A Message from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to All BRC Citizens

An interview with Chairman Phoenix
from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has been residents and stewards of the land in and around the Black Rock Desert for millennia. Their ancestral homeland is the same area that nearly 80,000 of us travel through in August and September on our way to and from Black Rock City. 

This is a post in our 2023 Back to Black Rock City series — covering a spread of topics we hope get you excited as you prep to head back to the dust.

We reached out to the new chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to learn about the Tribe’s perception of Burning Man, how Burners are received in the Paiute community, in what ways the yearly flow of traffic impacts residents, and how we can do better. 

During our interview, Chairman Phoenix generously shared his views both as an elected representative of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe today, and from his experience as a Tribal police officer in the 1990s, when Burning Man had just moved to the Black Rock Desert from Baker Beach in San Francisco. Here’s what he shared:

Image of Chairman Phoenix (Photo by Nonstar Photography)

What is life like in your community year-round, and what is important to your community throughout the year? 

Chairman Phoenix: We live a nice, easy, simple, quiet life out here at Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Reservation. The setting for most of the community is just like any other community — we are very active with families, community events, and enjoyment of the desert lake atmosphere. 

In the summer, we have the lake and what it brings to our people. In the winter, we have our dedicated fishermen who love to fish the lake. 

In the spring, we enjoy the blossoming of the flowers on the desert floor. Life year-round here is content. That is one of the things that we enjoy about being out here at the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation — we’re away from the city, and we really enjoy the lifestyle that we live out here.

What is unique about your community? 

What is unique about the Pyramid Lake community is the people, and the history of our people. We are the Numu People, the Kooye tukuda, the Cui-ui fish eaters. We have been in existence for over 10,000 years in the Great Basin. Our people have been here for a long, long time, and that’s what makes us unique — we’re the original inhabitants of that Great Basin.

What was your introduction to the Burning Man event? 

My introduction to the Burning Man event started back in the 1990s when I was a tribal police officer for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. 

I would observe the vehicle traffic of the Burners on State Route 447. Some would be so exhausted from the event and be parked on the side of the road to catch some sleep. I would stop and check on them, and they would go on about their experience out at the Black Rock Desert. And of course, their signature was their vehicles covered with that Black Rock Desert dust.

What were those interactions like back in the ’90s?

Most of the contacts that I had were pleasant. A lot of them were just totally exhausted and dehydrated, and they were broken down with their vehicles on the side of the road because they didn’t plan for the desert environment. Usually they were just stuck or they needed some help, or they needed some Zs just to get back home. But even back then in the 90s, the Burning Man traffic through our towns was out of the ordinary. That was something that we as police and as a community had to deal with.

Have you been to Burning Man? 

I have not made the time over the years to get out to the Burning Man event. However, this year I will make time, thanks to the Burning Man organization, as I was offered to go out and experience it firsthand, and get a grand tour of the place. I am looking forward to it. 

Do some community members attend Black Rock City? 

Yes, there are community members who attend and look forward to the event every year. They plan for it. 

Please describe what it’s like for your community when Burning Man takes place — what are some challenges the town and community experience? 

Well it’s like, “Here comes the Burners — get ready for it.”

Some of the challenges are the high volume of vehicle traffic that passes through our small communities. Specifically, Wadsworth and Nixon. 

In the past, there have been large amounts of trash and debris left along the side of the road, or dumped and left abandoned for our tribal employees to clean up. 

And some Burners not paying their use fees when they visit Pyramid Lake for the day on their way to and from the event.

What does your community think about Burning Man? 

The influx of traffic has grown and grown over the years, which is something that’s a little irritating and a little tough for some, and worrisome for others. But most of the community has adapted and adjusted to the influx of vehicle traffic — that’s going to be a constant. Some take this as an opportunity to benefit as a vendor, and others look forward to attending and being a part of the event. But still, some others are irritated by the constant traffic and disruption of their daily routine. It’s about three to four weeks of constant traffic for us from the Burning Man event, which is an extreme challenge for us just for our daily routine to get to work.

