Poor U.S. tribe forgoes riches from sacred lake
By Adam Tanner
NIXON, Nevada (Reuters) – Visitors to the eastern shore of
Pyramid Lake 35 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada, can scan an
area framed by a desert mountain backdrop and not see a hint of
The American Indians overseeing the lake say such serenity
along 125 miles of lake coastline 4,000 feet (1,200 m)above sea
level is the result of the tribe’s traditional respect for
Others suggest the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, which suffers
44 percent unemployment, should allow at least some development
so it can share in the prosperity that regions such as Lake
Tahoe in northern California enjoy.
The clash matches economic opportunity cost against
tradition, with the sovereign tribe having the final word.
“The historical aspect of the lake has always been to keep
it as it is,” Norman Harry, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute
Tribes’ Reservation, said in an interview. “The lake is sacred
to the people and always will be.”
“Over the last four decades we’ve seen what happened in
That commercialized lake attracts so many visitors that it
generates $1.8 billion annually, of which 80 percent is linked
to tourism, according to Duane Wallace, chief executive of the
South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce.
A tiny handful of outsiders operate businesses near Pyramid
Lake, with some saying the tribe should open more to tourism.
“The business sense is very lacking here on the
reservation,” said Thomas Bobella, a German-born businessman.
He leases 4 acres with a modest marina, gas station and
recreational vehicle park in Sutcliffe, the only inhabited area
on the lake’s western side.
“They are economically shooting themselves seemingly
without any justification for it,” said Bobella, who criticizes
the tribe for their poor boat launching areas.
“One of the very discouraging points to Pyramid Lake … is
the fantastically bad reputation that this lake has and that is
primarily due to the governmental administrations and their
approach toward tourism.”
Tribal chairman Harry said a dispute over the year-old
marina lease motivated such remarks.
Fred Crosby, who owns the only lodging in Sutcliffe, a
10-unit facility, says tensions still simmer between the tribe
and the descendants of settlers who battled at the 1860 Battle
of Pyramid Lake. Fighting that killed about 240 people resulted
after settlers kidnapped two young Indian women.
Such sentiment raises suspicion when it comes to outside
commerce on the reservation. “There’s kind of a gap between the
Indians and non-Indians,” said Crosby, 58, who has lived in
Sutcliffe for 48 years. “There is an anti-white sentiment on
LAKE VS. HIGHWAY DEVELOPMENT
The lightly salinated Pyramid Lake derives its name from a
small triangular rock island rising from the waters fed by the
Truckee River. The larger Anaho Island nearby provides a
dramatic backdrop to flocks of pelicans, sea gulls and herons.
Most access roads are dirt or sand. The unspoiled arid
landscape fit in easily as a biblical backdrop to the 1965 film
“The Greatest Story Ever Told” about the life of Jesus.
By local standards, Sutcliffe is a hub of activity. About
220 tribal members live there, and hundreds of outsiders pass
through on weekends to swim, go boating or fish trout, a
privilege for which they pay modest access fees.
Asked about his tribe’s future plans, Chairman Harry
pointed on a map away from the lake to other areas of a
467,000-acre (189,000 hectare) reservation home to 1,600
“When we look at economic development, we have to look at
other resources,” he said at his office in Nixon. “There are
other areas we can look at that can accomplish the same thing.”
He wants to open a hotel and casino complex on tribal lands
on Nevada’s main I-80 highway linking California to the east,
and says land nearby would be good for light industry.
Harry also wants to sell pipeline rights across the
reservation and sees potential in developing geothermal energy
in another corner of the sparsely populated reservation.
Tourism firms have shown interest in Pyramid Lake for
decades, and Harry’s predecessor as tribal leader, Bonnie
Akaka-Smith, solicited development proposals last year. She
declined to discuss her ideas, saying she did not want to
express dissent as she still worked for the tribe in the tax
Nothing came of her idea, but the tribe has shown past
flexibility toward the sacred lake, such as during World War
II, when it let the U.S. military test torpedoes there,
Some believe economic pressures could one day prompt the
tribe to allow a new barrage of tourism.
Dennis Conrad, a casino marketing consultant, is modestly
optimistic that the tribe will one day develop attractive
resort facilities on or near the lake. A rival consultant,
Richard Wells, was more pessimistic, saying that the far more
developed Tahoe would long overshadow Pyramid Lake.