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Tecopa Hot Springs and the History of the Pauite People

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A hot spring oasis near Death Valley, fed by the elusive Amargosa River. (Amargosa, Spanish for bitter.) This land was inhabited by the nomadic Paiute people, who lived in the desert climate of the Colorado Basin to Southern California, and Northern Arizona. The Paiute people had first made contact with Spanish explorers in 1776 while they were exploring what would become “The Spanish Trail.” The Southern Paiute, usually at peace, were often victims of raids by the Navajo and Ute and raiding increased as Euro-American explorers put pressure on these tribes to capture slaves.

In the 1840s, Chief Tecopa (Wildcat) and his warriors engaged an American expeditionary force led by Frontiersman Kit Carson and John C. Fremont, both high ranking officials in the United States Army. (Fremont would later become California’s first Senator and later first Governor of California.)

This confrontation would become a three-day battle at nearby Resting Springs. After the three days, Tecopa realized they were no match for the white-man and began a campaign for peace. This would become Chief Tecopa’s Legacy as a peacemaker between the native and the white settlers.

In 1851, Mormons looking for water established a camp here and their presence protected them from Navajo and Ute raiding parties. Mining was established and Tecopa was so loved by the miners for bartering peace that they adorned him with fine clothing trimmed with gold and the finest silk top hats fit for the chief. The people lived together peacefully, but the agricultural practices of the Europeans, mainly their cattle grazing, drove away the wildlife and limited the Paiute’s hunting and gathering ability. Tecopa realized, if his people were to survive, they would need to stop migrating with the game and establish themselves.

In 1859, Randolph Barnes Marcy, an officer in the United States Army, pioneering the west, came upon this water and penned a note, “The spring is on the left of the road, and flows into Saleratus Creek. Animals must not be allowed to drink the Saleratus water.” The Prairie Handbook, published by the War Department, would become a key handbook for the thousands of Americans wanting to cross the continent.

1869, François Louis Alfred Pioche, a rich investor poured money into nearby silver mines which relied heavily on manual labor from the Paiute people. During this time, settlers began taking the Paiute children in an effort to “Americanize” the children in an attempt to liquidate the Paiute culture, traditions, and oral history. They were forced to learn US History in an attempt to change important events about the two societies. The tribe, once thousands strong was now a remnant of only 800 people.

In 1950, the Pauite were faced with the United States “Indian Termination Policy” which attempted to integrate the “savage” Native American into a “civilized” person to be introduced into mainstream American culture.

Northern Cheyenne and US Senator of Montana, Ben Nighthorse Campbell gave a speech, and in his opening remarks said, “If you can’t change them, absorb them until they simply disappear into the mainstream culture. … In Washington’s infinite wisdom, it was decided that tribes should no longer be tribes, never mind that they had been tribes for thousands of years.” The policy, having survived World War II under much protest, ended in the 1960s. However, during this time, more than 100 tribes were eradicated and over a million acres of tribal land seized. Their lands were converted into private ownership.

In the 1980s, Congress passed the Restoration Act which gave the Paiute people tribal status and federal protection and aid.

As of 2006, the total population consists of 840 Paiute people living on a little over 43,500 acres of tribal land in southern Utah. You may see them now, cleaning hotel rooms, serving at restaurants, running gift shops, cultural centers, and convenience stores.

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