One of the dominant themes in Vegas area museums would have to be the struggle with nature. By ‘nature’ I of course mean the desert. It’s kind of fascinating to me as parallel themes dominate literature and cinema dealing with the arctic. It’s a pretty straight-forward notion in either event. Extreme environments help to frame a basic man-against-nature story-line, which is a common enough theme in fiction as well as some historical narratives, even a good number of anthropological works.
Where the arctic narratives focus on cold and the lack of food, Vegas area narratives focus on heat and lack of food & water. Both themes definitely have a little space reserved for the indigenous peoples of the region. “How did THEY survive?” would seem to be a common question, one which segways easily into stories about how WE survive now. The part about how WE survive typically morphs into a larger narrative about thriving civilization. Okay, so the North Slope of Alaska may be a little soft on the civilization theme, not that that’s ever stopped a runaway narrative, but more to the point, in Vegas that narrative steams full bore ahead to land us in a world of casinos, mobsters, and showgirls.
…but those narratives often start with Paiutes.
Okay, so sometimes these narratives start with older Puebloan societies or even Paleo-Indians, but even then the stories quicken with the arrival of Paiutes into the area. These were the indigenous community of Las Vegas when Europeans arrived, so they figure more prominently in plot-lines anticipating those casinos and showgirls. Not surprisingly, the Vegas area museums often use the presence of Paiutes in the valley to frame general questions about survival in the desert, questions that will then play well into later developments in the area. Their own modest use of the area sets the stage in these stories for the mega-resorts of today. And if that seems an odd contrast, that is precisely the point. A miracle in the desert, so to speak. It’s all the more miraculous if we catch a glimpse of its modest beginnings.
Of course, American stories of progress often treat Native Americans as just one more feature of nature standing in the way of progress, but I honestly think most of these museums try to handle things a little better than that. Still, there is a bit of slippage here and there. Anyway, the topic is worth a little time on my keyboard, so let’s just get on with it, shall we?
What first got me interested in this was a visit to the Mormon Fort, a state park commemorating the first Anglo-American settlement in the Vegas Valley. It contains a number of exhibits, one of which enables you to watch a video recounting the history of Vegas from the creation of the fort itself up through to the development boom of the 1980s (about the time my own family moved into the area). It’s the story of a city built in the midst of a hot desert, and that story begins with the discovery of two springs by European explorers.
As with other such discoveries, it turns out someone was already there. According to one of my old anthropology professors, Martha C. Knack, the Vegas Valley was already home to about a 150 Paiutes with a variety of related communities nearby. It was at these Springs, a kind of Oasis in the middle of the hot desert, that the story of Las Vegas begins.
This story takes off when Brigham Young sends a small group of missionaries to build at Fort at the Springs to serve as a weigh station on the way to Southern California. According to the video, local Paiutes had used the Springs for irrigation projects, so there is little doubt as to a native presence at the Springs. Still, when those first missionaries up and leave, the video suggests that their major accomplishment was to prove that people could make a permanent settlement in the area.
…which of course leaves me wondering what about the Paiute? Hadn’t they already proved that?
This may not be as egregious as it sounds. I could well see white folks at the time thinking of it in that light, biased as it is, so I could see the point of calling attention to this perspective. Still, the commentary in the video is as invested in the bias as any Anglo-American might have been at the time the missionaries left, and so the resulting narrative does seem to erase the Paiute. There is enough information about the local Paiute around the rest of Mormon Fort and even in the video itself to contradict that kind of thinking, but the story-line has its own impact.
Could be worse, could be better.
Mostly, it could be better.
That said, the Mormon Fort is a great place in its own right. If you’re in the area, and have a little pocket change left, I would definitely go check it out.
I found a couple of interesting origin-narratives for the local Paiute, one at the Clark County Museum and one at the Springs Preserve. Each of these are Coyote stories, so it goes without saying that something is going to go terribly wrong in them. That’s how trickster narratives work. Each presents the choice of a Paiute homeland as something of an accident. At the Springs Preserve, this accident seems to suggest that Paiute ended up in the wrong place. Coyote opened the basket early (somewhere between Las Vegas and Moapa). The Clark County variant suggests that people had already been escaping and heading in different directions, and Coyote closed the sack before carrying it a ways further and pouring out those who would become Paiute. Whether this means they ended up where they were supposed to go or not, I can’t tell from the source at the museum.
