A Living Reflection of the Past, A Monument for the Future
by Rick Spilsbury, Ely Shoshone Tribal Elder
I am a direct descendant of a Newe survivor who witnessed a genocidal-like massacres at Bahsahwahbee1 – and its aftermath. What became a killing field was once our temple.
Rick Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone tribal elder, who has spent many years advocating to protect and commemorate Bahsahwahbee. His great grandmother survived a massacre at Bahsahwahbee, which tribes hope will be preserved by a National Monument designation.
Credit: Bahsahwahbee National Monument Campaign
Located in the bottom of Spring Valley near Great Basin National Park, Bahsahwahbee – the “Sacred Water Valley” with its iconic Swamp Cedars – has been a vital part of our indigenous Newe heritage since time immemorial. And for good reason: It was a gathering area where Newe people held rain dances, round dances, vision quests, harvest ceremonies, and other social events to bring people together. The springs that bubble up were sites of special healing ceremonies.
The views of the Snake Range and Schell Creek Range still form a breathtaking reminder of how incredibly free and fortunate my Western Shoshone ancestors were in a place where an artistic masterpiece of landscape comes to life.
A scenic view of Bahsahwahbee
Credit: Bahsahwahbee National Monument Campaign
My great grandmother, Laurene Mamie Swallow, was one of the last people to have experienced those sacred lands in a way our people had for millennia prior to colonization. Today, I think of her often, trying to make sense about what she witnessed and what she endured at Bahsahwahbee. Her story, passed down through our family and other Western Shoshone communities, is one of harrowing strength and courage. It is a history of murder and ethnic cleansing. But, most importantly, it is a story of resilience.
My great grandmother’s legacy embodies the trauma that still exists today for Indigenous peoples across North America. Yet it confirms our resolve and fortitude – our limitless vitality and wisdom. We are of this land. The land is us. Despite so much of that land being taken from the Newe, we “the people” are still here. And we seek to share our culture and history with all who are willing to learn about it. We are a reflection of the stunning landscapes that encompass and enliven Bahsahwahbee.
That is why I join with the leaders of three sovereign nations – the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe, and Ely Shoshone Tribe – in calling for Bahsahwahbee to be preserved and commemorated as a national monument managed by the National Park Service (NPS).
We are calling on President Biden, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, and other leaders in the Administration to use their authority via the Antiquities Act to establish the NPS-managed Bahsahwahbee National Monument. This ~ 25,000-acre place of memory will serve to recognize a significant part of Newe culture and history in perpetuity.
Bahsahwahbee remains a place where we pay our respects to our ancestors and mourn what happened to our people. For me and many of my relatives, it is a place where we still go to learn about who we are. We go there to visit our late ancestors. We go to this place to be Newe. Bahsahwahbee was the site of three major massacres between 1850 and 1900. A National Monument will not undo the atrocities that took place there. But recognition and commemoration of this kind – with the Tribes working in close partnership with the NPS –– will help our healing and immortalize our peoples’ history.
My great grandmother knew what it meant to lose her home and family in the worst way one people can inflict on another. In 1897, she and a friend went out for a walk. They were children playing. The two young girls wandered away from the camp at Bahsahwahbee when they heard the massacres begin. They hid in a ditch, and when they returned to camp they witnessed their entire community had been slaughtered by a band of vigilantes. When the two girls felt safe to leave, they ran south for many miles and began their life working on a ranch owned by white settlers.
During my childhood, my grandparents would stop the car near Bahsahwahbee, get out, and pay their respects. Today, I do the same.
By the time my great grandmother was born in the waning years of the 19th Century, the United States had longstanding efforts underway to wipe out Native people and remove any survivors from their homelands. Military leaders like General Albert S. Johnston were not strangers to these efforts. To Johnston, it was “impossible to discriminate between the friendly and hostile Indians on the [overland] routes; there can only be the presumption of guilt”. He led the 1859 massacre at Bahsahwahbee, where he and four companies of Army soldiers killed an estimated 525 to 700 Newe men, women and children during a religious gathering.
