Surprises of Sovereignty

  • Three Indian reservations

    Diane Sylvain
  • Gordon Frazier performs Eagle Dance at Pyramid Lake

    Peter Goin
  • Tribal money machine: The Avi Hotel and Casino

    Jon Christensen
  • Leon Bear wants nuclear waste stored on Skull Valley Goshute Res


Note: this feature article is one of several in this special issue about the Great Basin.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation, 30 miles northeast of Reno, seems a perfect setting for a resort.

The turquoise lake shimmers amid desert mountains at the end of the Truckee River. Earlier in this century, tourists and sports fishermen flocked to the spectacular spawning runs of native fish, the Lahontan cutthroat trout and cui-ui, a big catfish-like sucker, both now endangered.

Although close to the "biggest little city in the world," Pyramid Lake feels a world away. Despite the many proposals to build resorts and casinos here over the years, there is nothing fancy or flashy at the lake. The Pyramid tribe is slow to change that which it controls.

On a warm summer Friday afternoon, the parking lot at the tribal marina is filling with people buying supplies and permits for boating on the lake and camping on the reservation. Hamburgers and hot dogs, not cui-ui or cutthroat, are being served at a tribal picnic. A group of elderly ladies from the senior center reminisces about cui-ui at a table under an awning beside the lake. They pronounce it "kee-you-wee" and laugh as I try to get the sing-song of the fish's name right.

"It's delicious," says Edith Shaw.

"Like a halibut," says Myrtle New Moon.

"It's not really fishy like cutthroat," says Velda Nevers. "I like it better. Maybe because I was raised on it."

"It's been years and years since we had any," says Dora Garcia, director of the senior center. "Long time ago we had plenty of them to eat."

"They'll come back," Nevers says hopefully.

The Pyramid Paiutes call themselves "Kuyuidokado," the cui-ui eaters. Since the cui-ui was declared endangered in the late 1960s, the tribe has fought in court and in Congress to reduce diversions from the Truckee River to farms in the Newlands Project, 40 miles to the southeast. It is the tribe that has pressured Fallon's farmers to free up water for the lake.

The fish have had two good spawning runs in recent years, since the tribe won hard-fought battles to put water in the river during spawning runs despite an on-again, off-again drought. The Endangered Species Act has helped save the fish. But it also means the cui-ui eaters can no longer eat cui-ui.

"A generation has been denied the opportunity to eat the fish," says Mervyn Wright Jr., director of the tribal water resources department. "We feel strongly that it needs to be restored so the entire population can share that culture."

Last summer, the tribe rejected a proposal to lease water to a golf course in Reno. When it comes to money and water, water comes first for the Pyramid tribe. "The water that flows to Pyramid Lake is second to none," says Wright. "The water in Pyramid is us. The cui-ui. That's our culture. It's who we are and what we are."

As part of a negotiated settlement of conflicts over water on the Truckee River, the 2,000 member tribe won an economic development fund of $40 million in 1990. Tribal officials are only now putting together a plan to use the money.

"We're trying to do some small development along the lake," says tribal chairman Norm Harry, who took office in January. "But there hasn't really been an economic plan developed yet. We're always getting proposals from companies that would be a detriment to the rest of our environment, like hazardous waste companies. They figure this is useless land. None of the land is useless. We're trying to protect and utilize our resources, keep the land in a natural state, and identify economic development to coincide with that."

The Pyramid tribal government has been plagued with internal problems in recent years, including family rivalries, favoritism, and lax accounting. Harry says his focus in office will be "getting the administration back in line."

But the tribe's first concern remains its struggle for water for the lake. At the end of a river in the desert, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes find themselves tied to a watershed now shared with many others. Tribal leaders have to decide whether to fight or negotiate with their neighbors.

For the Pyramid tribe, sovereignty, identity and a vision for the future inevitably are mixed with concerns of the federal government, farmers in the Newlands Project, and the cities and towns upstream.

