Consider Your Impact: Perspective from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe

This post is part of the Consider Your Impact series

As part of our Consider Your Impact series, we’re exploring the impact Burners have on the local communities we pass through en route to and from Black Rock City. In order to understand that impact, it’s critical to hear from affected people directly. 

It’s easy for us to pass through Wadsworth or Nixon and not think twice, because they’re in our rearview mirror before we know it, and we’re off to the Burn. But for the people who live in those communities, forced to contend with a seemingly non-stop stream of people — Burners, staff, vendors, Law Enforcement, etc. — flowing through their towns for months every year, it’s a whole different situation.

We reached out to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to share their side of the story. Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Chairman Anthony Sampson generously offered to give us his thoughts, as did the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Water Quality Manager Kameron Morgan (who, while neither a member of the Tribe nor a resident of the Reservation, nonetheless provides a valuable perspective). Suffice to say it’s eye-opening and deeply humbling. Here’s the interview:

Q. Please describe life in your community year-round. What’s it like? What about it makes you happy? Is there a strong sense of community? 

Chairman Sampson:

Our communities are just like any other communities, people work, children go to school, and gather during the holidays, sports events, and community gatherings. The uniqueness of our community is that we always come together during times of tragedy. Over the last two years our homelands have been affected by floods and fires. During these times, our communities have come together – our leaders and departments took the lead in identifying the needs of each tribal community. Our community members also came out and helped in donating clothing, blankets and goods. What makes me personally happy was accepting Lord Jesus Christ into my life and family life. My wife and I have been married for 36 years and raised our kids out here into the adults that they are today – but this isn’t about us, it’s about Pyramid Lake. For the Tribe, it’s the tranquility of our lives. It’s a slow life. 

Q. Please describe what it’s like for your community when the Burning Man event happens? What are the challenges the town and its people experience? Is there anything you enjoy about that time?

Chairman Sampson

The biggest thing that I notice during the event is that it is chaotic on the Reservation. Traffic is always backed up, Burners are always getting out of their cars and dancing in the street, they’re running across the roads (especially during traffic jams), they’re out there playing Frisbee, people are going to the bathroom on the side of the road. In the past, I’ve had participants camping in my driveway that I had to ask to leave. After they left, I realized that they had left garbage and other things behind. 

One of the things that’s beneficial to the Tribe is that community members have an opportunity to make a little extra income. Some tribal members set up food stands and garbage collection stations. These community members benefit from the event, but others do not. 

Kameron

I can only speak to the time leading up to and after the event. One of our biggest challenges is the huge increase in traffic. The Reservation contains three rural communities, which requires people to commute to their job or to conduct their daily business. The traffic isn’t just limited to the participants, it also includes all the infrastructure that is needed to build one of the largest cities in Nevada. Local community members have to leave early during those approximate 3 weeks to ensure they get to where they need to go on time.

Q. If you could talk to all of the Burning Man participants who come through your town (and here’s a great opportunity to do so), what would you want them to know?

Chairman Sampson

Burning Man ends on Labor Day each year, which is a busy weekend for the Reservation, as we receive many visitors that are camping and boating at Pyramid Lake. The mass exodus of 80,000 people exasperates all the impacts that occur anyways from having a high volume of people here on the Reservation for the holiday weekend.

Permits – Every year, there are Burners that want to swim and/or camp at Pyramid Lake before or after Burning Man that don’t pay permit fees, resulting in a loss of revenue. We welcome anyone who would like to visit the lake, but all visitors must purchase a permit for camping, boating, fishing, or day-use through the Tribe’s website, or at any of the stores throughout the Reservation. Visitors must abide by all Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe rules and regulations. An informational brochure can be obtained through purchasing a permit, or at the tribe’s website at plpt.nsn.us.

Reckless Driving – Every year we see a significant number of reckless drivers. People trying to pass slow vehicles, disregarding pedestrians at crosswalks, exceeding the posted speed limit, tailgating and stopping in dangerous areas. These dangerous actions put our community members and employees at risk.

Open Range – The Reservation is considered “open-range,” which means that there is unenclosed land throughout the Reservation for which livestock are free to graze about freely. Some years we have livestock that are hit by vehicles traveling along the main corridors.

