The Desert Refuge Is Sacred. Don’t Bomb It.

The air force wants to expand bombing


Photo courtesy of USFWS

This piece was originally published by The Nevada Independent, a nonprofit news site covering politics, policy and people in Nevada.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the Sheep Mountain Range within it are known to us Paiutes as Nah’gah Kai. It is a landscape mountain range that holds special meaning for our people, a landscape that is 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, and the endangered desert tortoise are among the many other precious resources central to our people’s ways and culture that are found within the refuge—and which long have been within the bombing practice area of air force pilots. Now, the air force is pushing to ramp up its destruction of our people’s history and culture by seeking to expand by 300,000 acres its bombing range within the Desert National Wildlife Refuge. It is critical that Congress ban the expansion of bombing that air force leaders are seeking to include in the National Defense Authorization Act, as the expansion would inflict permanent damage on this sacred site and violate our tribal sovereignty.  

In 2018, the Moapa Band of Paiutes wrote and passed resolution that opposed the expansion of the Nevada Test and Training Range into the refuge. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe passed a similar resolution in 2019. These resolutions rejected the expansion of the bombing range, and the air force’s jurisdiction within the desert refuge. Both were both passed unanimously by the Tribal Councils and are the words and will of the Tribes. As sovereign nations, our Tribes must be acknowledged and respected. 

Western expansion has historically reduced the ability of Southern Paiutes to use the expansive lands we consider our 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. 

The United States government cannot justify the continued destruction, loss of history, and bombing of irreplaceable artifacts. The 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 eclipsed by the agenda 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. Currently, even without the air force having primary jurisdiction of the land, our Tribes have limited access to our ancestral lands and cultural sites. 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 severe damage 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.  

Also, the air force will only 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 a limited number of participants, the Southern Paiute people’s ability to pass down our culture, traditions, history, and knowledge is severely impaired. 

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 have inflicted on our traditional lands. We were encouraged when members of the Nevada congressional delegation worked to include an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that increases Tribal access to the land and bans the air force’s bombing range expansion—but we must continue our efforts. The Senate must also vote to ban this bombing range expansion in the defense act. And the president must respect our Tribal sovereignty and take Congress’s lead, despite his threats otherwise.

Expanding the bombing range would mark one of the largest transfers ever in terms of taking protected public lands and handing them over to the US military to do with what they will.

As a sovereign nation, the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe’s message to the Senate and president is clear: We urge them to ban the bombing range expansion by following the House of Representative’s version of the defense act as we, our allies, and the 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 National Wildlife Refuge for the generations to come.