Tribal nations’ lasting victory in the Mojave Desert

Before Avi Kwa Ame became a national monument, there was the fight for Ward Valley.

The protest encampment was easily visible from Highway 40 going West from Needles, California — a cluster of olive-green Army tents that stood out from the low-lying creosote bushes and sagebrush that cover the expanse of Ward Valley. At its height, the camp held two kitchens (one vegetarian, one not), a security detail, bathroom facilities and a few hundred people — a coalition of five tribal nations, anti-nuclear activists, veterans, environmentalists and American Indian Movement supporters. They were there to resist a public-lands trade between the federal government and the state of California that would allow U.S. Ecology, a waste disposal company, to build a 1,000-acre, unlined nuclear waste dump that threatened both desert tortoises and groundwater. “It became like a little village, a working village,” recalled David Harper, a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes who was a tribal spokesperson at the time.


The Bureau of Land Management had announced it would start evicting the protesters at midnight on Feb. 13, 1998. But that day, tribal elders decided that they would not leave. Federal officials and tribal spokespeople met to negotiate at a blockade on the highway overpass. The leaders of the standoff were committed to nonviolence, but the atmosphere felt tense and uncertain. At a press conference, elders in ribbon dresses and beadwork sat under the sun in folded chairs, backed by tall banners that read, in part, “Save the Colorado River.” “We can no longer stand by, as people, to allow this to continue to happen to us,” said then-Fort Mojave Tribal Chairperson Nora McDowell, her black curls framing her face and her voice quavering at times.

Youth from the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe hold a banner during the Ward Valley standoff in 1998.
Courtesy of Molly Johnson

After 113 days, the BLM rescinded the eviction order. A year later, a federal court ruling finalized the victory: There would be no dump at Ward Valley. The protest served as a nexus of the decade’s political issues in Indian Country — a test of the Clinton administration’s commitment to tribal consultation and the Endangered Species Act, as well as of new federal laws and policies on environmental justice and sacred site protections. It was also a time of cultural upwelling — the camp provided space for elders to share stories, knowledge and ceremony with the thoroughly intergenerational community. Children and teens took part alongside everyone else. Doelena Van Fleet was one of those kids; her father, Victor, was a key organizer. The encampment period was a kind of “restoration,” she said. “Because of their actions, our voices can be heard now.”

Left, Doelena Van Fleet observes the crowd at the Ward Valley Spiritual Gathering. Right, Avi Kwa Ame is a sacred site and the center of creation for 10 Yuman-speaking tribes.
NĪa MacKnight/High Country News

ON A BRIGHT, chilly Saturday in February, a hundred or so people gathered at the same spot where the tents once stood in Ward Valley. The elders of that time have passed on, while others from the camp have since become elders themselves. The small children that ran around the camp are now on tribal councils. Nora McDowell, now in her 60s and project manager for the tribe’s Pipa Aha Macav Cultural Center, read a list of names in remembrance. Both Native and non-Native speakers shared memories: the sleet and hail, chasing after tents blowing away across the valley, reaffirming the power of collective action, and the importance of knowing — and standing up for — the place you come from. They celebrate every year, but this February was special; it marked 25 years since the encampment and ensuing victory, a mile marker of time.

Colleen Garcia, a Fort Mojave tribal council member who was at the encampment, stood at the microphone in front of the crowd. “We are Mojaves,” she said to shouts of confirmation. “Others will come and go. But we people here will be here forever.” 

“Others will come and go. But we people here will be here forever.” 

In Garcia’s comments, one can hear the echoes of the past — decades ago, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe’s then-vice chairman, Llewellyn Barrackman, voiced the same sentiment to reporters. “For us, as Mojaves, we’re born and raised here and this is our roots,” he said. “U.S. Ecology people come here from elsewhere, and maybe 10 years from now they get transferred. But us, we’re going to be here until we die.” The BLM acreage of Ward Valley, like all public lands, is ancestral tribal land, in this case of the Mojave, Quechan, Cocopah, Colorado River Indian Tribes, Chemehuevi and others. And though Ward Valley was the focus of the nuclear waste dump conflict, it’s part of a broader region known as Avi Kwa Ame, which is just as important to the tribes in the region.


Community members and allies gather in February for the 25th anniversary of the Ward Valley standoff.
NĪa MacKnight/High Country News


The landscape at Avi Kwa Ame is a reminder that rocks, in fact, move. Tilted granite shelves jut from the earth’s surface, rock walls crumble to the valley floor below. Shapes of smooth rock sag and gape like melted candles, while bursts of green yucca dot the landscape. This is the origin place of 10 Yuman-speaking tribes, and considered sacred by more. In 1999, the same year that a court ruling protected Ward Valley from the nuclear waste dump, Avi Kwa Ame was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, a first step toward legal protection. 

In March, at the White House Conservation in Action Summit, President Joe Biden signed a declaration that officially designated Avi Kwa Ame as a national monument, with the resulting protections covering more than 500,000 acres of BLM land just north of Ward Valley. The boundaries connect wilderness lands managed by the National Park Service and BLM — though, in truth, Avi Kwa Ame is boundless. The designation will do more than prohibit solar or wind development. It will also protect the core cultural traditions that were empowered in Ward Valley, with the declaration including a commitment to co-stewardship between the Interior Department and tribal nations. “Because we have the history of that work, it was really a strong argument for how this could be mutually beneficial, not just to solidify that work, but to honor and respect all of the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into protecting this landscape,” said Ashley Hemmers, Fort Mojave tribal administrator.

TODAY, TRIBAL NATIONS are working with a federal government that is more receptive to tribal knowledge and co-stewardship of public lands than it was in the past. In the 1990s, in response to concerns that tribes were not thoroughly consulted, then-Interior Deputy Secretary John Garamendi told Fort Mojave tribal member and Ward Valley spokesperson Steve Lopez that “the discussions really need to happen between the state and the Department of the Interior.”

Alanna Russell, of the Colorado River Tribes, at Ward Valley in February.
NĪa MacKnight/High Country News

But not far from Ward Valley, efforts to exploit ancestral tribal land continue: Corporations want to mine gold on Conglomerate Mesa in California; lithium in Thacker Pass, Nevada; and copper in Oak Flat, Arizona, despite sustained opposition from tribes and their allies, and an administration that has prioritized tribal sovereignty. Existing laws have so far failed to provide reliable protection for these lands. Even places with designated protection from development are threatened by increased visitation; lax oversight leads to problems like the vandalism of petroglyphs. Today, “there’s more knowledge about the responsibility that the federal government has for tribal consultation on projects on public lands,” said Daniel Patterson, an ecologist and former BLM employee who supported the tribes at the standoff. But consultation is inconsistent across the agency. “It seems like that’s being decided more in the courts instead of where it should be decided, which is with Native nations.”

The success of the 1998 encampment hinged on relationship building, and on non-Native allies’ recognition of the tribes’ cultural and political sovereignty. A similar spirit is evident around Avi Kwa Ame today, owing to the same tribes. Other national monuments, including Bears Ears, have faced opposition from locals and state and federal politicians. But the boundaries for Avi Kwa Ame have the support of nearby towns, their congressional representatives and all federally recognized tribes in Arizona and Nevada. “We really — as a tribe — learned through (Ward Valley) how to critically engage multiple stakeholders for the overall good of the landscape and environment,” said Hemmers.

Or, as David Harper put it, “In Ward Valley, the people’s culture rose.”  

Anna V. Smith is an associate editor for High Country News. She has placed in the Native American Journalists Association’s Native Media Awards in the category of Best Coverage of Native America three times. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.