The coming Symbiosis Gathering – Pyramid Eclipse festival at Pyramid Lake, Nevada is a unique event in many ways, not the least in that it is held on the tribal grounds of the Paiute people. The Northern Paiute of this area also refer to themselves as Numa (“the people”) or Paviotso. The Paiute are one of three related tribal groups, which extend to the Mohave and into Oregon and have a history that goes back some 40,000 years.

The site for the festival itself is an area that is away from the native burial grounds, but the sensitivities of the native peoples meeting the desires of 8,000 incoming festival goers have been engendering a lively debate concerning the possible impact on sacred land.

On one hand, the Paiute tribal council supports the event and measures are being taken by Paiute tribal elders to make sure that sites of particular spiritual significance are not disturbed. They will also be conducting the appropriate ceremonies before and after the event with representatives of the festival organizers. On the other, some tribal members have used Facebook and other means to express their personal concerns. One Paiute tribal member, Wakan Waci Blindman, expressed in one very active Facebook thread, “What concerns me is that there are spirits out there and when u bring in different substances and people who are partaking of these substances then those spirits that are already there are being disturbed!” Since that posting, a meeting between Wakan and Symbiosis organizer Kevin Hochen has been arranged to discuss these concerns, the most significant of which is the abuse of substances and alcohol on tribal lands. Alcohol for personal consumption is allowed at the gathering and all along the shore of Pyramid Lake, but nonetheless this concern and sensitivity is real.

The process here is a creative culture clash. The Neo-Tribal dance community, which has an approximately 20-year-old span of development, has long been enamored of a glamorized, idealized tribal existence that nods to the indigenous experience, but doesn’t always have the time or the education to deal with the actual complexities of tribal protocol and history.

Some history of Pyramid Lake:

If you are going to be attending the Symbiosis Gathering, here is some specific historical background to Pyramid Lake. The Pyramid Lake region experienced contact by European-Americans beginning in the 1820s. According to Wikipedia, this eventually erupted into “the Pyramid Lake War of 1860, Owens Valley Indian War 1861-1864, Snake War 1864-1868; and the Bannock War of 1878. These incidents generally began with a disagreement between settlers and the Paiute (singly or in a group) regarding property, retaliation by one group against the other, and finally counter-retaliation by the opposite party, frequently culminating in the armed involvement of the U.S. Army. Many more Paiutes died from newly introduced infectious diseases such as smallpox than in warfare.”

The Pyramid Lake War is the single greatest confrontation between Native Americans and European-Americans in Nevada’s history. It was caused by the onrush of thousands of settlers to the Washoe country, lured by reports of valuable silver and gold deposits in the Comstock Lode, combined with the lack of any effective organized government in the area. By the spring of 1860, the influx of often unruly European-Americans approximately equaled the Northern Paiute population in the area, impinging on their scarce resources and food supply. At present the area around Pyramid Lake is an Indian reservation of about 2,000 enrolled members centered on Pyramid Lake, which comprises 25% of the reservation area. This means that these people will be dwarfed in numbers by the incoming 8,000 festival goers. Consider what this would feel like as a member of that community.

A history of conflict with incomers is far from unique to the Pauite. The history of First Nation peoples in the United States has included genocide followed by forced relocation, broken treaties and, in some cases, near internment in concentration-camp-like conditions. In this cultural environment, alcoholism, suicide and unemployment have been pervasive problems for many indigenous nations. Last month, the US Department of Justice and Department of the Interior announced a $1 billion settlement for approximately 56 million acres of Native land to be held in federal trust, but exploited for commercial interests with little benefit to the tribes. It is only as recently as May 4 that James Anaya, the UN special reporter on the rights of indigenous peoples, called for the return of certain sacred tribal lands, including the Black Hills of Dakota, back to their native custodians.

Given this background, it would be appropriate if the dance community demonstrated maturity and sensitivity in coming to tribal land and contribute to what James Anaya has called a “process of reconciliation.” This would generally begin with a willingness to listen with patience and without defensiveness to the needs and concerns of the Numa and asking what these are with specific focus on what the native protocols are to the region. These are not something to question; rather, the intent is to demonstrate understanding and respect towards those who are hosting us on the land voluntarily or involuntarily.

A group of peacekeepers from attendees of the festival and a number of tribes will be meeting daily during the festival. Additionally, workshops related to sharing Paiute history, cultural survival and sensitivity are being planned. For example, Carmen Gonzalez (Diné), an Environmental Protection Specialist and Permaculture Designer, will be presenting a workshop on her work with the Western Shoshone and Paiute Doi Dicutta Community Project and will talk about finding ways to implement wide-scale permaculture to help tribes embody sovereignty.


Festiquette Meets Tribal Protocol

Modesty and sobriety are important and ubiquitous parts of Native American spiritual practice. From a casual Burner/raver perspective, this could be misinterpreted as prudishness and inhibition, whereas the native peoples can feel that the land itself is not being treated sacredly when they encounter partying extroverts.