Are there any new concerns that have recently arisen over the last year?

Over the years Burning Man has continued to improve relations and address our concerns. It seems to be getting better.

One of the newer concerns is low-flying aircraft that fly over the lake, and some may even dip into the water. Really, we don’t care for that at all. It’s a nuisance to the community. For any aircraft — many drones, but some planes and helicopters — we ask you to please obey the rules of the FAA and not fly over the designated wilderness areas, our sacred areas that are important to us, or areas that are closed. This is a concern of the community.

In general, we remind the Burning Man community to be respectful and clean up after yourselves. Think of it as if this was your own home and your own place, and treat it with the utmost respect.

Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe land acknowledgment and blessing during the closing ceremony in October, after playa completion of Playa Restoration. Blessing participants, left to right: Tony Perez (Coyote), Crimson Rose, Michael Black (Crow), Steve Cabrera (Cherub), Colby Perez-Waters, Keenyn Reed, Lisa Beers (Scirpus), Will Roger, Carol Sanders, Donna Cossette, Stacey Black (Keeper); In front: Conner Black, Amarah Gibson, Dean Barlese, and Misty Youngbear (Photo by Melissa Waters)

Is there anything beneficial that your community enjoys about that time? 

The tickets that Burning Man Project provides to the Tribe allow those who are dedicated and love to go, to attend and enjoy the experience of Burning Man — they look forward to it every year. They want to make sure that they get their time to be there — they benefit by being out there and interacting with the community. We hear a lot of good things on social media about their experiences.

We also appreciate that Burning Man Project has contracted with the community to help pay for the services that we provide — especially EMS, police, and fire — it is a very busy time for them. 

This is a good opportunity to talk to Black Rock City participants. What do you want them to know? 

The Pyramid Lake community would like for all Burners to be respectful as you pass through our towns. Reduce your speed and be patient — you don’t do yourself any good being in a hurry to get to the event (or home from it) if you get into an accident and injure yourself or others. Please stay on designated roads. There are areas that are closed to the public for a reason. Please respect that. Take your time getting where you’re going, be respectful to others on the highway you share, and do not pass other vehicles. Remember you’re passing through Paiute homeland, so please be respectful.

To avoid debris flying from your vehicle, make sure you secure your vehicle and your load before you leave. Test everything before you hit the road to make sure that no debris flies off as you’re headed home. And if something does fly off your vehicle, please pull over and pick it up. Or if your vehicle breaks down, ensure there is no debris left behind.

“Please clean up after yourselves and respect our homeland. This is our home now and forever in the existence of our people.” 

If you come to the lake, take in the view, use the water to bless yourself and pray in a good way.

And lastly, as you come out to experience Black Rock City and be a part of the Burning Man event, please be prepared and plan accordingly. Over the years, the communication between the Burning Man community and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has improved, so let’s keep it going that way. 

You mentioned Burning Man participants visiting Pyramid Lake — what is the best way for folks to do that if they’re interested?

We would like you to pre-register, and pay for your permit in advance. Go online and do so before you arrive, because cell phone service is spotty out here. 

And then if you’re passing through (again the fundamentals of when you’re going anywhere!), please be respectful to our homeland and clean up after yourselves. Don’t leave debris or trash along the way on your way home. Please slow down and go the speed limit as you pass through the west side of the lake. Don’t be in a hurry — you will get home! You just have to do so safely. 

Also, there are no nude beaches at the lake. Please be clothed or wear appropriate swimwear. 

Do you feel that Burning Man participants are generally respectful to your community? 

Over the years, relations between our communities have improved, and we only expect it to get better. 

You have a commitment to us. You’re listening to our concerns and addressing them, communicating to the Burning Man community that there’s an expectation every time you come through the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation, that you slow down and are respectful to our home as if it were your own. 

We appreciate that the Burning Man community is generally following the rules and being patient on the highway, and cleaning up after themselves. It’s the way of the Burner!

As long as Burning Man is going to be in existence, the Black Rock City event is not going to go away — we look forward to the event, organization, and community to continue to improve and make things better for all of us.

