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Thursday, February 25, 2016

Mesquite Groves, Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park, California

Mesquite trees stand on the valley floor, mountains behind, at Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Park, California
On the so-called “Death Valley” floor is the treasure that kept Timbisha Shoshone here for over a millennium – an oasis with honey mesquite groves.

Didn’t know that Native Americans lived in Death Valley and are still living here? Neither did I until I arrived a few days ago. They’ve managed to thrive in the harsh conditions and outlast mining companies and efforts by the U.S. government to kick them out for centuries. And it’s all because of their close relationship with the land.

"The Timbisha people have lived in our homeland forever and we will live here forever. We were taught that we don't end. We are part of our homeland and it is part of us. We are people of the land. We don't break away from what is part of us," wrote tribal elder and former Tribal Council Chairperson Pauline Esteves.

The practical root of that endurance has always been the Timbisha relationship to the mesquite groves.

Old-school anthropologists would probably have described the Timbisha as hunter-gatherers. But that is a weak understanding. They managed – and still manage – the honey mesquites as an orchard. To maintain their orchards, they pull out competing plants, coppice trees for lush foliage and renewable wood, prune dead branches, etc. As Charles C. Mann emphasized again and again in his wonderful book, "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus," Native Americans were far, far more technically sophisticated and “civilized” than Eurocentric mythology (née history) every allowed.

In olden times, the valley’s honey mesquite was the foundation of their diet and a valuable trade item. Today, it’s still a part of their diet and a source of pride. 

Unfortunately, competition for water from Death Valley National Park’s tourism facilities and introduced palm and tamarisk trees has threatened the groves. But a few years ago, the Timbisha started the Mesquite Traditional Use Pilot Project in cooperation with the National Park Service to compare mesquite health in traditional managed orchard plots vs. a control of unmanaged plots.

I’d like to find out how the project is going. If successful, Timbisha knowledge could be a windfall for permaculturists, gardeners, preppers, and others interested in using mesquite as a food source again. I mean, the Southwest is covered in mesquite, yet poor folks go hungry! In Texas, they call it “range weed”! I’m going to contact the tribe and see what I can learn.