I’ve presented both of these stories directly below (a video and a picture). Of course this kind of presentation strips a lot of the context out of each narrative, but I think a bit of the flavor in such stories does come through. I find myself thinking of the accident in terms of the arid setting, as if it were meant to explain how Paiute ended up in such a dry location with its sparse resources. Still, I’m not sure how much of that would have been the point of the Paiute story and how much of that may be the rest of the presentations in which they occur. With so much of each exhibit devoted to explaining how these people survived in the local desert, it seems easy to think of this as the point of the accident, that Paiute weren’t really meant to be here, but perhaps just me. Either way, I can’t help thinking it’s an interesting way of thinking about how one’s people ended up where they are. Mistakes happen. Sometimes a mistake mean you ruin lunch, put up a video with bad sound quality, or end up with a low grade on a test.
…and sometimes a mistake create a world to live in.
Now the Springs Preserve is interesting in itself. This place is huge, and after four visits, I’m pretty sure I haven’t seen everything. It contains the Nevada State Museum and the Origin Museum as well as a number of outdoor exhibits (one of which is the Paiute village where I recorded the origin story above). That story is one of several narratives relating to Paiutes that you can find in the Springs Preserve. The Origin Museum contains a couple more videos. One appears to be a straight-foreword history of Las Vegas beginning with the arrival of Native Americans in the area. It further mentions the brief history of interaction (including conflict) between whites and natives. A second, more dramatic video (set up in a stand of artificial tulies) appears to depict a Paiute elder greeting us (the visitors) as if she were meeting non-natives for the first time. She is friendly, of course, and explains a thing or two about her people’s survival strategies, but the video ends on a dark turn. She sees change coming, and it seems to fair to suggest this is an allusion to the hazards of contact and colonization.
Neither of these videos goes into much detail about the troubled relations between Paiute and non-natives, but each mentions them. Where the first is dry and a little up-beat, the second is cryptic and disturbing.
A quick listen to the Coyote narrative always seems to put things in perspective for me. Odd, I know to want to follow modern history with an origin narrative, but I doubt Coyote would object.
Oh, the videos!
The Springs Preserve also contains a history of Las Vegas as portrayed in paintings by the artist Roy Purcell. The only explicit mention of natives I recall seeing in this exhibit is a reference to Spanish raids on local Indians. That’s pretty much it. It’s an interesting history. I at least would have found it a bit more interesting if it had a place for the indigenous population. His website suggests that Purcell is working on Native American subjects now. This sounds promising.
No pictures are allowed in the Purcell exhibit, so I haven’t anything to show for that part of the Springs Preserve.
The Nevada State Museum (also in the Springs Preserve) doesn’t seem as focused on questions of subsistence, but it does have a few interesting pieces on indigenous peoples of the area. A life-size photo of Sarah Winnemucca had me wondering if she wasn’t a bit south of her usual residence. My personal fussiness aside, she certainly deserves a place in the Nevada STATE Museum. The museum also includes a video presentation in which a modern actress interprets some of her words for visitors at the Museum. Similar videos provide a glimpse of Wovoka’s prophesies, and a woman whose name translates to Little Willow teaches us a bit about basket-making. Please accept my apologies for the poor quality of the audios. To get the full experience, you’ll just have to go to the Museum.
There is one other thing I really must say about the Nevada State Museum, and that it that it seems to contain the White Tree of Gondor. Oh, they call it a Great Basin Bristle Cone Pine, but I know the White Tree of Gondor when I see it. You can’t fool me!
I know, this has nothing to do with Paiutes, but seriously, I think the White Tree of Gondor deserves at least a mention. Don’t you?
I’ve written about the Atomic Testing Museum before, and I don’t have a lot to add here, except to note that the museum does reference the indigenous populations of the testing zones. It’s a smallish display by comparison, focusing primarily on cultural preservation. By some accounts Newe Segobia is the most bombed nation in the world, but that story falls a bit North of this post. It’s worth noting though, the general tenor of the Museum’s approach to Native Americans. They want us to know they are trying to do the right thing, but their treatment of the issue doesn’t really escape the largely pro-testing narratives of the museum as a whole.
Let me conclude with a smattering of selected photos from the museums. As always, you may click to embiggen.