Tilting the balance of power


Ten years ago, I gathered with 22 other undergraduates on the shady side of a prefab building, sheltered from the glare of a Death Valley autumn day. We were there to talk with activists from the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe, who had recently won a 7,750-acre reservation, only a small fraction of it in the national park that contains their ancestral homeland. We'd spent three months exploring Western issues, and so far everyone we'd met had been gentle and generous -- sharing their opinions, even welcoming us into their homes.

This time, though, was different. One Timbisha woman leveled a penetrating gaze at us, at our earnest professor, and asked, "Why are you here?" The question felt guarded, almost hostile -- as if what she meant was, "Do you think we owe you anything?" As we struggled to explain ourselves, to ask the right questions, we became painfully aware of our privileged, mostly white, upper-middle-class backgrounds. I realized that the most important questions were the ones we were now asking ourselves: Why shouldn't they be angry?

After all, when Death Valley became a national monument in 1933, the Park Service squeezed the area's Timbisha Shoshone onto a tiny plot on the valley floor. The tribe was not even federally recognized until 1983, not granted this remnant of its former lands for a reservation until 2000. As an elder spoke, the wind whined through a gap beneath the trailer behind her; most of the few clustered buildings were still perched on blocks, rather than supported by real foundations. When the Timbisha cemented a sign a few feet into the earth in 1996, identifying this area as home, it was an act of rebellion -- a declaration of their spiritual and cultural roots in a place where they had to fight to sink physical ones.

The Timbisha's story, though unique in its particulars, is shared among all tribes marginalized by our ruthlessly ambitious new nation. That is one reason why counter-narratives like this issue's cover story, by longtime High Country News contributor Joshua Zaffos, are so striking.

The Port Gamble S'Klallam -- who live on a small bay on Washington's Puget Sound -- and a lumber company-turned-developer are grappling over a stretch of timberland and shoreline, plus a historic town and mill on the tribe's ancestral grounds. Pope Resources wants to sell the land for conservation, with some housing development to help pay for the deal. But though the company owns the parcels outright, the tribe appears to be steering the process -- winning concessions and scaling back development plans to protect fishing rights -- by exploiting the same sorts of legal systems originally used to appropriate their lands and waters. And while what the S'Klallam have won so far hardly makes up for all they've lost, the delicate détente between tribe and timber company suggests what might be possible once the playing field is finally leveled.

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