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The Queen of Death Valley


"Ground Afire" is the meaning of the Indians' name for what is now known as Death Valley. "And in the height of summer there is no better name for this sun-tortured trench between blistered ranges. But when a group of forty-niners [1849] blundered into it, they renamed it Death Valley."

The valley and the high mountain ranges west and east of it are now called Death Valley National Monument. It is located in southeastern California and southwestern Nevada. Many square miles of the valley are below sea level--the lowest level in the Western Hemisphere.

More than 600 kinds of plants thrive in the valley. Its rocks make it a geologists' paradise. And for everyone, "the great charm of the area lies in its magnificent range of color, which varies from hour to hour."

Long, long ago, Indians used to say, this valley was beautiful and fertile. The people who lived there were ruled by a beautiful but capricious queen. One time she ordered them to build a mansion for her, one that would surpass any mansion ever built by their neighbours, the Aztecs.

For years, her people worked to make a palace that would please her. From places many miles away they dragged stones and logs. The queen, fearing that her age or an accident or an illness might prevent her from seeing her dream come true, ordered many of her people to assist in the work. Gradually, her tribe became a tribe of slaves.

The queen commanded even her own daughter to join those dragging logs and stones. When the noonday heat caused the workers to drag along slowly, with heads bowed, the queen strode angrily among them and lashed their naked backs.

Because royalty was sacred, the people did not complain. But when she struck her daughter, the girl turned, threw down her load of stone, and solemnly cursed her mother and her mother's kingdom. Then, overcome by heat and weariness, the girl sank to the ground and died.

In vain, the queen lamented and regretted. All nature seemed to punish her. The sun came out with blinding heat and light. Vegetation withered. Animals disappeared. Streams and wells dried up. At last the queen had to give up her life; she died with high fever. There was no one to soothe her last moments, for her people, too, were dead.

The mansion, half-completed, stands in the midst of this desolation. Sometimes it seems to rise into view of people at a distance, in the shifting mirage that plays along the horizon.


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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.