CARSON CITY — Cradled in rural White Pine County is a group of trees with historical and spiritual connections to the Western Shoshone, who for centuries have occupied this Spring Valley region of eastern Nevada.
The swamp cedars, in a place known as Bahsahwahbee to the Shoshone, are a unique population of Rocky Mountain junipers that grow at far lower elevations than normal.
Lawmakers in the Nevada Legislature are discussing a measure to protect the trees: Assembly Bill 171, brought forward in the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources, would make it illegal to cut down or otherwise harm the swamp cedars without a state permit. The measure was heard in committee Monday.
Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Indian Reservation, said the legislation would offer the trees a higher level of protection enjoyed by other monuments.
“It’s a sacred place for us, and just like any other people in the Christian world, they protect theirs and memorialize them,” Steele said.
Three massacres of Native American peoples occurred at the site — two from the U.S. military, one from a “self-appointed militia” — in the second half of the 1800, according to the tribe.
Steele drew attention to cultural sites in the United States that have been maintained, such as Civil War graveyards, and said the swamp cedars should receive the same level of protection.
“I think everybody has it in their minds that Christopher Columbus was here before Indians, but Indians were here before him,” Steele said.
The site was endangered during the longtime fight over the Las Vegas pipeline, which attempted to pump water from Spring Valley to Las Vegas and may have drawn water away from the trees. The cedars survived that fight, though Delaine Spilsbury, a Ely Shoshone elder, said the site has suffered from water loss over the years.
Assemblyman Howard Watts, D-Las Vegas, the natural resources committee chair, initially learned about the swamp cedars when working with the nonprofit Great Basin Water Network. He’s been in discussions with stakeholders about what protections could be offered for the trees and the area.
Spilsbury said the trees’ importance was not widely discussed outside Native American circles until recently, when they became threatened.
“It isn’t in the history books, so where are you going to find out?” she said.
Protecting the trees is an interesting proposition because it’s not the same as covering a species under, say, the Endangered Species Act.
“Designating the species as endangered wouldn’t work because so far there’s no science to support that there’s genetic diversity between those trees and Rocky Mountain juniper trees in general, which are found all over the region,” Watts said.
The groundwater in the valley is extraordinarily close to the surface, Watts said, allowing the trees to grow on the valley floor rather than the much higher altitudes at which they generally grow.
In other words, there’s no real difference between the swamp cedars and the junipers found all over the American West. No difference besides the cultural connection.
The three massacres of Native Americans at the site of the swamp cedars occurred in 1859, 1863 and 1897, with the largest occurring first. In 1859, according to the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, the largest known massacre of Native Americans happened at the site.
An eyewitness said that, over the course of two hours, somewhere between 525-700 men, women and children were slaughtered by the American military. Not even dogs escaped the massacre.
Spilsbury said tribal peoples believe their ancestors’ spirits are still in the trees.
“A lot of people go to visit them, and I’m one of those people,” she said.
It’s this history that hangs over discussion of the swamp cedars. In a letter sent by the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute during the 2019 legislative session, the tribe described the trees as a living memorial. The Shoshone refer to themselves as “Newe,” meaning “people.”
“According to Newe tradition, a swamp cedar tree grew in the place of each Indian person that was killed during the massacres. and thus, the swamp cedars are the spiritual embodiment of their ancestors,” the report read. “In addition, the Tribes use swamp cedars as a place for cultural and religious practices: spring water and swamp cedar trees are used to gain spiritual power, connect and communicate with ancestors, perform ceremonies and pass down traditional knowledge.”
There is another measure in the Legislature, Assembly Joint Resolution 4, which urges Congress to declare the land in Spring Valley that contains the swamp cedars as a national heritage area.
That designation would have to come from the federal government, and the resolution, if it passes, would not require the designation, merely request it. It was also heard in committee on Monday.
Kyle Roerink, the executive director of the Great Basin Water Network and a longtime opponent of the Las Vegas pipeline, said this would be a chance for nonindigenous people to listen and learn.
“This is an historic opportunity to build trust,” Roerink said. “This is an historic opportunity for nonindigenous people to better understand spiritual and cultural tenets of the Western Shoshone people. It’s a great opportunity to build some bridges that have been burned over the years.”