What can Burning Man participants do to support your community year-round? 

Like for any community, you can volunteer to help clean up the beaches, or the highway.

We also always welcome donations to our community, which would be used to support Tribal priorities and recreation and visitor facilities. To make a donation to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, please contact Brenda Henry, Tribal Secretary at (775) 574-1000 or email at tribalsecretary@plpt.nsn.us.

Is there anything else you want the participants of Black Rock City to know or keep in mind? 

I wanted to thank you for this opportunity to express the concerns we have as a community around this event. 

As a last message to the participants of Black Rock City, please always be respectful and obey rules and laws. Go the speed limit, slow down on the way to and from the event. 

And finally, enjoy the experience of being a Burner. If you prepare yourself and plan accordingly, your experience will be enjoyable.

Chairman Phoenix in traditional Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe regalia at a powwow (Image courtesy of Chairman Phoenix)

Cover image of the Pyramid and Anaho Island, view on top of a hill on the Pyramid Lake Reservation (Photo by Scott Carey)

About the author: Leslie Moyer

Leslie Moyer

As Senior Communications Manager, Leslie’s focus is on designing and executing communications for Black Rock City participants, both on-playa and year-round. Leslie came to Burning Man Project from the nonprofit environmental sector, where she developed her communications chops by convincing people there was more to environmental sustainability than screwing in an LED light bulb and tossing single-use plastic packaging into the recycling bin. Leslie and her crew are responsible for the giant flaming BORiNG sign seen on playa since 2011, inspired by vintage Las Vegas casino signs and a healthy sense of irony. Leslie first attended Burning Man in 2004, and she’s been back every year since, joining Burning Man Project’s year-round staff in 2019.

13 Comments on “A Message from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe to All BRC Citizens

  • Thomas (the Bishop) Andrejko says:

    Thank you for this well written informative article.

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  • Jon Broholm says:

    The importance of good relations with our Tribal neighbors can’t be over-emphasized. Much gratitude to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and the Burning Man Org.

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  • Kim Buonocore says:

    I appreciated hearing the response of the Paiute
    Tribal organization to the event and the burningman
    Community- communication of concerns is vital to a productive and enduring relationship.

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  • Thomas Blacketor says:

    Thank you

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  • Papa Penguin says:

    This is a well-timed article with much sound advice from the Chairman and I am glad he will be able to attend this year.

    Slowing down and being respectful is always a good idea, especially while driving through someone’s yard on the way to their house. Let us see how good of a neighbor we can be this year.

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  • Dee Thompson says:

    So grateful for this article and the ways Chairman Phoenix named how the Paiute Tribe is affected by the event and the best way to respect/honor the land and its people. It is our collective responsibility to move through the land with respect and honor for those who have lived there since time immemorial.

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  • Laurens says:

    Yes, it indeed seems to be a good idea for Jim and Phoenix to attend. Rather curious what he will think after.

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  • Kismet Collins says:

    Great article.
    How are we going to address his very valid concern about noise pollution from planes and drones?

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  • Adrian Stimson says:

    Oki Nuksukuwa! Hello all my relations in Blackfoot, I am a long time burner (15yrs) who travels from the Siksika Nation (Blackfoot) in Southern Alberta Canada. I am so pleased to hear the good relationship that Burning Man has with the Paiute Tribe! Great article and thank you to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe for their generous and hospitable welcome to their lands. Kind regards Buffalo Boy! (aka Adrian Stimson)

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  • Davy. Vargo says:

    Great article.Good to see that relations are fruitful and are talking and listening to each other. I hope many people read this article and join in on keeping the relationship fruitful.

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  • Katy Firefly says:

    It would be wonderful to know if a percentage of the proceeds from the BM tickets go towards the reservation?

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  • Michael guidry says:

    I look forward to working with and being apart of the solution and not the problem.

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  • Finley T Wise says:

    I wish there was a link for online donations to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe! Maybe to be included next year? I bet there would be a major influx of donations if it were as easy as a click (rather than a phone call or an email–– which is still easy, I know :).

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