Ward Valley and the Sacred Desert Tortoise

Ward Valley and the Sacred Desert Tortoise

            Like many indigenous tribes of North America, the Mojave tribe of the Southwest is spiritually linked to their desert home, both to the land and to the creatures that inhabit it. Today, the area is still revered in ceremony and held sacred in legend. But like most lands honored by the native peoples of this country, the Mojave area has not been without its trials and tribulations. In the 1990s, a seemingly remote portion of the desert known as Ward Valley was marked as the optimum location for a nuclear waste storage area. Members of the Colorado River Native Nations Alliance, environmentalists, and locals became immediately concerned. Not only would a nuclear waste facility disrupt the untouched landscape, but it could potentially threaten the water supply of local residents, and the habitat of the endangered desert tortoise. Joint efforts between the Native tribes and outside community eventually forced the government to cancel their construction plans. The success in preservation of Ward Valley was due only in part to the sacredness of the location, with environmental and safety concerns playing a larger role. Still, the Ward Valley story demonstrates that success on the part of native tribes is possible when dealing with these issues. Not all hope is lost when it comes to identifying, understanding, and protecting native lands of religious significance.

The Mojave Indians were a primarily agricultural community, relying on the seasonal overflow of the Colorado River to nurture their crops. Fish and waterfowl provided a second source of food, also tied to the great river. The Mojave’s practical connection to the land was mirrored by their religious beliefs and practices. Their legends tell of the sacred origins of the river and surrounding mountains (Kenneth 2).

One legend describes how the creator God, Mastamho, was born from the union of earth and sky. When he had grown strong and tall, he drove a willow stick into the ground and drew forth water to form the Colorado River, and with this water came abundant fish and fowl. Mastamho then took mud from the river bank and sculpted great mountains, planting upon them seeds that flourished, making corn, beans, and pumpkin that could feed many people (Mohave Creation Myth, for the full reading go to http://www.mojaveindian.com/creation.htm). This legend sheds light on why the Mojave tribe saw the land, in its entire expanse, as sacred: because it was formed by the hands of a god and sewn with the resources needed for human survival.

The desert was also significant because it contained different land marks representing stages in the journey of the Mojave spirit. Ward Valley was known as “the pathway traveled by newly deceased souls to their sacred mountain, Avi, Kwa Ame” (Ridder 1). Avi Kwa Ame is both the place of birth and the final resting place of the Mojave soul. The spiritual potency of the valley is not taken lightly: it is considered powerful to the point of being dangerous. In fact, the Mohave believe that even sleeping in Ward Valley overnight can wreak havoc. A bad spirit may permanently attach itself to the offender (Ridder 5). If the land has such a negative response to trespassers, how would it react to even greater disturbance? For the devout Mohave believer, the act of building a nuclear waste center in Ward Valley must sound not only disrespectful, but terrifying.

The endangered desert tortoise (gopherns agassizii) which inhabits Ward and the surrounding area adds yet another layer of spiritual significance to the land. Though many Southwest tribes used the tortoise as a source of meat, the Mojaves considered it so sacred that consuming tortoise flesh was banned.  Emblems of the tortoise have been found on ancient Mojave pottery and etched into desert rocks (Wulfhorst 6). The animal is commemorated in song and legend (Sacred Lands Film Project 1, go to http://www.sacredland.org/ward-valley/), functioning as a symbol for “long or eternal life, revered old age, and a base or form of the earth” (188-89 Schnieder).  Environmentalists and locals followed the CRNNA in expressing concerns for the creature, and so the tortoise served to unite disparate groups under a common symbol. In a fateful twist, gopherns agassizii was vital to the religious preservation of the people who revered it.

  When attention was brought to the desert tortoise as both a sacred and endangered animal, proponents of the nuclear waste storage center pointed out that 6,000,000 acres of Western desert had already been set aside for habitat (Albrecht 753). If the tortoise was already protected over such a vast area, they argued, then how much difference was the loss of one small plot of land going to make? But for the Mojave, each individual animal was sacred and required protection. Preserving only a portion of the population was inadequate and missed the point. Luckily, many environmentalists agreed (for their own reasons) that any further threat to tortoise habitat was unacceptable, and the movement gained further support.

Even before Ward Valley became an issue, outside interests weighed heavily on the Mojave way of life. No treaties were ever made between native southwest tribes and the government; instead the many disconnected peoples of the area were rounded up and forced onto the Colorado River Reservation in 1876 with little opportunity to advocate for themselves. By the late 20th century, the Mojave’s lands were still controlled by the state. The Federal Bureau of Land Management owned the rights Ward Valley, a site 225 miles east of Los Angeles. When the land was selected as the best known site for a nuclear waste dump, the FBLM agreed to transfer the valley to the California State Government. The plan was to dispose of only solid wastes at the dump: syringes, tainted gloves, and irradiated nuclear components, which the California government claimed would pose little threat to the surrounding land and community.  Locals and environmentalists were skeptical (Noble 1).

