Named the first “Dark Sky Nation,” Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky, on the Kaibab Paiute Reservation, is the first ethnically and culturally homogenous community to unanimously adopt practices for preserving the natural sky.
In 2015, the International Dark Sky Association accepted the Kaibab Paiutes’s application to acknowledge their reservation on the borderlands of Utah and Arizona as a Dark Sky Community. International Dark Sky Community’s official name, Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky, uses the Southern Paiute language to recognize the importance Kaibab Paiute culture places on Thunder Mountain and the night sky.
The Kaibab Paiutes’ recognized history in Utah and Arizona began when they entered the Colorado Plateau around 1150 CE, living off the land by hunting and foraging. Since then, the Kaibab Paiutes’ culture has emphasized being responsible for protecting and sustainably managing natural resources due to a history of conflict over resources. members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—sometimes nicknamed “Mormons” in that time—began forming settlements on the Colorado Plateau in the 1860s. Despite generous efforts by indigenous peoples elsewhere in the Intermountain West to accommodate and live peacefully with the overwhelmingly Euro-American newcomers, who had initially arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, by the 1860s the Latter-day Saints’ growing population of new arrivals and extractive agricultural practices were increasingly incompatible with indigenous ways of life, including those of the Kaibab Band of Paiutes. The Latter-day Saints who settled the Colorado Plateau cut down trees and other flora which grew on the of the Kaibab Paiutes’ homeland, and they took control of springs and wells for farm irrigation. No evidence exists of this group of Mormons attempting to purchase any plots or use rights, and they apparently simply seized the land without offering any compensation.
Within a few years, the Mormons’ terraforming destroyed the Kaibab Paiutes’ farmland and degraded the landscape so much it could no longer support wildlife. To make way for farms and pastures, they had also cut down the Kaibab Paiutes’ piñon pine trees, whose edible nuts were a major food source that might have otherwise helped them stave off starvation. Having lost the natural world which once supported them, to survive, many of the Kaibab Paiutes had to relocate to camps near Mormon settlements and take jobs. About 90% of the Kaibab Paiute population died from starvation and other difficult changes stemming from the relocation.
The local Mormons justified their conquest of the land and people with the common Euro-American settler-colonial myth that the indigenous Paiutes were not properly utilizing the land. Though manifestly untrue—nineteenth-century Euro-Americans simply did not recognize the Kaibab Paiutes’ foodways and agricultural and hunting practices—the sting of that myth has not been forgotten. After the U.S. government created the Kaibab Paiute reservation on May 28, 1909, the people resolved to never let their natural resources be wasted or depleted now that they had land designated specifically for Kaibab Paiutes. Minerals and wildlife were the natural resources originally focused on for preservation and compensation when harmed or exploited by outside parties. This conservationist attitude extended to the night sky when the Kaibab Paiute become aware of how light pollution threatened their natural skies, and by 2015, every light in the 250-person community was modified to be night sky friendly.
Celestial observation was a part of many Great Basin mythologies, and the Kaibab Paiutes were no exception. One myth, called Mountain Sheep in the Sky, is about how the three large stars that may make up Orion’s belt are three mountain sheep being chased westward by a Sheep Trailer who shoots the middle sheep. Other versions of the myth exist with a blind man named Puiat as the hunter, different animals such as antelopes, and even a tale of conflict between beings like Coyote and Mountain Lion. Another tale about the same constellation describes a wife perpetually chasing after her baby and two husbands who left her since she did not work hard enough to satisfy the family. Roland Maldonado, Tribal Chairperson, and Daniel Bulletts, Environmental Program Director, in 2015 spoke of how preserving their night skies would restore value to the traditions of celestial observance. The night skies provide a backdrop for teaching younger generations stories about culture or lessons in morality, and Thunder Mountain Pootseev Nightsky has chosen to defend that educational tradition for their heritage and ecological conservation.