Emergency response – Our Emergency Response Program, which responds to fires, rescues and various emergencies, as well as our Police Department, operates with a small number of personnel. The Reservation is over 477,000 acres, so responding to incidents can take some time- regardless of Labor Day weekend at the lake or the Burning Man event. Our emergency response resources are stretched thin and responding to incidents involving the Burning Man event takes the help away needed by the tribal communities. Also, if there’s a call that requires transporting a patient to the hospital in Reno, that could further delay response time if there’s another medical call.

Cultural artifacts – The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has inhabited the region for thousands of years and there are cultural artifacts throughout the area. Visitors need to be aware that excavation, destroying, or defacing any historic or cultural sites is prohibited; and cultural resources and plants are not to be removed from the reservation. This includes defacing any of the rocks throughout the Reservation, which have been affected by graffiti in the past. Burners should know that there are a number of culturally-sensitive areas that are closed to visitors, including the entire east side of the lake (Pyramid and Stonemother), the lower Truckee River, and north of Pyramid Lake at the Needles

Kameron

Unlike most lakes in the world that end in the ocean, Pyramid Lake is a desert terminal lake (there is no outlet). The only way water leaves the lake is through evaporation. All pollutants that runoff into Pyramid Lake stay in Pyramid Lake. Many of the vehicles passing through the Reservation are not properly maintained, resulting in vehicles leaking oil and other chemical constituents. Another problem is when there are RVs with overly-full black and greywater tanks leaving the event that leak while they’re driving down the highway. All these contaminants are deposited onto the highway and then transported to nearby waterways through stormwater runoff whenever we receive our next storm event.  It’s important for visitors to ensure that their RVs and other vehicles are properly maintained while driving through the reservation.

Increased fire danger: Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase of wildfires here on the Reservation and around the region. We’ve received a lot of precipitation, which results in a lot of overgrown and dry vegetation. While we haven’t experienced any fires that were sparked by Burners, there is an increased risk of sparking a fire if visitors don’t stay on designated roads. It’s also important if people need to pull over on the shoulder, that they do so in an appropriate area where there is potential for sparking a fire. Lastly, I think it goes without saying to not throw a cigarette butt out your window.

Q. Do you feel like Burning Man participants are generally respectful to your community? 

Chairman Sampson:

I think in general, the majority of participants are respectful of our community. We also get people who are impatient and annoyed of the lines in our stores and then are rude to the clerks. 

Kameron

Since working for the Tribe, I haven’t had the opportunity to interact with participants within the community as I’m always at the event for the week.

Q. What can Burning Man participants do differently to lessen the impact we have on your community, or to improve relations? 

Chairman Sampson

Visitors need to be mindful that on their way to and from Burning Man, that they need to conduct themselves appropriately while visiting our community. There are tribal elders, children, and tribal members occupying the same public space as burners, such as the convenience stores or beaches; and in the past, we’ve had participants using derogatory language or not dressed appropriately for spaces outside of Burning Man. Public nudity of all kinds, such as bathing or swimming nude on the beaches, is prohibited.

Kameron

Trash. Most Burning Man participants are great stewards in the leave-no-trace principle and will dispose of or recycle their trash in the proper locations, but with the mass exodus of 80,000 people, accidents happen and there are some people that blatantly don’t follow the leave-no-trace principle. Some participants don’t properly strap down their garbage and it falls out while they’re driving down the highway. This garbage is either dispersed immediately upon impact, or wildlife will eventually get into it. In either case, garbage is dispersed through the frequently windy conditions that occur on the Reservation. 

Another way we’re impacted by trash is by people that want to get rid of their garbage right away and not pay for the services offered by the numerous trash collection areas that Tribal members provide. We have large trash bins throughout the lakeshore that are meant to be used by our Labor Day weekend visitors. With the high volume of visitors to Pyramid Lake and the Burning Man exodus, these bins quickly fill up and begin to overflow. After a while, people start to place garbage outside of/next to the bin, which is easily accessible to wildlife. We also sometimes see people throwing away furniture in the dumpsters, which requires our staff to physically climb into the dumpsters to remove the items, which increases risk of injury and time needed to deal with the trash. We know which trash is from Pyramid Lake visitors and which is from Burning Man participants, based on whether there’s white dust covering the garbage. Another thing we see at least once every year is abandoned or crash and abandoned RV, camper, or vehicle, which is never claimed by its owner and just sits on the reservation for days or weeks until it’s removed. I think Burners can improve relations by ensuring that they bring their trash home with them (or disposing it at a proper location) and do a better job at strapping down their trash when they leave.

