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The spirits in the trees

Heidi Kyser

Rick Spilsbury, Delaine Spilsbury's son, walks toward the Shoshone Cedars, a very sacred place to the Newe, known in English as the Shoshone.

Heading toward Great Basin National Park on Highway 50, just after the wind farm on the left and at the foot of the Snake Mountains, is a stand of trees. If you're not looking for it specifically, you might not notice that they're much taller and a slightly jader shade of green than the surrounding, greyish pinions and junipers. Once pointed out to you, though, the grove of 20- and 30-foot evergreens stands out from their surroundings.

This is the Shoshone Cedars, an area that is sacred to Ely Shoshone and their fellow Great Basin Shoshone, who are known among themselves as Newe, says tribal elder Delaine Spilsbury. Before Europeans settled the area, Newe from Oregon to California, Idaho to Arizona, would congregate here a few times a year to socialize, pick pinion nuts, hunt and fish, she says. White people, however, misinterpreted the gatherings as war parties and attacked them, turning the bountiful grove into a cemetery of sorts.

Spilsbury, who is also on the board of directors of the Great Basin Water Network, fears that projects (both proposed and existing) to pump groundwater away from this area would destroy it. She told Desert Companion about the place's history and the future she fears.

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There was a unit of the Cavalry that was sent down from Fort Ruby, and they came down the mountains on the other side of Shell Creek. They came across where the gap is by Cherry Creek and up the valley. And at the mouth of the valley, there were some Shoshone people that were camped there. The military waited until after night, and when they went to sleep,  they came in and just killed the entire camp.

And then they came on horseback over to the south and somewhere up there (points up to the hills to the northwest of the grove). And there was a gathering down here at the time, as there usually was. They waited until night again, and then they tried to ride across from over there on horseback, and it was a wet year, so their horses mired down and fell over and that kind of thing. By the time they were able to get here, people had disappeared. ...

But later, at other times, there was a number of massacres here. They (the cavalry) were here to protect the ranchers against the "violent Shoshone." ... Then, one time, somebody saw some Indians gathered out here and brought a bunch of troops to take care of them and realized they were just picking pine nuts. ...

The Shoshone don't gather here any more, because there were too many murders. We still come back, though. There are a lot of herbs and things that people try to gather here. I don't know how many of the herbs are left since they've been cattle raising here. ...

This is the only place I can think of in Nevada where a forest grows in a valley. The trees have shallow flat roots, which the reason they were able to grow here: the water is so close to the surface. I don't know why the water table is high here, but it is. If the water went down, the trees would die, and with them, the spirits of our people who are there. All the people who were killed here, they're in the trees. ... It's not something I like to think about. That's the reason it's so important to us.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.