Black Mountain study highlights heritage

  • Published
  • By First Lt. Brooke Davis
  • Nellis Air Force Base Public Affairs
In 2002, the Nellis Cultural Program conceived a plan to investigate the cultural significance of Black Mountain, located within the Tolicha Peak Electronic Combat Range on the Nevada Test and Training Range.

"Cultural resources are fragile and irreplaceable artifacts, structures and areas that retain religious or ceremonial importance, such as a mountain with ceremonial symbols," said Keith Myhrer, 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Management Flight senior archaeologist. "Nellis has responsibility for the identification, protection and scientific study of its cultural resources - archaeologists and Native Americans also have a vested interest in understanding science and the historic importance of Black Mountain."

The Air Force funded a study of the mountain, and researchers at the University of Arizona have conducted ethnographic studies, or the study and systematic recording of human cultures, on the NTTR since 2000. The Black Mountain study was conducted with 18 months of interviews, focusing on Native American tribes' historical pilgrimages to Black Mountain. Information obtained from the study was presented at the June 1 Annual Native American Program meeting on Nellis, said Mr. Myhrer.

Researchers sought to understand the cultural significance of the Black Mountain volcanic landscape to the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, Owens Valley Paiute and Mojave people, explained Mr. Myhrer.

Because of legislation like the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and Indian Sacred Sites Executive Order 13007, modern ethnography and spirituality is recognized as an essential aspect of traditional Indian culture in the Great Basin, according to the report Black Mountain: Traditional Uses of a Volcanic Landscape, written by team members from the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona.

Black Mountain is a central ceremonial area, and the pilgrims traveled along extensive trail networks that connected Indian communities and ceremonial places from all over California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, said Dr. Richard Stoffle, associate research professor at the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology at the University of Arizona in his presentation at the Native American Program meeting.

Volcanoes in Numic and Yuman culture are viewed as sources of power, known as "puha" in the Numic languages, and are places where the Earth is renewed and reborn, explained Dr. Stoffle.

Pilgrims traveled along extensive trail networks that connected Indian communities and ceremonial places from all over California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona, he added.

Travelers started their quest at the hot springs in Oasis Valley, proceeding to Thirsty Canyon, and they would not have a water source until they reached Pillar Springs, which has three springs. At the springs, a support camp would be set up for the person who is making the trek to the top of the mountain.

When the pilgrims arrived at a place from where they could clearly see Black Mountain for the first time, they would introduce themselves and explain the purpose of their journey, Dr. Stoffle continued. A ceremony might be conducted or songs might be sung to send prayers to the mountain. Offerings such as obsidian, quartz and pottery were left at these sites. Medicinal plants might have been gathered to use as offering at later points along the trail or during ceremonies conducted at the top of Black Mountain.

According to the research, prayer shrines located at the Caldera Pecking Site would be visited prior to ascending Black Mountain.

The trail goes through the site's narrow basalt canyon, where the pilgrims would interact with the petroglyphs by saying prayers, leaving offerings, and singing songs, acquiring puha in the form of a spirit helper.

After passing through the Caldera Pecking canyon, pilgrims would follow the trail to the top of Black Mountain and seek visions over a period of days. Afterward, the pilgrims could not return directly to their home communities because they had acquired puha during their journey.

They would reverse their journey, returning to the shrines visited and saying exit prayers of thanks, explained Dr. Stoffle.

The study and presentation concluded that Black Mountain is a regional ceremonial center that can be understood from its location and geology, the places that surround it, and the paths that connect these places.