Surrounded by mountains capped with pine trees, in a valley known for its picturesque sunsets, the Duck Valley Indian Reservation is a small and “easy flowing community,” residents said.
“Everyone knows everyone by the cars they drive, if you will,” said Antoinette Cavanaugh, who was born there. “There’s no, ‘Hey, can we make a plan to meet up at such-n-such time?’ … People just stop in.”
The town of Owyhee is on the reservation, which is home to 1,500 people. The community is 100 miles north of Elko and 100 miles south of Mountain Home, Idaho.
Nevada Humanities recently brought the people of the remote reservation together with other participants in a Zoom program entitled Owyhee: Reclaiming Land, Language, and Community. The event was a part of Nevada Humanities’ “A More Perfect Union” series aimed at connecting the state’s far-flung communities.
The Duck Valley Indian Reservation is home to descendants of both the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute people, who once roamed freely over the mountains and high deserts of Nevada and Idaho. The reservation occupies a fraction of those tribes’ vast Indigenous homeland the people called Newe Sokkobi, the Great Basin. Their reach extended into what are now California, Utah and southeastern Oregon.
The Zoom broadcast began with the pulse of traditional hand drums and the Shoshone “Boat Song” performed by the Sunrise Singers. Words and rhythms from ancient days tumbled out of computer speakers from Reno to Elko.
Cavanaugh began the community conversation by describing her ancestors’ ancient ways of conservation. With great understanding and respect for the land, she said, the people would pack up their belongings and move from place to place to allow the land’s resources to replenish themselves.
In the late 1800s, the tribes’ traditional lands were reduced to a 289,819-acre reservation. In the United States’ initiative to protect gold sources, a series of treaties were signed that relegated the Western Shoshone and Northern Paiute people to reservations. The formerly nomadic tribes were granted sovereign rights to govern themselves within those boundaries.
No longer able to forage across an expansive landscape, Duck Valley residents turned to agriculture. Many families, including Reginald Primo’s ancestors, became ranchers. Primo is among the third generation in that tradition.
“It was something to hear those stories about what our people had to go through to survive,” Primo said. He recalled a story he heard from his aunt and uncle, who remembered the conditions in the Great Basin in the 1930s. Before the Owyhee River was dammed, it would dry up, he noted. Crops failed, and tribal members would take to the hills in drought years to find land at higher elevations that provided “perpetual spring.” They planted gardens in the high country and took turns tending them throughout the summer. In the fall, whole families would gather to harvest the food and carry it back to the valley.
“It was hard work,” Primo said.
These stories inspired Primo to re-create hoop houses, a form of gardening that fell out of favor with the advent of grocery stores. Hoop houses, he explained, are “simply a less expensive greenhouse.”
Unlike the controlled environment of greenhouses, modern hoop houses are a plastic shell, “powered by the sun and earth only.” That, he said, “extends the growing season” and allows families on the reservation to grow and harvest produce from March to November. Primo said that in some years, hoop houses can supply vegetables through December.
Across the reservation, the sturdy plastic sentinels have allowed members to be healthier and gain a sense of fulfillment, he said. “When you grow it yourself,” Primo said, “you have that ownership.”
Preserving ancient tongues
The conversation transitioned from hoop houses to language preservation as Cavanaugh introduced Laurie Caskey and Yolanda Manning, who fight to keep their traditional languages alive. Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation were devastating to Indigenous languages, they said, because children were prohibited from speaking their native tongues. Across the West, many Indigenous languages were lost.
Shoshone was Caskey’s first language. She teaches it to young people so that it will not become extinct. That’s made easier now that the language can be in written form. Shoshone had been an exclusively oral language until anthropological linguist Wick Miller in the 1970s developed a written orthography with the help of Duck Valley’s Beverly Crum of the Western Shoshone.
“It bothers and hurts me, because we are going to lose it someday,” said Caskey, “and so I keep talking.” She speaks it so much, she is starting to lose her English, she said. “I used to be a good speller and even (won) spelling bees in school.” These days, spelling English words has gotten harder.
