Spring Valley swamp cedars – more than trees for Western Shoshone

Assembly Joint Resolution 4 focuses on the cultural and religious significance of place

Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum), or “Swamp Cedar,” in Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada - photo: Dennis Ghiglieri/Nevada Division of Water Resources.

The Western Shoshone have occupied the Spring Valley region of eastern Nevada since ice last covered the land some 15,000 years ago. 

“There’s a lot of water there, in the valley bottom,” said Rupert Steele chairman of the Goshute Tribe. “It’s got animals coming in, waterfowl, fish, everything there for a person to sustain life. It’s got everything there.” 

Like most valleys in Nevada, Spring Valley runs north to south and is wedged between Wheeler Peak in the Great Basin National Park to the east and North Schell Peak in the Schell Creek Range to the west. The U.S. Geological Survey has identified more than 100 active springs in Spring Valley.

Research published in 1938 identified 16 traditional villages in the basin. Not surprisingly, people lived around water, and members of associated villages and bands of Western Shoshone/Goshute would regularly visit from nearby Ruby Valley, Butte Valley, Steptoe Valley, Antelope Valley, and Deep Creek to collectively harvest antelope, rabbits, mud hens, and pine nuts, and to socialize and trade. 

In 2010, the Goshute Tribal Council commissioned a Spring Valley-focused study from anthropologist Sylvester L. Lahren, Jr. PhD. The research revealed that Spring Valley and the Swamp Cedar Natural Area has been a place of great spiritual and cultural importance for millennia, a place where spiritual beliefs and life-sustaining resource procurement are unified and celebrated in festivals.

For Steele and contemporary tribal members, the swamp cedars have always been viewed as special because they are unlikely in their Spring Valley setting, but since the invasion of Euroamericans, the trees have taken on an added spiritual dimension.  

“The swamp cedars, they usually don’t grow in the moist swampy area,” Steele said. “They’re usually up there mid-slope in the gravelly, rocky soil. The Rocky Mountain Juniper is a one-trunk cedar tree, and they’re growing where my ancestors were massacred. I think there was over 300 people that they killed there.”

Beginning in 1859, from Salt Lake City to Austin, Nevada, the Pony Express and Overland Stage and what came with them decimated the Western Shoshone food and water supplies, ancient way of life. 

Hostilities between starving indigenous people in the Spring Valley region and Euroamericans simmered until sometime during 1859 or 1860 when Colonel Patrick E. Conner of the California Volunteers stationed at Fort Ruby in the nearby Ruby Valley ordered the unqualified killing of the Shoshone. According to several sources, U.S. Cavalry soldiers slaughtered more than 350 Shoshone in a single event that occurred near the swamp cedars. 

The Goshute War began in 1863, and on May 16 of that year, U.S. Cavalry soldiers killed 23 Shoshone among the swamp cedars but were largely thwarted by the marshy conditions, according to historical accounts.

In 1897, it is believed that vigilantes massacred an untold number of native people in the Spring Valley near the cedars.  

These massacres, wars, and other killings are still poignant historic events for many of the current members of the Goshute Indian Tribe, the Ely Shoshone Tribe, and Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. Delaine Spilsbury is an Ely Shoshone elder and recounted the 1897 massacre.

“There were two little girls who happened to be out screwing off when they should have been working and gathering and that sort of thing,” Spilsbury said by phone. “And when they returned they found their entire camp of the elders and women had all been very viciously murdered and just left, they left sticks and trees and things stuck into all parts of their bodies and just, it was just really shocking for these girls. 

“They were about eight years old and they were able to sneak out the same ditch they came in and hung around for I guess a day or whatever. We don’t know for sure. They finally decided that one would  go north, and the other one wanted to go south. Because the one that went north had a feeling that that’s where they came from. That’s what she remembered. 

“The one that went south finally came to the Swallow Ranch. And those people took her in. She could help them with the chores and that kind of thing. And that was my grandmother.”

“Swamp Cedars” (Juniperus scopulorum) and associated pond, wetland and
meadow in Spring Valley, White Pine County, Nevada – photo: Dennis Ghiglieri/Nevada Division of Water Resources.

Rupert Steele sees spirits in the swamp cedars. He says he owes his existence to long-gone ancestors who who died at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry or a mob.

“It’s a way of identifying who we are through those trees, because we know that wherever somebody fell, those trees grew tall and strong because they’re being fertilized by my ancestor’s body. So that person that passed away is there in that tree, the spirit,” Steele said.

Assembly Joint Resolution 4 would urge the U.S. Congress to designate certain land containing swamp cedars in Spring Valley as a National Heritage Area. Steele said he understands the resolution is merely a request to protect the swamp cedars, but Congress needs to finally make good on a series of old, bad deeds.

“That area is within the aboriginal territory of the Goshute. That’s where a reservation was before they put us on the current reservation,” Steele said and paused several second before picking up again. “We never ceded those lands. But it was taken away for what the federal government termed ‘encroachment.’ If you put your flag there, now the land belongs to me.”

Racism is an old story for Steele. He said he has experienced overt racism against himself and his people. He has a strong admiration for the ancestors who went before him and endured much more difficult cultural circumstances than he and his tribe endure today.

“The Goshute have gone through different phases of life. First it was assimilation, genocide, subjugation, now reservation. We’ve gone through that. And for the young guy, the young leader, I was praising the people who were resilient and tough enough to survive those days. I can just imagine and feel how they felt at that time, and I’m still fighting those battles today.”

What do the Western Shoshone want?

Delaine Spilsbury supports the aim of AJR4, which would encourage Congress to make the swamp cedars of Spring Valley a National Heritage Area, but she would rather see the area added to the adjacent Great Basin National Park. Thereby the trees could be protected and there could be an educational component for tourists, which she says is good for awareness of Western Shoshone history and the local economy.

Delaine’s neighbor Rick Spilsbury was glad to see the effort by the Southern Nevada Water Authority to harvest water from the Spring Valley and other valleys and pipe it to Las Vegas die. He said the Western Shoshone lived through ethnic cleansing as well. He hopes non-native people will see the Western Shoshone as an object lesson of resilience and wisdom, to learn from the Western Shoshone value system.

“I would like to see us respect both our history and our culture and our way of perceiving how to live in the world,” Spilsbury said. “And those things are something that if there’s a place for people to know exists and to know the history about it and know about the people who were the peaceful people. I mean, our ancestors were some of the most peaceful people around, hunter gatherers, and how you don’t have to destroy everything to make it livable because it was livable before.”

Both Delaine and Rick are on the Board of Directors of the Great Basin Water Network and worked with many stakeholders to prevent the Southern Nevada Water Authority from desiccating their valley and sending the water to Las Vegas. 

“If we can keep the trees alive, we can keep ourselves alive, because if they draw down the water so those trees go, that’s the beginning of the end for any kind of civilization around that area, worldwide for that matter,” Delaine said.

Chairman Steele is focused on protecting the swamp cedar areas from further encroachment of any kind. He’s glad to see Assembly Bill 171 making its way through this legislative session, a measure that would further protect the swamp cedars from being cut down without a permit from the state. But more than anything, he wants to  ensure the lives of his ancestors are not disrespected and that their spirits will be at peace.

“That’s one of those sacred areas that we would like to be protected. And don’t bother the people that are there. They were there for reasons. They were massacred there. We don’t want them disturbed. We want to go there and visit them and talk with them, just sing with them, feel good about it, because they shed blood for us, shed their blood for me to survive. And that’s very inspiring. They were all warriors. They fought and died for me to survive, just like any other people.”


Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work in the Ally.