It is interesting to note that much of the literature surrounding Ward Valley ignores its sacredness completely, or acknowledges it as a secondary issue. Discussion of the public safety and environmental risks of the storage plant were extensive in newspapers, academic articles, and on the web. It takes careful reading to glean from these sources a sense of the sacred importance of Ward. This lack of information is troubling. It sends the message that Native religious concerns are not enough to preserve land; only the environmental and safety worries of greater US society make us pay attention. Perhaps this is due to lack of awareness. If the general citizenry has little understanding of Mojave religious values, how can they sympathize? On the part of governments and large corporations, the lack of concern is likely due to greed, which grassroots movements could help combat if non-indigenous citizens were better educated. Accurate education about local Native traditions is vital in schools, but also for working adults.

However, disposing of nuclear waste was (and is) not an issue we can avoid: the refuse has to go somewhere, and no location is perfect. Most of the waste intended for Ward Valley was being kept at sites in densely populated areas, where it posed more of a threat than if it were stored somewhere remote (Albrecht and Amey 746).  “ “The site is ideal for all intents and purposes,” stated Carl, an employee at the Department of Health Services, noting that tests for geological stability, depth to groundwater, and other characteristics were twice as good as the next-best site” (Sacred or Profane? 6). Unfortunately, the Mojave religious perspective cannot be tested or measured, so it did not factor into the DHS’s research. This is just one of many cases where non-Indigenous values are being applied to an Indigenous issue, and the incongruities are jarring.

It seemed inevitable that cultures would clash over Ward Valley. As tribal leader Steve Lopez astutely put it, “The sacredness [of Ward Valley] cannot be mitigated or quantified by any means whatsoever, especially by those who refuse to respect and understand what the Mojave believe.” Understanding, especially, was an issue. Proponents of the waste plant could not comprehend what exactly the Mojave were trying to preserve: the California Government wanted the CRNNA to pinpoint a specific sacred sight so they could build around it. A Bureau of Land Management employee voiced this opinion tersely: “The Indians insisted that these lands within their ancestral range had spiritual significance to them, but there’s nothing of particular significance at the site where the dump is located.” He seemed unaware that the land, in its entire expanse, was sacred, and that this sacredness could not be embodied by one isolated area.

It didn’t take long for environmentalists, locals, and the CRNNA to band together and begin resisting government plans.  Starting in October of 1995, a twenty four hour vigil was held on site to prevent construction of the facility from beginning. Checkpoints were set up outside the valley. Each was staffed by a security person and a peacemaker, trained in conflict resolution techniques. Diplomacy and dialogue were encouraged, though resisting parties were determined to stand firm. They even went so far as to prevent scientists from carrying out the tritium testing necessary to confirm that the area was safe for development (Ridder 2).  Environmental groups, including Greenpeace, were key in providing the man power and resources necessary to put up such a staunch fight. Further support for the project came from the Department of the Interior, who pushed to uphold the tribe’s religious rights and political autonomy (Sacred Lands Film Project 1).  Though an essentially neutral party, the federal government had certain obligations to the tribe through law that the state of California did not.

Frustrated by the stubbornness of resistance groups, the California state government attempted to get permission to remove the protestors by force. They also filed claims to receive compensation for the money lost during construction delays. But ultimately, opponents of the waste plant were victorious and the California government gave up on their efforts to take back the site (Noble 7). Considering that 70% of Californians opposed the dump, there was simply too much resistance to the plan for it to go through (Sacred Lands Film Project 1). In 2002, the California State Assembly passed a bill canceling the Ward Valley project because of safety issues, and there was a sigh of relief throughout the state. Since then, yearly ceremonies have been held between the five Colorado River Indian tribes to celebrate the successful preservation of Ward Valley (Sacred Land Film Project 1).

In some respects, it is sad that the sacredness of Ward alone was not enough to warrant protection. Only through the support of non-indigenous environmental and local groups was the California state government finally forced to rescind their plans. Still, the fact that CRNNA and organizations like Green Peace found enough common ground to work in unison is quite hopeful. Even if their reasons for trying to protect Ward Valley were based on different cultural values, the ultimate goal was the same. The problem of contested lands is still a pertinent one, and in situations where there is no outside support to bolster Indigenous concerns, the results can be devastating. However, the case of Ward Valley shows that it is possible to address these issues in a way that respects the people to whom America was first called home.

~Kylie Anderson

Ward Valley from Above

Works Cited

Albrecht, S.L. and Amey, R.G. “Myth Making, Morale Communities, and Policy Failure inSolving the Radioactive Waste Problem.” Society of Natural Resources 12 (1999): 741-761.

“Mojave Creation Myth.”  Fort Mohave Indian Tribe, Last modified May 2, 2003.  Accessed November 3, 2011. <http://www.mojaveindian.com/creation.htm>

Noble, Kenneth. “Environmental War Simmers in California.” The New York Times, Nov. 19,   1995.

Ridder, Chris. “Sacred or profane? Standoff in Ward Valley escalates as protesters are asked to relocate.” GLUE L.A., March 5, 1998.

Sacred Lands Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 2011. Web. November 4, 2011.

Schnieder, Joan. “The Desert Tortoise and Early Peoples of the Western Desert.” A SpecialReport for the Tortoise Preserve Committee, inc. March 1996.

Wulfhorst, J.P., A.E. Luloff, Stan Albrecht, and Steve Lopez. “Perceptions of Economic Development, Environmental Protection, and Rural Indian identity.” Journal of Rural Community Psychology.








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