Filed Under Native Americans

Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the Nuwu (Paiute)

Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the creation of a wildlife refuge that protects indigenous interests to this day. The Nuwu have deep roots in the land and wildlife.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge is the largest wildlife refuge in the continental United States, spreading over 1.6 million acres of land and six different mountain ranges in Southern Nevada within the Clark, Lincoln, and Nye Counties. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the refuge by executive order in 1936, and at that time federal protection spanned the entirety of the current Desert National Wildlife Refuge, Mount Charleston, and much of today’s Red Rock National Recreation Area. The need for protection stemmed from the steeply declining population of native plants and animals, specifically desert bighorn sheep.

Desert National Wildlife Refuge includes lands sacred to the Nuwu, also known as the Southern Paiutes. The land is the setting of Nuwu origin stories and legends as well as the lands their people lived in and thrived upon for many generations. Artifacts of the Paiutes are scattered across the land and are sacred to local Paiute communities. Greg Anderson, Chairman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes says, “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.” They still practice Nuwu traditions tied to the land, which makes preserving it important to keeping traditions alive.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge is also important to the Nuwu people because it is the natural habitat of the desert bighorn sheep, or nah’gah to use the Paiute name. The nah’gah were one of the Nuwu’s main food sources. Paiute legends tell how their people were starving and the desert bighorn sheep stepped forward and sacrificed their lives so the people could survive. Nuwu view the nah’gah as protectors of their people include giving them power and energy and guiding them through drought and disease. The Nuwu strive to protect the desert bighorn sheep because they believe their people are tied to them and if they die then the Nuwu people will die as well. To this day, the Nuwu honor the nah’gah through stories, songs, and dances.


Desert National Wildlife
Desert National Wildlife Long distance view of the Desert National Wildlife Refuge landscape. Source:

“Desert Environment in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge.” United States Fish and Wildlife Service, November 9, 2009. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Map of Desert National Wildlife Refuge
Map of Desert National Wildlife Refuge Source:

“About the Complex – Desert.” United States Fish and Wildlife Service, December 2021.

Desert Bighorn Sheep
Desert Bighorn Sheep Image of the desert bighorn sheep inside Desert National Wildlife Refuge. Source: Desert NWR - Bighorn Sheep. Sharon K. Schafer. Via United States Fish and Wildlife Service.


16001 Corn Creek Rd, Las Vegas, NV 89124


Amanda Reece, Brigham Young University, “Desert National Wildlife Refuge and the Nuwu (Paiute),” Intermountain Histories, accessed July 23, 2024,