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On the road to Pyramid: Day 10

Dawn at Pyramid

Pre-sunrise at Pyramid Lake

On a cool morning with just a hint of light showing in the east, I drive down the lake, find a spot to get off the road, and leave the car to head for the shore line.

It’s quiet out here this time of day. In the spring, they say migratory birds make a fuss when they nest on Anaho Island, a federally protected wildlife preserve. In February, there aren’t many birds about, although you will see a few grace the sky.

Life in the sand

But there’s life out here. I catch glimpses of a rabbit and some smaller animals I can’t quite identify. A lone coyote’s yip lingers for a bit somewhere up the mountain. And there are tracks all over the sand, paw prints, size 9’s, off road tread. All kinds of life take their turns at different times of the day.

The sun starts its journey through the sky as I pick my way down the beach, over rocks, and up embankments. It’s a privilege to be here and witness an eternal rite of day breaking in the desert.

Sunrise on the lake

The Stone Mother

I hoped for an opportunity to do some things like accompany one of the tribal rangers on his rounds through the reservation’s varied landscape, but it didn’t work out. I was disappointed, but everything worked out for the best. A couple of things we might not have had time for otherwise presented themselves this day.

It was an honor for me to hear the origin story told by the people here. In abbreviated form, it goes thus: Woman married Man and had many children. The children fought, so Man dispersed them in many directions and a few stayed at Pyramid Lake. Man went away also. Woman was so sad and lonely for her family that she laid her basket down, sat, and cried for her children. Her tears filled the salty lake. She and her basket turned to stone, and she waits by the shore today.

The Stone Mother

We drove several miles on a dirt road, and then walked the remaining couple of hundred yards before we caught sight of the Stone Mother and the Pyramid rock for which the lake is named. We had seen the landmarks from a boat on our earlier trip, but approaching them, we newly appreciated their larger than anticipated size and wonder.

It’s hard to explain the emotions we felt in this spot so important to the Paiute people.

The Pyramid Rock

Our time here was too short; we had another appointment.

A Living Lesson

Reynelda James was born on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation and learned many of the ways her people used to survive for thousands of years in this seemingly barren desert.

We met at Saint Mary Church and she offered to visit with us and share some of her experience. Monday morning I contacted her on the phone for her address to plug into my Garmin magic road map (GPS). She instead told me I needed take a certain turn outside of town and drive seven miles to the end of the road. And there it was, a nice place in the country where they keep livestock and the friendly dogs that met us when we drove up.

Mrs. James was gracious in opening her home, where we met her daughter and later a grandson. This was a day off from her job teaching the Paiute language to high school students in nearby Sparks, Nevada. She recounted periods of her life, including several years in an Indian boarding school.

She said she didn’t know they weren’t supposed to speak their native language. She and a friend would converse in it while in their room. If they had been caught, punishment would have followed. The students also did all the work at the school, including cooking, cleaning, and at jobs providing food and money for the school. Boarding schools came out of the government’s misguided attempt to “assimilate” Native Americans into the dominant culture. “Kill the Indian and save the man,” was the mantra. There were a few bright spots, but boarding schools caused a lot of harm. Run an internet search on “Indian boarding schools” for more information.

When Mrs. James married and began a family, she and her husband decided to let their children speak only English to make it easier for them. She regrets that the language was lost in their generation and works to revive it in the young. She showed us the text and workbooks they use in language class, and here I made a mistake.

The construction of the language was fascinating to me, and I thought it might be useful in my new work, which takes place partly on the reservation. When I asked whether I could buy a copy Mrs. James looked uncomfortable. In a moment she replied she might be able to get me one if I would promise not to use it in a work or publish it.

In the history of European and Native American interaction one thing has been common. The Europeans came, saw, and wanted what the natives had, and they decided they had a right to it. First the land and resources, then other things like culture and religion. From the “complimentary” use of team mascots (Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Washington Redskins, Florida Seminoles, Utah Utes) to product names (Tecumseh lawn mower engines, Indian Motorcyles, Crazy Horse Beer) to new age religion (you can attend a genuine “sweat” ceremony run by pretend natives), non-Indians have appropriated and used even the names and spirituality of Native Americans to sell products and make themselves feel better.

When I asked this question, I can only imagine the apprehension Mrs. James felt about this information being used for my gain. I withdrew my request and determined to be more sensitive in the future.

We continued the meeting and it was good. After spending most of the afternoon in this dear lady’s home it was almost time to go, but she had something else for us.

Mrs. James roasted for us some pinion pine nuts, a staple for her people for all those years. It was a primary source of nutrition over the long, cold, dry winters. They used to meet where the pines grew at an annual harvest for which there was a special dance and joyous celebration. Now they must buy the nuts for ten dollars a pound. In any event, she was generous in sharing this precious food and roasting method with us.

We went on our way, joyful at meeting and getting to know this wonderful woman and her family.

Close to the End

A stiff, cold wind blew when we made it back to Pyramid. We talked about leaving for home an evening early and beating the bad weather we feared, but it was late so we shopped for family gifts at Crosby’s and ate a quick meal in our room. We packed and went to bed tired, but happy with the people and places we had seen.

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