- Historic Sites
“here In Nevada A Terrible Crime …”
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
That might have been the end of the story, except that the Pyramid Lake Paiutes did not vanish. In the ig6o’s the Indians, gaining new voice, unity, and self-assertiveness, began an eleventhhour fight to save their lake. That struggle, still being waged, is based essentially on a Supreme Court ruling made for other tribes. In 1908 and again in 1963 the Court decided that when the United States government established Indian reservations, it also reserved, by implication, sufficient water in any streams running through a reservation to carry out the purposes of that reservation. Under this so-called Winters’ Doctrine (after the name of the 1908 case), the Pyramid Lake Reservation had a first-priority right to all the water necessary for its purposes.
But to date the Department of the Interior, still responding to the Bureau of Reclamation and Nevada’s non-Indian pressures rather than to the Paiutes’ rights, has compounded its original dereliction of responsibility by refusing to undertake court action for the Indians, and the latter have neither the financial means nor the hydrological and other technical expertise necessary to go to court on their own. Moreover, they have been kept on the defensive by an unending series of maneuvers on the part of white water users designed to prevent them, or the federal government as their trustee, from ever going to court for more water for Pyramid Lake. A tangle of decrees, statutes, regulations, and water rights and laws have been used to deceive and thwart them, while the Department of the Interior claims that its hands are tied and does nothing.
The Indians view the tortuous fight for their lake not just as a struggle for what rightfully belongs to them but as a matter of life and death. “Land without water is like a body without blood,” says their tribal leader, thirty-two-year-old James Vidovich, an electrical worker and descendant of a Paiute who received the family’s surname from a Yugoslav employer. Vidovich lives with some five hundred members of his tribe just south of where the Truckee flows into Pyramid Lake. His people, energetic and selfreliant, have had long association with the whites; save when a trip to town or other occasion calls for a suit, the Indians dress in jeans, boots, and widebrimmed hats like most other persons in the outdoor areas of Nevada. Their reservation today comprises a total of 475,086 acres and includes the lake itself (which presently covers 107,900 acres), a band of barren and mountainous country entirely surrounding it, and a panhandle of land extending about seventeen miles along the lower Truckee. Two small towns, Nixon, where the tribal headquarters are located, and Wadsworth, lie in the panhandle.
Although most of the Indians’ land is arid, with irrigation some of the strip south of the lake can be farmed and grazed. So far the Indians have opened somewhat fewer than eight hundred acres of bottomland to irrigation, principally for raising hay for cattle and horses; but the tribe has been unable to afford to irrigate the higher land, and the federal government has yet to grant financial assistance, despite its promise to do so. Moreover, the Paiutes at heart are not farmers or stockmen.
Thus the lake, with its cui-ui and artificially planted fish which must be periodically restocked, is still their major resource, and along with the fish for food, it now provides 75 per cent of their tribal income through the sale of fishing and boating permits to whites. (Other income is derived from cattle and from part-time jobs on ranches or in the cities. Still, in 1967 almost 70 per cent of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes were unemployed, and 52 per cent of their families had incomes under $2,000 a year.) And should the lake be preserved, there is a new promise for the future: the orderly development of shorefront recreation facilities, strictly controlled by the tribe in limited areas on the lake, can, according to a recent survey, provide steady jobs for the unemployed and make the reservation economically self-sustaining. Outside capital is available for such development, but not for a lake whose shoreline is gradually declining. And so, as the money waits for the lake’s decline to be halted, the Paiutes have been pressing their case.
Their principal rival for the Truckee’s water, the Newlands Project, was originally planned to irrigate 232,800 acres of desert with water from the Truckee, and another 137,000 acres with water from the Carson River, which runs somewhat parallel to, and south of, the Truckee. The available supply of water, however, was grossly overestimated, and since its inception, the project has never had more than 50,000–60,000 acres under irrigation with water from both rivers. Sixty-five years after its beginning, the project today looks like an old, settled farm area, with many grassy pastures, fields, gardens, and stands of trees, all watered by canals, and new and old barns and farm and ranch houses shaded by trees and fronting on the highways and secondary roads that lace the district. Except at its edges, where the project borders on sagebrush desert and muddy flats where temporary flooding occurs, a visitor might imagine he was almost anywhere in the rural Midwest.