Q. What can Burning Man participants do to help your community?

Chairman Sampson:

I wish there was a Burning Man delegation to be here on the Reservation during the event to see what types of things are happening. There are Burning Man staff that pass through the event, but there isn’t a staff member that’s here 24/7 seeing what we’re seeing. Maybe participants can keep a check on each other. If a participant sees another participant out in the community not acting appropriately, or not doing what they’re not supposed to be doing, then say something to that individual. Be courteous to our staff that work in our stores. 

Kameron:

Disposing of their trash properly (see above). Behave/dress in this community as they would in their community. Purchase a permit if they plan to visit the lake.

Q. Have you been to Black Rock City? If so, what did you think about it?

Chairman Sampson:

No, I have never been out to Burning Man. 

Kameron

Before I worked for the Tribe and graduated college, I worked in the service industry in Reno and dreaded the event every year. I served many Burners that had been in the desert for a week or more that had not yet showered and some didn’t tip in the sit-down restaurant I worked at. Although I had friends that were Burners that loved the event, I had a lot of negative preconceptions about the event and always said that I would never go to the event. However, when I started working for the Tribe in 2013, I had the opportunity to attend and warmed up to the idea of going. That same year, I decided to go out with a group of friends for 3-days and immediately fell in love. It completely changed my mind and now wonder why I ever felt the way that I did. I’ve been going to Burning Man ever since. 

This post is part of our ‘Consider Your Impact’ series, where we’re telling stories that explore our community’s known and lesser-known effects on not just the Black Rock Desert itself, but the world around us as well. We hope it will raise awareness and inspire you to, well, consider your impact. Hence the name.


Top photo of the Pyramid Lake Reservation sign c/o Wikimedia Commons.

About the author: Will Chase

Will Chase

Will Chase is Burning Man's former Minister of Propaganda, working on global communications strategy. He was the editor-in-chief for the Jackrabbit Speaks newsletter and the Burning Man Journal, and content manager for Burning Man’s web properties. He also oversaw the ePlaya BBS and Burning Man’s social media presence. Will first attended Burning Man in 2001. He volunteered as the Operations Manager for the ARTery (Black Rock City’s art HQ) and was on the Burning Man Art Council from 2003-2008. He was Web Team Project Manager and Webmaster from 2004 until he transitioned to the Communications Department in 2009.

21 Comments on “Consider Your Impact: Perspective from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe

  • Crissa Kentavr says:

    I’m glade the Tribe accepts us through every year. I grew up in a traditionally fishing/logging community that had recreation as its secondary – now a days largest – economy. Nothing can compare to the running of the burners, not the running of the steelhead or salmon, or the several miles long parade of harleys around my home town.

    But I thank you and them, for accepting us through each year.

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    • Carlo Monticelli says:

      Thanks for posting this – I was wondering the same that this article addresses as I left Burning Man this year (2019). As a 1st time burner, I am concerned about the trash and the way that some of our fellow burner’s act getting to and coming from the event. This makes me a feel that the burning man community as a whole looks for way to practice the principals with our neighbors. Again, Thanks for posting

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  • Taylor Williams says:

    As a Pyramid Lake Tribal member, I would like to state that- we do not have a choice, but to accept burners it’s the only entrance to the Black Rock desert an or main entrance.
    The road, which burners travel on is Federally owned, however, it is still our reservation. As a Tribal member, I would like to see a toll imposed upon entrance to our reservation because as a community we’re- too imposed upon.
    Our reservation can not financially handle the services required for burning man, for example, trash and waste which follows.
    No hotels, motels, or BNB because we as a community can barely maintain our own Federally funded/ grant homes.- this leads to burners sleeping randomly in parked cars around our reservation.
    We do not have enough Rangers to enforce permit sales and or vandalism
    If a toll were imposed then our Tribe would be able to instill the necessary supports needed, and all community members would benefit.
    Lastly, Our safety is risked- One year my sister was driving my car to make a quick run to the store in plain daylight. She was hit by a burner when attempting to make a turn into our block yet assumed by the burner ( that no one lives here) did not see her signal light, and slammed right into her, this had a huge effect on us financially and emotionally, but the burner carried on as if it was no big deal. In closing, I do not appreciate the burners passing through our reservation freely. Although we’re a checkered reservation it is our Nation, and burners need to pay their toll.

