The Shoshone tribe has lived in the Great Basin region, south and east of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, for more than a thousand years. Distributed widely -- from Southern California, Death Valley and Mono Lake, through Utah to Western Colorado, the Timbisha band have long made their home in Death Valley and continue to live there today.
In the early days of their history the Timbisha people were ruled by a beautiful Queen. But she was vain, demanding, and longed for a mansion that would be larger and more beautiful than anything that her neighbors to the South, the Aztecs, had ever built. She soon ordered her people to build her a grand home and forced them to transport marble, stone, quartz, and timber to the building site to construct the palace.
In the beginning, the people worked hard to please her, dragging and hauling the stones and logs over long distances, considering it their duty to make her dreams come true. They did not complain because royalty was sacred. However, as the years passed the Queen began to fear that she would die before the palace was completed and became more and more demanding, even insisting that her own family work along with the rest of her people. Gradually, the Timbisha became a tribe of slaves and the Queen began to lash their naked backs if they slowed down during the noonday heat. On one occasion she even flogged her daughter when she thought the girl was working too slowly. At being hit, the princess dropped her load of stone and turned to her mother, cursing her and her kingdom. She then sank to the ground, overcome by heat and exhaustion, and died.
It was only then that the Queen realized how far her greed and obsession had taken her. She had replaced a culture rich in family values and love of nature and the land itself with slavery. In her greed, she had tossed away the people and lifestyle she most loved. But her regret and insight were too late. Soon, nature and the land itself began to turn on her, punishing her for her wickedness and shortsightedness. The sun increased its heat and brightness causing the vegetation to wither, the streams and lakes to dry up, and the animals to flee.
The once fertile valley was soon a barren, dry, and extremely hot desert. Many of her people died of starvation, and those who didn't, fled. Only the Queen and her half finished palace remained when she was struck ill with fever. With no one to soothe or care for her, she died alone in her empty, half-finished home. Shoshone legend has long said that glimpses of her half-finished palace can still sometimes be seen in the desert heat -- seemingly lifting into view or as a shifting mirage along the horizon.
With this legend, the Shoshone explain the origins of Death Valley, which they have long called "Ground Afire." But when a group of gold seeking forty-niners blundered into the area, they renamed it "Death Valley." For years it was believed that no human being could cross that desert and live because horses or other livestock would sink to their knees in drifts of soda dust; there was no water, and the heat is devastating. Animals that die in the valley mummify, but do not decay, and it is surmised that the remains of many an ignorant prospector lie bleached beneath the plain. On the east side of Dead Mountain are points of whitened rock that at a distance look like sheeted figures, and these, the Indians say, are the ghosts of their brethren.
Today, many of the Timbisha Shoshone continue to live in Death Valley on a reservation located near Furnace Creek. Established in 1982, it was just 40 acres. However, the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act of 2000 finally returned 7,500 acres of ancestral homelands to the Timbisha Shoshone tribe. Currently, the tribe consists of around 300 members, of which about 50 live at the Death Valley Indian Community. Many members also spend the summers at Lone Pine in the Owens Valley to the west.