"I can't say sovereignty exists," says Mervyn Wright Jr. "We are sovereign to exercise our own religion. So we're sovereign in our personal life. Nobody's going to take that away.

"But I don't think the tribe is in control of its destiny," he says. "As long as we're in this reservation. As long as we're wards of the government. We're not even in control of water for our own cui-ui spawning runs."

The tribe must get approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release water from upstream reservoirs for the cui-ui. The agency has approved a spawning run again this year.

As the tribe secures more water, Pyramid will rise and eventually cover the marina that is the main development on the shore today. There may be a tribal resort, perhaps even a casino here some day. But it will happen on the tribe's own terms.

A neon teepee rises out of the mesquite forest along the Colorado River at the extreme southern tip of Nevada, 80 miles south of Las Vegas. The teepee is the entryway to the new Avi casino on the Fort Mojave Indian Reservation.

Avi means "money" or "something of value," says Lew Barrackman, vice-chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. Barrackman says the casino is the realization of a dream he had watching the town of Laughlin boom with high-rise hotels and casinos just a few miles to the north.

The Fort Mojave tribe is the first to open a full-blown casino in the home state of gambling. Most Nevada tribes don't have the location or capital to enter gaming. The Fort Mojave reservation has the location. It straddles the highway funneling traffic from Los Angeles to Laughlin. Surrounded by federal land, Laughlin has only one way to grow, onto Indian land.

The reservation sprawls in a checkerboard pattern for 20 miles along the Colorado River south of Laughlin. Alternate square-mile sections were given to the railroad in a pattern familiar in the West. In 1910, the U.S. government turned over the federal sections to the tribe, which now has 1,002 members.

The tribe also has first call on water in the lower Colorado River. So far, tribal land has mainly been leased to farmers, who have provided a reliable but not very prosperous economic base for the tribe.

Tribal manager Gary Goforth says the Avi casino is laying the groundwork for the reservation's future. Of the $48 million budget for the casino, $15 million has been spent on infrastructure, including roads, a bridge across the river, and a water and sewer system for a residential development to be called Aha Macav (the tribe's name for itself, which means "people by the river') that could eventually expand to 20,000 homes. The money for this development came from a $33 million loan from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and bonds sold to private investors.

"We tried to get money for infrastructure before," says Goforth. "Everybody would wring their hands. But nobody would loan us money. So we finally had to do something ourselves." The tribe never intended to be in the casino business, he says. "We thought we would just be landlords. But so many tribes have been fairly successful. And some have been wildly successful."

The tribe's plans include sites for up to seven casinos on the river. "But in the long haul, as far as income for the tribe to operate, the residential development will be the real money maker," Goforth says. Long-term leases to home owners will provide a steady flow of income compared to volatile gaming revenues.

Steve Lopez says the new casino and residential development "is a representation of us on Indian land. It is us, having what is ours." A former tribal council member, Lopez is a jack-of-all-trades for the Fort Mojave Tribe. He works out of a paint shop a few blocks from the river. People stop by for paralegal advice, social services counseling, to help organize against a low-level nuclear waste dump in Ward Valley, 20 miles west of here, and just to shoot the breeze in the shade behind the shop.

Gambling is "sacred," Lopez tells me. "By your standards it is a sin. But we have been taught that we have to have it to teach morality. The ethic is if you risk gambling, you better be able to pay your debt or it takes over. You become a slave and not the master. Gambling is a good thing. But we don't base our lives on it."

Lopez describes all of his work for the tribe in spiritual terms. His face is decorated with the traditional tattoos of the Mojave Indians. His name in Mojave, "Hekuehetho," means "he's called rattlesnake fangs."

Lopez reminisces with friends about the time they spent in the mesquite scrub jungle along the river, hunting, fishing and partying when they were growing up on the reservation. The mesquite forest will give way to neon and tract homes. But Lopez is not nostalgic. For him, traditions offer paths to change.

