The desert refuge is sacred. Don’t bomb it.

By Curtis Anderson and Deryn Pete

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge, and the Sheep Mountain Range within, are known as Nah’gah Kai—a landscape and mountain range that hold special meaning for our people, a landscape central to our Nuwuvi history, stories and beliefs, a landscape that has been under constant attack by the United States Air Force for decades. Cultural sites, Bighorn sheep, the endangered desert tortoise, among many other precious resources central to our people’s ways and culture, have been within the bombing practice area of Air Force pilots. Right now, the Air Force is pushing to ramp up its destruction of our people’s history and culture that is inseparable from the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. It is critical that Congress ban the expansion of their bombing range in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as it will inflict permanent damage on this sacred site and neglect Tribal Sovereignty. 

The Moapa Band of Paiutes wrote and passed Resolution (#M-18-03-07) which opposed the expansion of the Nevada Test and Training range into the Refuge in 2018. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe has also passed Resolution #19-005 in 2019. This resolution similarly rejects the expansion of the bombing range, and the Air Force’s jurisdiction within the Refuge. These resolutions were both passed unanimously by the Tribal Councils and are the words and will of the Tribes. As Sovereign Nations, with the unique Trust relationship with the United States, these Tribal resolutions must be acknowledged and respected.

Western expansion has historically reduced the ability of Southern Paiutes to use the expansive lands they considered their homeland. The creation of reservations further reduced the Tribes’ ability to use the land for travel and subsistence. So much has been taken from the Indigenous people of this land.

A country cannot justify the continued destruction, loss of history and bombing of irreplaceable artifacts. These sacred sites within the Refuge are central to our people’s traditions and identity. The Tribes have worked alongside cultural preservation experts, other Tribal communities, and conservationists to push back against the plans to expand military testing into the Refuge. Tragically, these efforts to preserve our history and ancestral lands continue to be neglected for the advancement of the military-industrial complex.

The Air Force already controls nearly 3 million acres of land in Nevada— leaving our Tribal communities with limited access to our traditional resources and historical places. Expanding this destruction is a grave injustice to our ancestors, our elders, and the entire Nuwuvi community. Much harm would also come to our Nah-gah, the Bighorn Sheep, who we consider one in the same with our peoples. We have shared these sacred lands with the Nah-gah since time immemorial. 

As Indigenous People of this land, we cannot allow the continued and irreversible damage that existing bombing and military destruction has inflicted on our traditional lands. We were encouraged when members of the Nevada Congressional delegation worked to include an NDAA amendment that increases Tribal access to the land and bans the Air Force’s bombing range expansion— but we cannot stop our efforts. The Senate must also vote to ban this expansion in the NDAA. And the President must respect our Tribal Sovereignty and follow through despite his threats otherwise.

Expanding the testing range would carry out the largest wildlife refuge and land giveaway in American history for bombing, weapons testing, and leave it to the Air Force to do with it what they will.

The Air Force has not upheld its promises to Native people nor acted in trust as stewards of our people, lands and culture. That has been made abundantly clear by the destruction of Pintwater Cave, which holds a special place in our religious beliefs and stories. Pintwater Cave held artifacts dating back thousands of years with an importance to our culture that can never be replaced. Bombing our sacred sites is the opposite of stewardship. 

Currently, even without the Air Force having primary jurisdiction of the land, we have limited access to our ancestral lands and cultural sites. The Air Force will not so much as allow two trips a year to this site, with only 15 participants per trip to these places that are vital to our telling of history and identity. With more than 20 Tribes and limited spots, the Southern Paiute people’s ability to pass down our culture, traditions, history and knowledge is severely impaired.

As a Sovereign Nation, the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe’s message to the Senate and President is clear: we urge them to ban the bomb range expansion by following the House’s NDAA as we, allies and our Nevada delegation have fought for. The United States government must fulfill its trust responsibilities and continue to work with us to protect our sacred lands in the Desert Refuge for the generations to come.

Curtis Anderson is the Chairman and Deryn Pete is the Vice-Chairperson of the Las Vegas Band of Paiute Tribal Council.