Given the circumstances and honoring the protocol of the land where Symbiosis is happening, it might be something worth considering to choose to forsake alcohol and substances and really show the Paiute that there is something more to this culture than partying. Of course it may be impossible for everyone to go in this direction but consider what this sacrifice could mean: a true show of solidarity with indigenous people and respect being given for their sacred land. For those who do choose to use substances and alcohol it would be good if they were to exercise great discretion and consider that Paiute children and youth may be exposed to their behavior throughout the event and either positively or negatively influenced by what they see. Not only this, but the festival will be enforced by tribal officers from the reservation, which should be well understood by all attendees.

It is also important to bear in mind is that in bringing ceremony to tribal land it is customary to ask permission from the elders to use that land, as well as to begin ceremony by honoring the ancestors, spirits and directions of that place. Asking permission is not an optional add-on to ceremony for native peoples; it is a fundamental pre-requisite. In the syncretic traditions of the emergent dance culture, there is sometimes a sense of entitlement that leads us to thinking that we can just go with what’s “feeling” right. We are used to making things up as we go along. On tribal land, the rules are different; the dance community is a guest. The best way to show the respect for our invitation to be present on this special land at this potent time is an attitude of reverence towards the beliefs and practices of our Paiute hosts which are their way, in turn, of showing reverence to the land. If this permission is given it is a good opportunity to share our expressions of spirituality but it must be remembered that anything that resembles cultural appropriation may inspire a continuation of distrust from some indigenous peoples.

This is not the place to get publicly naked or intoxicated as part of your own, personal “shamanic” ceremony. And this is definitely not the place to bring that crazy Indian headdress you got from the costume store and wore at the Burn one year!  If you want to know more, read this excellent blog.

The issues of Neo-Tribal dance culture meeting tribal reality are not unique to Symbiosis: the Lightning in a Bottle festival, held the week after the eclipse, is also held on ancestral territories, in this case those of the Acjachemen Nation, Juaneno Band of Mission Indians. A representative of this nation, Angela Mooney D’Arcy, stated on a panel at Lightning in a Bottle last year that ignoring the tribal protocols of the land was having an impact: “This act of erasure has particularly significant consequences in the environmental movement as much of the work of indigenous people is around protecting our remaining places of cultural and spiritual importance.”

The Ghost Dance

The Ghost Dance, an important spiritual revival movement amongst native peoples that involved trance dancing and prophesying, began among the Nevada Paiute in 1889. The practice then swept throughout much of the Western United States.

What is particularly significant about the timing of Symbiosis being held during an eclipse and on tribal land is that Jack Wilson, the Pauite prophet known as Wovoka, received the vision of the Ghost Dance during a solar eclipse on January 1, 1889. Wovoka was a true visionary who spoke of creating peace with the invading Europeans and the creation of a new cross-cultural coexistence. He preached that if the five-day dance was performed in the proper intervals, the performers would secure their happiness and hasten the reunion of the living and deceased.

While most followers of the Ghost Dance understood Wovoka’s role as being that of a teacher of pacifism and peace, others did not. Some danced for the death and defeat of the European-Americans. The Ghost Dance and the U.S. Army’s attempt to suppress the Ghost Dance also played a major role in the death of Sitting Bull and the Wounded Knee Massacre.  

The history of the Ghost Dance is complex and goes beyond the scope of this article, but it would be remiss not to mention its origins and its resonance with the timing of the Symbiosis festival. A potent moment awaits those who attend and gives all the more reason for walking a path together of respect for this scared tribal land and the customs and beliefs of its native custodians.

A statement from William R. Crutcher, Paiute Tribal Elder about Symbiosis Gathering:

“My name is William R. Crutcher and along with Mr. Steve Johnson we are representatives of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Cultural Resources Management Program to monitor the Symbiosis Festival. We are both Tribal members and I am also a Tribal elder. Our reports and findings are congruent with the Tribal Discovery and Disposition Policies set forth in the Cultural Resources Management Program. This area’s designation as the “special” events venue for the Symbiosis Festival was granted for two reasons that I am aware of:

(1) It is located in a large alluvial fan where to our knowledge no ancestral gatherings were held and no repatriation of artifacts or remains has taken place.

(2) This designated area was used for the “Ranch Rock” concert in 1986 so this same land has previously been designated for such events and may be again in the future.

A blessing of the land and a prayer for our World community visitors was performed by Dean Barlese, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) representative along with Symbiosis’ Kevin Kochen, Bosque Hrbek and myself. At the conclusion of the event clean up, a similar ceremony will be conducted to pray for the site and put everything back in its place in a good way, so the original balance may take place. On a personal note, I would like to welcome the World Community as our guests. Take in what is good for you from this gathering, enjoy this unique, historical event and safe travels.”

-William R. Crutcher, Cultural Monitor Tribal Elder