In the Valley of the Shadow

Surrounded by a staggering array of hazardous waste, toxic emissions, chemical pollutants, and lethal military experimentation, the Goshute tribe of Utah decided to do the logical thing and offer up its reservation as a dump for 40,000 metric tons of highly radioactive nuclear fuel. The neighbors are very upset.

May 25, 2000
Outside Magazine

Listen to writer Kevin Fedarko discuss the Skull Valley situation on Living on Earth.

In Goshute lore, it's referred to as "the sheep incident." On the night of March 13, 1968, an F-4 Phantom fighter jet was flying above the Dugway Proving Ground in the middle of a snowstorm, testing a sprayer designed to mist an entire city with chemical or biological weapons—in this case, VX nerve gas, a single drop of which can kill a human being in under ten minutes. As the jet cruised at 500 feet, the sprayer's nozzle got stuck in the "on" position and 2,730 pounds of VX were dispersed over the southern end of the valley, snuffing out untold numbers of jackrabbits, badgers, antelope, pheasants, sage hens, crows, and ravens, along with about 6,400 sheep. The Army sent in a team of technicians the next morning to assess the damage. Slit trenches were dug and the sheep were interred at several different sites, including on the southeast corner of the reservation. At the time, no one bothered to inform the Goshutes, or to ask their permission. But then no one ever has.

The catalog of injustices inflicted upon Native Americans over the last 500 years is long and shameful, but it's hard to find a tribe that has been as extravagantly abused as the Goshutes. Between the end of the last Ice Age and the arrival of the first Europeans, the Goshutes roamed the Great Basin from Nevada's Ruby Mountains to the Wasatch Range. The resources in this region are stretched so thin that to survive they had to move almost constantly, pausing only during the middle of winter in the Deep Creek Mountains, Skull Valley, and Tooele Valley. They used few tools, produced little in the way of cultural artifacts, and stayed a step or two ahead of starvation by harvesting 38 different types of seeds, including thistle, pigweed, hair grass, and yampa root, and eating grubs, lizards, beetles, and bread made from crushed ants.

Living in a place that white visitors considered an infernal wasteland, the Goshutes were seen as abject, almost subhuman. When Jedediah Smith, the legendary mountain man, first laid eyes on the tribe in the 1820s, he called them "the most miserable objects in creation." Similar appraisals followed. "Those who have seen them unanimously agree that they of all men are lowest," wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. "In their persons, dwellings, and habits, they are filthy beyond description. Their bodies swarm with vermin, which they catch and eat with relish." After encountering a handful of "Goshoots" during his journey through Nevada and eastern Utah in 1860, Mark Twain devoted a long passage in his book Roughing It to this "sneaking, treacherous-looking race...always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline." He also produced an unusual theory on the tribe's evolutionary origins: "The Bushmen of South Africa and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, whichever animal-Adam the Darwinians trace them to."

In the years after the first Mormons arrived in Utah in 1847, settlers heeding the call of Brigham Young took over the most favorable valleys west of Salt Lake City and stripped the few grassy basins by overgrazing their livestock. They cut down trees to build Overland Mail depots, hunted out the antelope, and seized the handful of wells and springs upon which everything else depended. Deprived of their meager resources, the Goshutes took to stealing cattle, attacking stagecoaches, and shooting Pony Express riders full of arrows, after which they usually made a meal of their horses. In return, the whites organized their own violent reprisals.

Within a decade, the tribe had been reduced to a starving remnant of fewer than a thousand. (There may have been as many as 10,000 Goshutes when the first pioneers came West.) Settlers reported seeing entire families lying on their bellies and cropping grass like cattle, and babies abandoned to be consumed by coyotes. Early in 1863, a group of warriors attacked three mail stations, killing several whites and setting off what came to be called the Goshute War. It lasted less than nine months. By October, soldiers from Fort Ruby in Nevada and Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City had killed more than 100 men, women, and children. The 650 survivors signed a treaty and were herded onto land in Skull Valley and the Deep Creek Mountains which 50 years later the federal government would declare reservations.

The two bands became docile subsistence farmers on submarginal agricultural land. Those relocated to the Deep Creeks, where the soil was slightly better and a few more inches of rain fell each year, managed to hang on (about 125 live there today). But by the 1960s, the Skull Valley band had only 15 adult members. "People just gave up," says Bear. "They just got up and left. June grass moved in, houses fell apart. Skull Valley pretty much died off at that point." Over the decades, as families dispersed, rituals and ancient skills began to disappear with them. A few older people, including Bear's mother, Lillian, tried to maintain traditions like gathering chokecherries in the summer and pine nuts in the fall. "But my dad worked at the warehouse, of course," says Bear, referring to the Deseret Chemical Depot, where chemical weapons are stored, "so we did most of our gathering at Safeway." Today, of the 25 members of the band who still reside on the reservation, only four speak fluent Goshute. Chairman Bear isn't one of them.


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