Land of the Mountain Sheep & Deer Songs
The Mountains of Southern Nevada, Utah, Northern Arizona and into California are the homelands to the Southern Paiute and Chemehuevi (who were a southern most Paiute band). They called themselves Nuwu, (Spoon et al. 2001). These homelands are where great legends began and ended and where their hearts belong. Since time immemorial, our people have lived and traveled across these lands. They carved their stories on the rocks, cooked their food in the now ancient roasting pits, and left artifacts that show how our people thrived in this beautiful desert and mountain environment. These are the objects of antiquity that tell the story of the Nuwu; of how we thrived on the land and of how our homelands were stolen by white colonizers. We cannot forget this history.
Today, we still honor our traditional lifeways of the Nuwu; it is an integral part of our living culture. We celebrate the deep spiritual connection we have to the land through song and dance. We honor these gifts through the many songs we sing that talk about the natural landscape that bestows-food, medicine, wildlife, water and the air we breathe. We connect to the loves, joys and struggles of our many ancestors who were here long before us.
The Mountain Sheep
One of our most sacred animals is the Nah’gah (mountain sheep), (Martineau 1992). Legend tells us that they stepped forward to sacrifice their lives so we could survive when times were tough and food was scarce. They were one of the main food sources for the Nuwu. They are our protectors who watch over us through sickness, droughts and it is the beauty of song that they have gifted us through their power and energy.
The Nah’gah held great powers and were sought after by the medicine men seeking their Puha (power), (Stoffle et al.1998:82). These men would go on a journey to certain spirit caves and become possessed by the Nah’gah for songs, healing the sick and to call in the rain. They would be gifted the knowledge if they had good hearts but some could use the power to strike people with lightening if their hearts were not pure. The medicine men seeking to harness the power of the weather, healing and songs developed a special bond with the mountain sheep and from then on used rattles (gourds) made from the hooves, wore robes from their hides, used the horns for many uses including horned shaped spoons and bows for hunting. The sacred bone of the Nah’gah was very powerful and only certain Nuwu men could handle their strength.
It is said the mountain (Mormon Mtn.) gave birth to the Nah’gah, (Ruuska 2011). She is a living being and has great powers due to her creation of the Nah’gah. She holds one of the points of connection for the Nuwu and the Puha paths that connect our people. There are storied rocks that tell of the birth of the Nah’gah at this mountain and is considered one of the sacred mountains among the Southern Paiute People along with Mount Charleston where we have our Creation story.
The Nuwu have maintained the unbreakable link between the land, animals and people through the inheritance of territorial songs. They are forever memorialized through these songs and also through the history written on the rocks, showing the importance of the Nah’gah and traditional homelands. There are countless mountain sheep and deer depicted in the rock writings. These tell of the Nuwu who have inhabited the lands in this area and describe the livelihoods of the past, the battles they fought, the food sources they knew about and the legends they told.
In the mythical period of legends when animals were considered ‘The People’, the mountain sheep and the deer were the only two animals who did not have powers or could be considered medicine men. Yet, in the present times they do have great powers. The Nuwu were not considered descendants from the mountain sheep or deer among other animals therefore is was not prohibited to eat them, (Laird 1976:10). It was only the Wolf and Coyote that could not be eaten as they were considered our Creators.
The Deer Tuh’ee (Martineau 1992), did not have any great powers but were held with high honors and prestige for they gave the Nuwu strength through their meat, clothed them with their hides, gave them sinew and glue for weapons and everyday use, and the knowledge of songs, all through their sacrifice to watch over the Paiute People to keep them alive.
Songs were one of the primary means through which ownership of land and resources were recognized. The Mountain Sheep Songs and the Deer Songs constituted the most important hereditary songs and covered a wide range of traditional lands. The men who owned the song owned the territory which they are associated. When one approached a stranger in their land they would ask “what song do you come from?” The stranger would then have to sing the song from which his bloodline came to show which land he belonged to. If he did not have a song, he was not from the land or people but maybe visiting or passing through. One could come from both the Deer and the Mountain Sheep and when you married into those two song groups, you were permitted to sing the songs. You could not sing the songs of the Mountain Sheep and Deer unless you belonged to the songs. Each song concerning the Mountain Sheep or Deer were oral maps of the territory and talked about the terrain and area from which those two animal groups came. If you knew the songs you knew which area it was talking about, (Laird 1976:10).
Today in this modern society, most songs are forgotten as well as the locations. In honor of the Mountain Sheep and Deer Song ancestries, we pray before entering any areas that is sacred or rarely visited, but if we have a singer in the group they will sing a song before entering certain areas. If you do not enter the right way or give an offering, then you will either have bad luck or the guardian spirits for that area will follow you home.