She doesn’t mind. Her dedication to preserving the language leads her to engage with people in the language and speak to whoever will listen. She keeps the ancient words alive.
Manning, whose first language was Paiute, is similarly immersed in her traditional lounge, which she learned from her grandparents. She was told “Eh NEME—NEME YADUANNA,” which means, “You are people, Paiute people! Speak your language!” That’s a phrase she now passes down to her students.
As a part of her teaching regimen, she uses traditional English nursery rhymes with the words translated into Paiute. She explained that children can catch on very quickly to the new language when it comes in the form of a familiar song. For example, she said, “they immediately know (the song) is ‘The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,’” said Manning.
She also uses picture books and games in her lessons. She employs “anything where they are repeating the language over and over again,” she said.
Manning takes a different approach with older kids and teenagers. Instead of learning names and colors, “they want to talk about what is relevant in their lives.”
Preserving the languages is a challenge. The number of native speakers is declining as elders die. There are many others who understand the language, Manning said, but hesitated to speak it due to their experience in boarding schools, or worries that knowing tribal languages may hinder children’s educations in English. That’s shouldn’t be a concern, she said.
“I know that studies have actually proven that people who have more languages, the more intelligent they actually are,” Manning said. “It opens your mind up, and you become better in all your academics by learning different languages.”
Manning hopes to encourage more people to utilize the language by creating a safe place for people to make mistakes and allow them to grow comfortable with their own voices. “We need to hear it more often in order to feel comfortable with it,” she said.
Natural remedies proven
The new generation of Indigenous descendants also took part in the presentations. Tziavi Melendez, a senior at Owyhee High School and class body president, is a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and a descendant of the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Tribe. She talked about “doza,” a traditional tribal remedy.
“Doza, I remember one of my relatives telling me, is so strong that if you put it in the water, it will kill the fish,” she said. Doza or fernleaf biscuitroot, along with elderberry, are native remedies used for millennia. Many people on the reservation turned to traditional medicine during the pandemic.
Melendez wanted to show the efficacy of traditional knowledge through science. Through research at Boise State University, that’s what she did: Melendez demonstrated that doza and elderberry not only kill bacteria; they also destroy lung cancer cells. Her findings won a science fair. She was then invited to an international science fair, competing against 1,000 students worldwide.
“I was super proud of this project, not so much for the recognition and winning, but I was able to prove that traditional medicines work, and that they’re more powerful than we realized,” Melendez said. She plans to continue her research into the healing plants as a college student.
Melendez, who is too young to vote, also works to expand native-voter access. She began the first statewide Native American caucus youth council in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. “If voting wasn’t important, they wouldn’t be trying to take our voice away,” said Melendez.
She said it’s important that Indigenous people vote in order to influence decisions that impact them and their sovereignty. “Even though there’s not a lot of us (compared) to the amount of people in the country, there are enough of us to make a difference,” she said
Nevada’s native voter turnout in the 2020 election set a record compared to prior years, she noted.
Other Owyhee High School students also shared their efforts to preserve their peoples’ traditions and culture.
“We show that we are not wasting anything in return for (animals) blessing us with its food,” said Lenso Hanchor, who talked about the tribe’s hunting practices.
The evening came full circle when Lilli Johnson discussed raising hormone-free cattle on pesticide-free grass and cultivating their hoop house. The hoop house gives Johnson and her family more control over what they consume and helps them eat healthy.
“We grow a lot of food, so we have to eat the vegetables every night,” said Johnson.
Cavanaugh ended the community conversation by paying tribute to her hometown. She enjoys sharing stories from Duck Valley, she said, because they help dispel stereotypes about Indigenous people.
“It’s home,” she said. “Through so many challenges of living and building that community, there is a rich sense of resilience, tradition and culture.”
The full conversation is available on video on the Nevada Humanities website.