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  • Heidi McCluskey says:

    As a Tribal Member, for me, it’s the folks determined to get to and from the event with reckless abandon. Speeding & passing. One year a while back I was passed by a speeding burner flying through the 15 mph flashing school zone. It’s gotten a lil worse, year after year. I for one would love to see an implementation of a high $$$$ fine specifically enacted only during BM time so NO speeding would be allowed at all.
    That, and folks need to double and triple check ✔ how good their tieing their shit down.

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  • Mary Dodd says:

    I am a member of the Tribe and live in Wadsworth (one of our three communities). I have never been to Burning Man but I have family and friends that attend. The traffic is my main concern. A couple of years ago, one of my daughters was pulling out by Natchez Elementary School and was hit by a Burner speeding through the 15 mph school zone. The Burner pulled over and checked to make sure she was ok but took off, once he saw she was not injured. Her car was left damaged from the accident. In another car accident, one of our Tribal members was in a severe accident involving a Burner. Due to the legal issues involving the Burner that was driving not being an authorized driver on the rental car, she has never been compensated for her ongoing medical issues from the accident. The accident changed her life forever. I hope everyone enjoys their time but, please be careful driving through our communities! We are just trying to live our lives.

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  • Jackie Cawelti says:

    On Driving from Local Tribal Member suggestions/plea:
    1. Do not drive too close and hug or should I say “hog” the middle of the road. I drive a large public bus and also have a large vehicle and want to keep our riders safe.
    2. Tired driving is impaired driving! ‘Nuff said.
    3. If your vehicle is obviously holding up several cars from driving the speed limit, please pull over and let other go past and then you can continue on.
    4. Coming home please take the same amount of care that you loaded your vehicle to GET to BM. Carefully and securely strap everything down. Debris and trash falling off of your vehicle is dangerous to others.
    5. Pack in and Pack out. Take your trash all the way home with you. Our dump is inundated with our own own trash, adding yours to our already out of hand problem is ridiculous!
    Just Hoping everyone stays safe on the roads!
    Thank you!

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  • DB COOPER says:

    Disappointing how crass some/a few Burners are, only worsened by the marked economic disparity between Burners and the hardscrabble lives of many of the locals.

    Adding 10 bucks to each ticket would be insignificant, would inject $750K for the local communities. Beyond mitigating the nuisance, might make a material difference to the towns.

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  • Diana says:

    Ditto to other tribal members commenting here. SLOW DOWN THROUGH THE COMMUNITIES!! DONT PASS ON CURVES OR HILLS!
    THE PLAYA ISNT MOVING! BESIDES YOU HAVE TO WAIT ANYWAY TO GET IN LINE AND IN. TO MANY PEOPLE ARE GETTING RUN OFF THE ROADS! FATALITIES HAVE HAPPENED ALREADY PLEASE DON’T NEED ANY MORE DEATHS.

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  • PalmSprings says:

    $10 fee for entry ? They would gladly cough up more than that and should. I used to go out there and into High Rock canyon while doing immigrant trail reasearch in the early 70s. I shudder to see the place ever again. I feel for all of the tribal members having to deal with the chaos . Lets say 1 in 10 drive irresponsibly and 1 in 10 are rude and 1 in 10 steal or deface something and 1 in 10. I think you can see 1 in 10 isnt an unrealistic expectation. Now take all the things everyone hates about having mass strangers and crowds visiting your area and you have a huge problem. Do the math. Then the tribe could afford during mass migrations like Labor day,to pay people to go out tosensitive sites and guard the areas. Pay for drone ,horse,motorcycle patrols. Im sure someone there is contemplating camping fees,,day use fees, The list of problem areas and ways to keep the chaos down are many. Implement new and expanded fees,add security,monitoring etc and jack those fees up. Most (I did not say all)of the people that come to that area come from cali and many can afford alot more than you imagine. For special events, especially that are as impactful as burning man. The tribes and residence should all profit rather than lose as they likely are now.