To this day the Nuwu continues to honor the Great Mountain Sheep through song and dance telling their story. The Shivwits Band of Paiutes still dance this in honor of the Mountain Sheep for all that he has given to the people and in honor of his sacrifice to protection and watch over the Nuwu People.
Figure 1. Shivwits Mountain Sheep Dancers
Figure 2. Hunter of the Mountain Sheep
Figure 3. Petroglyph at the Valley of Fire. (Photograph by author)
Valley of Fire, Nevada
This area has many Mountain sheep roaming to this day and the rock writings talk about the people that once lived in the area. Water was claimed by the people living there and hidden water holes were found throughout the canyons and you had to ask permission to use them. The Medicine men/Shamans who drew their power from the mountain sheep could called upon the rain through the animal’s spirit. Many panels talk about the water by showing people all ‘wet’ to show their contentment with having water while other figures show ‘dry’ to describe drought or calling upon the rain.
Figure 4 Valley of Fire panel showing the two figures on the right full/content and speckled with water leading the two dry, thinner people to where the mountain sheep have come from. If you follow this canyon in the direction to right, it will lead to water. (photograph by author)
Figure 5 Deer with baby deer behind. On the Buck’s belly is what looks like an umbilical cord hanging. The tail is covering over the baby to show protection (photograph by author)
In Paiute customs, the umbilical cord is saved when it falls off the baby and placed in a buckskin bag shaped like a small animal such as a tortoise or lizard and hung over the child’s cradleboard where the child can see it and play with it while it hangs. When the child out grows the cradleboard, the umbilical bag is then taken to the mountains and buried, this is to let the child always know where they belong and to what land their blood comes from. If you do not do this then the child will grow up always searching for something and he will not know what he is looking for, (restless heart) it is said “he is lost and doesn’t know where he belongs.” A male child’s umbilical cord will be buried by the father or male relative along a well-worn deer trail so the boy will grow up and be a good hunter. The female’s umbilical cord will be buried below the nest of a pack rat so she will always be a hard worker and not become lazy. The child is not to know where it is buried, (Kelly and Fowler 1986:370).
Figure 6. Photograph and drawing of the panel in Cane Springs, NV near the Moapa Indian reservation shows how the Paiute people used animals to depict themselves. White men wearing hats can be seen in this panel. (photograph, drawing, and interpretation by LaVan Martineau)
Figure 7. Mountain sheep head facing downward looking towards a watering hole. The eye is a deep hole to show what it is looking for (water hole). (Photograph in Cook et al.2009)
Military Land Base
The Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, is no longer accessible for the Paiutes Indians except upon special request. This area has many panels depicting the mountain sheep and laying claim to the water holes that are found throughout this range. This was also home of the Mountain Sheep and Deer People. The land adjacent to the East of NAFB testing grounds is also in danger of a Military land grab that our people are currently fighting from it being inaccessible which is currently public lands and a Wildlife Refuge.
To this day the Nuwu continues to honor the Great Mountain Sheep through song and dance telling their story. Just as our people were in danger years ago of losing our lands, so too is the mountain sheep, who struggle to survive with the expansions of land taken away for modern development and the Government. It is our duty to protect the mountain sheep for if they all die then we die too. This is not something we share with so openly to the people who come from foreign lands, but when our traditional homelands and very culture is threatened, then you will hopefully see and understand why our hearts cry with the importance of protection as we continue to survive in this modern society.
The Southern Paiute and Chemehuevi, Nuwu dance the Sheep dance in honor of the Nah’gah. The songs identify ownership of traditional homelands and their stories written on the rocks. The sheep and deer represent people in the narrative petroglyphs panels from the examples shown here. The interpretation of southern Paiute petroglyphs can only be learned from the preservation of traditional Paiute ceremonies and songs that are associated with thousands of Paiute sites. These sacred sites are endangered by outside pressures from development and need to be protected.
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Dickerson. 2009. Archaeological Characterization: Nevada Test and training Range, EC South Range.
Kelly, Isabel T., and Catherine S. Fowler. 1986. ‘Southern Paiute.’ edited by Warren L. D’Azevedo, pp. 368-397. Handbook of North American Indians, Great Basin Vol. 11, William C. Sturtevant, general editor, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. “The Chemehuevi, Las Vegas, and Pahranagat made gifts to the mountain spirits”. “Furthermore, it was a common practice for men or women to bury the umbilical cord of a newborn child on a mountain peak.” (pg.370).
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