area of critical environmental concern under the Bureau of Land Management, offering limited land use protections, however, those protections only apply to a portion of the much larger cultural area.

Most of the Swamp Cedars 14,175 acres known as Bahsahwahbee or “Sacred Water Valley” to native people throughout the region remain largely unprotected as they face threats from climate change, drought and over-pumping of groundwater.

Representatives from several tribes strongly supported Assembly Bill 171 during a hearing Monday in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, a measure that would make it unlawful to willfully cut, destroy, mutilate or remove Rocky Mountain junipers that grow within the area.

For tribes, the land serves as a ceremonial place to gather, pray and celebrate. The site also serves as a living memorial for massacres in 1859, 1863 and 1897, in which hundreds of Shoshone people were killed by the military and local settlers. 

Native peoples hold that for every one of their ancestors killed during the massacres, a tree grew in their place.

Swamp Cedars
Aerial view of Rocky Mountain junipers in Bahsahwahbee. “What’s important is the cultural importance of the trees to the tribes and to their beliefs,” not the trees’ genetic make-up, says Assemblyman Howard Watts.
(Photo courtesy of Great Basin Water Network)

“Just like a seed each one of those Swamp Cedars was fertilized by one of those who were massacred there,” said Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation. “Through that, we live spiritually by connecting with mother earth, and to destroy it would be an act of genocide.” 

In 2017,  the Goshute, Ely and Duckwater tribes won recognition of the site as a Traditional Cultural Property from the National Park Service, but that designation provides little to no legal protections for the area. 

Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder, has been fighting for the protection of the Swamp Cedars for decades. She is a descendant of one of the two girls who survived the 1897 massacre.

“My grandmother and another little girl came back to camp and found everybody dead and mutilated. They finally walked south … till they arrived at the Swallow Ranch and the Swallow family took my grandmother in,” Spilsbury said.

“We visit with our relatives whose spirits are still in those trees,” Spilsbury said. “We’re concerned those trees are just going to dry up and it’ll take our ancestor’s spirit with them.”

In the long term, Spilsbury said she would like to see the Swamp Cedars designated as a national monument or part of the national park, adding however that any extra protection given to the area would be significant.

“We haven’t put a shield around it yet so we’re just trying anything now,” Spilsbury said. “It’s like we’re shooting a shotgun and hoping it hits something.”

In a joint letter from the Nevada Division of Forestry, the Nevada Division of Natural Heritage, and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office the agencies argue that state protection for the Swamp Cedars “is not the appropriate path,” adding that protection of the Swamp Cedars is better left to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The letter recommends that if the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources wants to pursue state protection, a study should be conducted to “determine if they are genetically distinct species or subspecies of the Rocky Mountain juniper” to be placed on the State’s list of fully protected species.

Proponents of the bill, however, counter that the measure does not attempt to make the Swamp Cedars a genetically distinct species or an endangered species and focuses solely on providing trees in the area the same protections from harvesting given to other widespread plants, like Christmas trees, yuccas, and cacti.

“We are not asking” legislatures to make Swamp Cedars a genetically distinct species, said Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin, “we are just asking to give it protections of those fully protected species.”

“We are not trying to undermine precedent, we are merely trying to demand a new precedent for an indigenous sacred site like the Swamp Cedars,” Roerink said.

Howard Watts, chair of the Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee, said the bill would  apply a permitting standard the state already has which would require stronger standards and penalties for removing or harming the trees.

“This is laying out that, because of the incredible cultural importance of this area and the importance of the trees to this area, that we’re going to require a permit for removal,” Watts said. 

“What’s important is the cultural importance of the trees to the tribes and to their beliefs, regardless of their genetic makeup,” Watts said.

While there is no indication currently that the trees are a distinct species, they are unique. Typically, the species grows on mountainsides, however, an abundance of groundwater in the Spring Valley allows them to grow on the valley floor. 

Tribal leaders and native peoples who support the bill emphasize the cultural importance of the Swamp Cedars, with many adding that the measure would be a significant step in repairing relations between Tribal Nations and the state of Nevada.

“We’ve been pretty well ignored,” said Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder.  “We are long overdue for a change.” 

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.