Then there’s Colonel Patrick Connor, who partially directed a series of Indian massacres throughout the Great Basin, including the 1863 massacre at Bahsahwahbee and the Bear River Massacre. Conner’s malevolence toward indigenous peoples is captured well in this quote that was highlighted in his biography:
“If they [Indians] resist, you will destroy them . . . hang them, and leave their bodies thus exposed as an example of what evildoers may expect while I command in this district. You will also destroy every male Indian whom you encounter in the vicinity of the late massacres. This course may seem harsh and severe, but I desire that the order may be rigidly enforced, as I am satisfied that in the end it will prove most merciful.2”
At the time of the targeted attacks, the justification by the military and other vigilante groups for these exterminations was the type of thing that’s so prominent in the old black-and-white Hollywood westerns that sanitized ethnic cleansing for mass audiences: Natives took up arms against the settlers who were moving westward and taking over Native American territories.
Federal policy was to conquer Newe lands. It was done through any means necessary, which invariably included killing off Indian people en masse. Newe people were forced to flee their traditional homelands, hunting and gathering areas, ceremonial sites, and their villages and homes. And to add insult to injury, federal government representatives, seeing famine and starvation among the Newe, used bare-bones food rations to buy their silence about the expansion of colonists onto Newe Sogobia lands.
This history of Newe people is rarely found in published material. But people should know about the past so we never make the same grave mistakes again. My Newe forebearers were targeted at significant spiritual sites at times of gathering. They were forcibly removed. They were the victims of genocide.
A national monument cannot erase that dark and deranged past. But our Western Shoshone sovereign nations want to work with the National Park Service to help tell these and other stories. We hope all who travel to Bahsahwahbee and all the beautiful places in its vicinity can better understand what we have endured. And, maybe, just maybe, we will be a better of nation for it.
We also want to uplift the Newe people. I never had the opportunity to meet my great grandmother. But I know she would want me to share the good as much as the bad.
When I walk among the swamp cedar trees at Bahsahwahbee, I walk among our people and our past. Their memory is still there. The trees in this sacred grove literally hold the remains of my ancestors. Travel throughout the Great Basin and you will not find another forest like the swamp cedars at Bahsahwahbee anywhere you go.
The swamp cedars are Rocky Mountain junipers. And, ecologically, they rely on the marshy bottoms of Spring Valley. Elsewhere in the Great Basin, these trees grow at over 8,000 feet of elevation. At Bahsahwahbee, they are growing around 5,000 feet. It is a globally unique environment.
Iconic Swamp Cedars – has been a vital part of our indigenous Newe heritage since time immemorial.
Credit: Bahsahwahbee National Monument Campaign
As Newe, we hold that the spirits of our ancestors killed in the massacres are in the swamp cedar trees. That is among the many reasons why Bahsahwahbee is a place where we go to pay our respects. Words cannot communicate how important it is for me and all my Newe relatives to go to Bahsahwahbee to honor our ancestors and their memory. If we were to ever lose this grove of trees, it would be an existential crisis.
Our tribal elders and elected leaders have spent many years planning and visioning the Bahsahwahbee National Monument. With my 86-year-old mom, other elders and leaders, we also go to Bahsahwahbee to think about the future of this exceptional place of memory. Preservation of this place, along with the commemoration of our history there, is essential. Our vision for a NPS-managed national monument will allow us to work in close partnership with the only federal agency that specializes in telling the stories that are rooted in the land.
Delaine Spilsbury, Rick's mother and an Ely Shoshone Tribal, at the Swamp Cedars. She is the Cultural Resource Liaison for the tribe and is working with the tribal council to secure a National Monument designation.
Speaking as an elder of the Ely Shoshone Tribe, I see this national monument designation as a great opportunity to let people know that the Newe still thrive in the Great Basin. We are not just memories.
We are a presence. It is time that we as Newe people chart the future of Bahsahwahbee. We’ve never been afforded that opportunity in the past two centuries. greater cognizance of our people will help preserve and protect our culture, religion, history, and future. Bahsahwahbee is an effort to uplift our stories, recognize the endurance of Newe culture, and commend the bright future of our people.
There is no other place like Bahsahwahbee. It is a killing field and massacre site. It is hallowed ground. It is an exceptional place that is inextricably both the Indigenous and American experience. Bahsahwahbee is a place my great grandmother had to flee. But the world needs to know that Newe people keep coming back. We always have. And we always will.
Help us realize our vision to preserve and commemorate Bahsahwahbee. Please sign the petition at www.swampcedars.org to support the three Tribal nations in their work have President Biden, Secretary Haaland and other federal officials to establish the Bahsahwahbee National Monument.
1) Pronunciation: (Ba-sa-wa-Bee)
2) Quoted from B. Madsen. 1990. Glory Hunter: A Biography of Patrick Edward Conner. University of Utah Press.