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Water ways: the Paiutes’ stake in Pyramid Lake is beyond practical

Christopher Smith

The water level lines of Pyramid Lake are visible on the pyramid for which it was named. It's one of the area's many tufa rock formations, which are calcium carbonate deposits that accumulate at the mouth of a spring from lake water or a mixture of spring and lake water.

A 15-year drought has added the term “bathtub ring” to the Southern Nevada vernacular, referring to the white watermark around the edge of Lake Mead that shows how much its surface level has dropped since the rainy ’90s. The Northern Nevadans of Pyramid Lake feel our pain, from as far back as 1905, when the construction of Derby Dam diverted the Truckee River away from Pyramid and its sister lake, Winnemucca. Winnemucca — and all but one (Walker Lake) of the other smaller water bodies that once comprised the prehistoric Great Lahontan Lake system northeast of Reno — has since disappeared. Although Pyramid survived, its surface level dropped 80 feet immediately after the dam was built.

And, at around 3,760 feet above sea level today, it continues to decline, for the same reasons Lake Mead does: climate change, drought, evaporation and a faster rate of depletion than replenishment. This has its owners, the nearly 2,700 members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, concerned. Descendants of the Northern Paiute people who have occupied large swaths of the Great Basin for millennia, the Pyramid Paiutes earn revenue from recreational permits for boating, fishing and swimming on the lake. These activities—particularly fishing — have been essential parts of their own culture, too, for many generations.

But there’s another reason they’re disconcerted by their lake’s slow-motion disappearance, a less practical, tangible one. It defines them, literally. Billie Jean Guerrero, director of the Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitors Center, explained it to Desert Companion during the editorial staff’s visit to the lake as part of the Great Big Road Trip.

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You’re Paiute, correct?

Yes, I’m a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, and I also have roots with the Walker River Paiute Tribe through my dad. So, I’ve lived in this area most of my life.

As museum director and a member of the Paiute Tribe, what are your greatest concerns right now?

The level of the water in the lake is very concerning, because, basically, Pyramid Lake is our identity, being the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. So, if we no longer have a lake, it also influences out cultural identity and who we are as a people. It has an effect on our ways of life and our practices from a long time ago, because, as I was explaining to a group earlier this morning, our tribal elders fought very much so that our lake water could be maintained, and to us, water represents life.

Do you mean water represents life in the sense that it sustains a community?

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Water is sacred, so as young children, we’re taught, before we even enter into the lake, that we first of all pray and bless ourselves for safety and protection. So, without the lake water and its cultural significance in regard to healing and having good health and having a good future, we’re going to be lacking. And, too, I think it will create a major loss, not only to us, but also in the eyes of our ancestors, who fought to retain the natural beauty of the lake.

What is your role in avoiding that?

Our role is to educate people about the cultural and historical relevance of the tribe and how our ancestors survived. Our ancestors survived mostly because of the lake and the fishery that was there. That was one of the staple foods. And also, this time of year, in the spring, when the fish were spawning, that brought other tribal people from other areas to our lake, and then there was a lot of socializing that went on, so it does play a big role in those kinds of activities or events. There would be a lot of song and dance, storytelling, people sharing with one another.

And does the lake, in addition to its cultural and symbolic significance, still provide tangible sustenance?

We still have people that fish. And it is also a draw for local and national people to come in and just something to enjoy. Quiet time. They love fishing at the lake. We have seven different types of fish here, and as our rangers explained to us earlier, some of the fish are catch-and-release, so they have ways to keep track of them (the Lahontan Cutthroat Trout and Cui-ui of the Pyramid are both on the endangered species list). They’re actually on the lakeshore, and as the fishermen catch them they measure them and put them back into the lack.

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What does the lake mean to you personally?

I like that we have a lot of natural beauty here, and also that we have a number of cultural sites… I think it’s very important because through that, through educating the public, we can promote respect of our area.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and KNPR's State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022. In 2024, CEO Favian Perez promoted Heidi to managing editor, charged with integrating the Desert Companion and State of Nevada newsroom operations.