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  • SinglePly says:

    I hate seeing affluent white people trash the Piute’s lands. It’s sickening and disgusting and racist.

    l left Burning Man this morning and there is trash and wreckage all along Highway 447 as usual. The only way to fix this mess is for the Burning Man Project to initiate 100% directed ticketing to the makers and make the takers stay home. The so called “Cultural Course Correction” in not happening fast enough. The Board of Directors needs to get involved and crack the whip and not leave the fate of Burning Man in the hands of the old guard.

    Is Burning Man for white people to celebrate white people? I’ve been thinking that the very nature of the event is racist.

    Thank you for this article, Will!

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  • Chicky Chick says:

    Not a Burner, but I know several people who are, and I do enjoy learning about Burning Man and the event. It seems to me that these issues Chairman Sampson and Kameron Morgan raise pretty much violate every single one of the 10 Principles Burning Man embraces as a crucial core.
    Every single Burner who attended this year needs to read this and deeply consider whether his/her actions in any way adversely affected these communities. If so, they should send a handwritten letter of apology to Chairman Sampson and donate to any organization that supports these communities.
    What they’re asking of Burners really is no more than simple, everyday care for your fellow beings. Isn’t that part of BM’s core beliefs? Accidents and mistakes happen, yes, but being mindful is, by far, 99% of the battle.
    I think an increase in ticket prices AND a toll would be an appropriate means of helping these communities. Maybe people could also consider going every other year to see the man burn, to help ease the pressure. It’s more important to help these communities care for themselves.

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    • G a.ka. halfdef says:

      Just build it into the ticket price, unless you know of some way to logistically separately conduct collection of tolls in a smooth efficient manner.

      Routinely getting in early in and early out,I never see this. Lots of the stories told here are both surprising and not surprising.

      I wonder if some very large signs, written with thought and wit, and beautifully painted (Burner style art motif perhaps?) posted in Burma shave style sequences, posted along 427 from both I-80 interchanges to where 447 intersects and heads north, and 447 north of Nixon for after burn traffic would have an educational and positive effect on awareness and mindfulness and help mitigate impact?

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  • Andy Daniel says:

    As a long-time Burner whose wife is 50% native (and half of that is Bishop Pauite, a related tribe) I make a point every year to patronize reservation businesses for food, trash, and sometimes a truck wash. I agree that a reasonable surcharge added to each ticket as a payment to the Pauite tribe would be a fair idea. I was myself disgusted seeing the amount of Burner trash on 447, though the worst parts I saw were before we reached Tribal lands.

    I can’t honestly say though that I’ve seen much speeding on Tribal lands, especially in Wadsworth, where the strict speed limits are very well known at least to regular Burners. I do see dangerous driving and unnecessary passing on the 70 mph sections, though.

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  • Mab says:

    Yes, to adding a surcharge specifically for the Paiute tribe to all ticket sales. I would gladly pay this and would go a long way in supporting infrastructure caused by additional volume of people.

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  • Ian Denchasy says:

    It’s time for the Org to get serious about the trash problem. Much like the porto crews can charge RV’s to empty their black/grey water tanks, they must allow trash disposal companies to come in and charge to collect trash bags. I realize it violates the “leave no trace” responsibilities of participants, but it’s better that than the continued littering of these beautiful, sacred lands (not to mention shit just being left at BRC by a-holes)l

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  • Brian Casey says:

    Growing up in Northern Nevada all my life and a long time Burner, I consider Pyramid Lake my second home during the summer and the beautiful Paiute Tribe is gracious enough to allow my family to camp and boat on their lake year after year. My kids grew up at Pyramid Lake and now are going to Burning Man with their parents. PLEASE be courteous and kind to them and their tribal lands. The ruggedness and rawness of the land is the very thing that draws us to BRC. Respect it as you would BRC and your own home. And yes… please raise the ticket price $15-$20 which goes DIRECTLY to the Tribe. I would love to see a scholarship fund started for Paiute youth with money directly from Burning Man participants.

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  • Marie Vlasic says:

    Burner since 2004. I would happily pay a fee to go directly to the Tribe. I have been disgusted every year of the lack of respect of a few “bad apple” burners, even a few impact the people living there a great deal. The tribes deserve to be directly compensated.

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