"People think that this casino will be the be-all and end-all, that gambling is the savior," Lopez says. "We have to save ourselves. This is only the beginning of a long climb up. It's a mere tool, an instrument, a stepping stone for education, clinics, all those things we need. It's all those things that say we're sovereign."

Skull Valley seems an ominous place. The name fits a little too well.

It is not so much what is visible here off the southwest shore of the Great Salt Lake, 40 miles west of Salt Lake City. It is what looms beyond that lends an unsettling air to Skull Valley.

The Dugway Proving Ground where biological weapons have been tested is just over the horizon south of the reservation. Across the Stansbury Mountains to the east, the nation's largest cache of chemical weapons is stored at the Tooele Army Depot. To the north, the Magcorps magnesium plant pumps enough sulfur dioxide into the air to make Tooele County one of the nation's top ten sites for toxic pollution. Over the Cedar Mountains to the west, a state hazardous waste district is home to three incinerators and two landfills.

None of this can be seen from the Goshute Indian Reservation, which straddles the road for 12 miles in Skull Valley. But it is always with you, says Leon Bear. The 38-year-old manager of tribal programs meets me at the gas station and convenience store run by his parents. "It's scary to be out here among all this stuff," he says.

Bear is in charge of developing income-producing ventures for the Goshutes. It is an unpaid position. His paid job is as a security guard at a rocket testing facility on land the tribe leases to Hercules Aerospace. The lease is the tribe's biggest money maker, earning its 113 members an annual dividend of around $2,500. But the lease expires this year, and the future is uncertain.

The tribe also leases dumpsters to the Army and National Guard. It has invested in a recycling plant in nearby Tooele.

But the tribe's hottest prospect is hosting a monitored retrievable storage facility for high-level nuclear waste. The Goshute reservation is at the top of the Department of Energy's list of voluntary sites for the MRS, which will store spent fuel rods from commercial nuclear reactors until a permanent repository is opened. A majority of tribal members signed a resolution offering to take the project.

In a place that has been treated like a dump, it seems natural to see waste as an opportunity. "There's not much out here," says Bear. "All we have is land. We don't have a big river running through our reservation, or timber. Any kind of development would be better than what's here."

Bear takes me out to the proposed site for the MRS in the middle of Skull Valley between two picturesque mountain ranges. Sunlight angles through storm clouds casting a heavenly glow on the scene.

Although Utah's West Desert has long been treated as dumping ground, the Goshutes' neighbors have not looked favorably on storing nuclear waste here, even temporarily. Governor Mike Leavitt said nuclear waste would come to Utah only over his dead body.

"We respect his remarks," says Bear. "But we don't feel we're part of Utah. We're a sovereign nation. Our boss is our chairman."

"The tribe definitely calls their own shots," says tribal attorney Danny Quintana. "The tribes have sovereignty as a matter of federal law. It's a plain and simple fact."

The Goshute tribe seems much more like an extended family than a nation. Leon Bear's uncle is chairman. His father is vice-chairman. His cousin is treasurer. "We're all related in one way or the other," says Bear.

The Goshutes - the name is said to mean "dry earth" or "ashes' - once numbered around 20,000, he says, and roamed from the Wasatch Front west into Nevada. But by the time Leon Bear's great-great-great-grandfather signed a treaty with the United States in 1863, the tribe had been decimated by disease, killed in violent encounters with settlers, and hemmed in by a steady stream of immigrants on the California Trail through the Great Salt Lake Desert.

In 1912, the U.S. government bought 17,000 acres of ranch land in Skull Valley for a reservation. Only 29 tribal members live here in a dozen roughhewn wood houses and trailers. But this is still the center of the Goshute universe.

"We've just tried to live and remain intact and keep our land intact," says Bear. "Today the battle is still going on, just in a different area. We'll always be part of this land. We're not going anywhere. We're survivors."

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