RVs Invade Sacred Sites of American Indians

Reno Gazette-Journal / Associated Press

A long time ago, a giant serpent left the Walker River and burrowed into the land, according to the lore of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. Today, the serpent still lies in the ground, creating what many call Sand Mountain.

“It’s a place where our people rarely go, only the spiritual [leaders] and elders,” said Rochanne Downs, cultural resources director for the tribe, explaining that the site has special meaning.

Yet riders on off-road vehicles continually race up and down the giant sand dune -- a sight that deeply disturbs many of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone.

The tribe once referred to the blowing sounds of the “singing sands,” Downs said, but now a buzz of engines emanates from the dune.


Black specks, never before seen by tribal members or their ancestors, now streak the sand from carbon deposited by the vehicles’ engines, Downs said.

“You can’t do the spiritual things because you don’t know if an [off-road vehicle] is going to come over the hill and run you over,” Downs said. “You can’t even hear yourself think.”

In Nevada, the long-standing clash of values between American Indians and the descendants of settlers now plays out in a new way:

Often, those who say they love the outdoors are committing the equivalent of vandalizing another culture’s church when they visit their favorite spots.

Many hikers, sandboarders and motorized vehicle riders don’t know the story of Sand Mountain.

John Crowley, an off-roader and president of Friends of Sand Mountain, said he only recently heard from a Bureau of Land Management official that a tribal legend about the area existed.

Friends of Sand Mountain organizes cleanups, educates riders about environmental and safety issues, and has worked with the BLM to study a rare butterfly in the area.

“Obviously, we want to respect [Sand Mountain],” he said. “But right now it’s owned by the federal government and managed by the BLM for motorized recreation, and that’s what we’re using it for.


“I’m not saying that I don’t care. I just don’t fully understand all their beliefs. I’d like to learn more.”

When visitors come to the Pyramid Lake Cultural Center asking where the sacred spots are, Ben Aleck tells them, “They’re all around you.”

American Indians regard the whole world as sacred, so when non-Indians talk about “sacred sites,” they reveal their lack of familiarity with tribal culture, said Aleck, cultural resources manager for the Pyramid Lake Paiute.

Because of damage inflicted by visitors, some areas have been restricted to tribal members. Other places, such as Anaho Island, a federally protected island where migratory birds nest, are off-limits because of their ecological significance.


Ancestors of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes fought off encroaching settlers and held on to some of their land. Today, their reservation encircles Pyramid Lake and stretches along the Truckee River.

It hasn’t been developed like Lake Tahoe, which prides itself as an outdoors destination.

“The tribe has always been approached about developing a casino on the lake, but always the stance of the tribe is to keep away from that type of development,” Aleck said.

Aleck said it’s fine when tribes search for ways to make money off their resources, “but I think the tribe here has seen the value beyond the dollar and I think we’re fortunate for that.”


At Tahoe’s Cave Rock, sharing the land is at the heart of a dispute.

For thousands of years, the Washoe tribes of northern Nevada followed the seasons from Lake Tahoe to the Pine Nut Mountains to the valley between.

While the rest of the tribe fished, hunted and gathered food in the summer around Lake Tahoe, American Indian doctors would go to a place called de ek wa dep push to meditate. The site, now called Cave Rock, is at the center of Washoe mythology.

In another age, according to Washoe legend, a warring tribe kept the Washoe prisoners. The god of the world set the Washoe free by putting their captors in the cave below Cave Rock and trapping them underwater.


The legend says powerful spirits called water babies lived in an underground cave, and a monster also lived in a cave in the area.

“Cave Rock was a place where only our medicine men went. The rest of the tribe walked around it,” said Bill Dancing Feather, cultural resources manager for the Washoe.

Although a few tribal members still use the rock, Dancing Feather said that its visitors these days consist mostly of picnickers enjoying the views and climbers who challenge themselves on popular routes high above the lake.

In December, the Forest Service announced a proposal to ban all climbing from the rock to preserve the cultural value to the tribe. Climbers who have worked to maintain access to Cave Rock for years bristled.


“Cave Rock is a part of me; I’ve climbed it so many times over the years,” said Carey Houston, 34, of Nevada City, Calif. “I can’t just give it up.”