Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) Ancestral Territory, Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, Nevada, USA.
Photo above: Nuwuvi, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Mountain Institute/Portland State University participants sharing a round dance at the fourth annual Gathering For Our Mountains. September 2014.
Anthropology Department, Portland State University and The Mountain Institute
Pahrump Paiute Tribe
Jeremy Spoon, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Anthropology Department, Portland State University
P.O. Box 751, Portland,
Oregon, 97207, USA
+1 (503) 725.9729
Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) consider their ancestral territory alive and imbued with power. They have been the custodians of these lands since the beginning of time. Protected and restricted areas now demarcate large portions of these lands, which span four western U.S. states. The Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (SMNRA) and Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex (DNWRC) are key landscapes in Nuwuvi creation and contain habitats for numerous culturally and spiritually significant plants, animals, and other natural features. Since 2008, Nuwuvi, SMNRA (U.S. Forest Service) and DNWRC (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) collaborated on a shared governance framework using working groups of tribally and federally designated representatives to consult on mandated federal policies and mutual interests. This engagement flourished into co-management of shared priorities through special events and projects, including an intergenerational harvest. The partnership also shares information about contemporary indigenous relationships with the land through interpretation. Lessons learned include the importance of rapport building with transparency between indigenous peoples and government agencies and using co-management activities to reunite native peoples with their ancestral territories and reinforce intergenerational knowledge transmission.
Cultural and spiritual significance of nature
Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) view their ancestral homeland as alive and imbued with power. All flora and fauna and natural resources are sentient, interconnected, and have a purpose. Both the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area (SMNRA) and Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex (DNWRC) are integral to Nuwuvi creation; Nuwuvi consider these landscapes as the center of their universe. At the beginning of time when the world was new, the Creator charged Nuwuvi with balancing the land depending on inferred need or condition. Sustaining balance and preventing land sickness includes creating small-scale disturbances, such as patch burning and clearing springs and water catchment basins, which collectively form a mosaic of relatives or habitats. Kinship is also an integral part of Nuwuvi land management and epistemology; certain families are traditionally designated stewards of particular groves or springs. During mourning rituals, the soul passes through both protected areas as it ceremonially travels along the Salt Song Trail, a journey through song that enables Nuwuvi to transition from this world to another. These locations also contain habitats and locations of numerous culturally and spiritually important resources including caves, springs, rock writing (petroglyphs) sites and endemic plants and animals that keep the world in balance.
Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) ancestral territory, participating protected areas and current reservations.
Project area within the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute) ancestral territory. Area includes the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and Desert National Wildlfife Refuge Complex. The DNWRC includes four wildlife refuges. Nuvagantu or Nuvankai (Where Snow Sits) or Mount Charleston is the initial Nuwuvi creation point.
Ecology and biodiversity
The SMNRA contains six vegetation zones, creating habitat for several endemic plants and animals. The highest point (3632 m), Nuvankai (Where Snow Sits) or Mount Charleston, is the primary point of Nuwuvi creation. The Spring Mountains are the only range in the southern Great Basin that rises above the timberline. The Desert National Wildlife Refuge Complex, the largest refuge in the contiguous U.S., consists of four refuges with wetland, riparian, and montane ecosystems. DNWRC is habitat for one of the country’s largest desert bighorn sheep herds and desert tortoise and has the country’s greatest concentration of endemic life, including pupfish.
Both protected areas are under a shared governance framework. The U.S. Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service make most decisions; however, since 2010, both agencies implemented a government-to-government consultation framework with Nuwuvi in response to federal laws and topics of mutual interest. This method utilizes specialized working groups of designated experts from seven tribes within the Nuwuvi Nation along with federal agency representatives. Working group members participate in bi-annual meetings and report outcomes back to their respective governments or divisions. The Mountain Institute/Portland State University facilitates the meetings and provides summaries with action items to each participant for approval.
In 2016, Nuwuvi, SMNRA and DNWRC identified pinyon-juniper habitats, hydrology and fire as shared management priorities. Recommendations are implemented through events and projects. For example, at the annual Gathering For Our Mountains intergenerational pine nut harvest and pinyon-juniper stewardship event (since 2012), Nuwuvi families and federal agency volunteers collectively help restore balance to the groves by whipping old cones from trees and clearing out underbrush. These practices assist in minimizing catastrophic crown fire risk and pinyon-juniper habitat expansion. Co-created interpretation at multiple visitor centers, trails and public art pieces also helps communicate these collaborative activities to the public.
Collaboration among Nuwuvi, federal agencies and The Mountain Institute/Portland State University began in 2008 with the co-creation of interpretive content for multiple visitor centers. The mutual trust established through these projects evolved into a shared governance framework and unique co-management capacity building. Primary lessons learned include:
- Focusing on shared mutual interests and defining a path forward. This project utilized interpretive planning as a springboard for other projects. Both the government and tribal representatives had special connections with the protected areas and wanted to interpret them for enhanced public protection. The Nuwuvi Working Group co-conducted ethnographic research with their elders to determine what information to share for building design, exhibits and public art at four locations.
- Building rapport coupled with leveraging existing laws and policies. In the U.S., compliance with federal policies, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), and Executive Order 13007 (recognition and access to sacred sites), were used to sustain relationships between indigenous peoples and government agencies.
- Making transparency vital to success. Participants had the ability to address and overcome challenging issues through candid conversations, trust and exposure to different perspectives. Rapport building with transparency was also a key component in managing expectations.
- Ensuring leadership participation. Decision-makers from both federal agencies and tribes participated in bi-annual meetings and other rapport building activities, such as the annual and collaborative Gathering For Our Mountains.
- Maintaining institutional memory. A framework of regular activities (meetings, events, etc.) built a foundation to engage and train new staff without losing momentum.
- Providing interactive opportunities. Intergenerational and cross-cultural knowledge exchange occurred at meeting and events, which reinforced partnerships.
- Co-creating interpretation. Tribal representatives guided interpretative information for the public about the cultural significance of these important places within a broader indigenous homeland.