Nevada Tribe Faces Water, Environment, Cultural Challenges | California News

By JESSICA HILL, Las Vegas Sun

FALLON, Nev. (AP) — Cathy Williams-Tuni looks over the Lahontan Valley from Rattlesnake Hill.

Small houses and fields of alfalfa sit on the valley floor, where long irrigation canals flow with water.

Williams-Tuni, the chair of the Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of the Fallon Reservation and Colony, points in the direction of a military base seeking to expand on land important to the tribe.

In the opposite direction, about 75 miles away, is a proposed geothermal project that could ruin hot springs the tribe’s ancestors used for healing.

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She points to the irrigation canals that serve as a lifeline for some tribal members who depend on farming.

Members of the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe call themselves the “toi-ticutta,” which means “cattail eaters.”

Early tribe members lived in the marshes and wetlands of what is now Northern Nevada and relied on cattails for everything.

Now, the toi-ticutta are facing many battles: a fight to preserve their land, a fight to keep their water rights, and a fight to maintain their culture.

This weekend, the tribe is hosting its first powwow in 18 years, Williams-Tuni said, where people will gather and meet one another.

“I’m not really a powwow person,” she told the Las Vegas Sun. “But when I go I feel like I’m home. I’m proud.… It’s going to be a big coming home for us.”

Ancestors of the Paiute-Shoshone have lived in the area for millennia, relying on the marshland for water supply and using cattails to build houses, clothing and baskets.

Williams-Tuni’s grandmother, like many children of the tribe, had a willow bark skirt.

The tribe’s land is fragmented with the colony on one side of Rattlesnake Hill and the reservation on the other.

Williams-Tuni, 63, says there was a time when Rattlesnake Hill was filled with water, but the lake has long dried up.

The cattails are still around, but because of the pesticides farmers use in the irrigation system, they’re no longer plentiful, she said.

The struggle for water continues.

The tribe, which has 1,567 members and about 500 people living on the reservation, orders irrigation water through the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District, which is a political subdivision of the state of Nevada that operates dams at Lake Tahoe and diversion dams on the Truckee River.

But the tribe doesn’t have a way to properly store its supply when the canals bringing water from Truckee River run dry, the result of the tribe not being able to withdraw more than 10,692.85 acre-feet of water a year.

Help appears to be on the way.

An agreement is in place between the tribe, the federal bureaus of Reclamation and Indian Affairs, and the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District to bring and store water more efficiently, said Leanna Hale, the tribe’s land and water manager.

“You always have to make improvements,” Hale said.

There’s a plan to improve what’s called the “S-Line Reservoir,” or the rattlesnake reservoir, by lining it with a geomembrane to better hold water.

The tribe also wants to coordinate with the Bureau of Land Management to create a new route behind Rattlesnake Hill that connects the tribe’s reservation and colony together so that nontribal members cannot take the water — a big problem the tribe is facing, as nontribal members sometimes use more than the tribe.

“That’s just one of the goals (we) have deep in our hearts,” Williams-Tuni said.

There are about 47 tribal families who farm, and the tribe also farms, Hale said.

Irrigation for the area usually starts arriving in early April, said Williams-Tuni, who has three fields near the end of the reservation on which she grows hay.

Every year the tribe gets a water card from the irrigation district saying it has a certain amount of water it can use.

Typically, Williams-Tuni gets three to four good harvests each season.

But due to the drought last year, she and the other farmers decided to shoot for one really good first crop because they weren’t sure how much water the tribe would get and when they would get cut off.

“We have to be cautious of how we irrigate,” she said.

About 43 miles from the reservation, the Dixie Meadows hot springs have been used by tribe members for healing and medicinal purposes for centuries, Williams-Tuni said.

The tribe’s ancestors roamed that area for hunting and gathering, and a lot of artifacts and burials remain in the area.

“They are still pristine,” she said. “People go for prayers and blessings.… We always give an offering to Mother Earth, whether it’s some cedar, (and say) ‘thank you for taking care of us.’”

But the tribe worries that a geothermal project could change all that.

Ormat Technologies Inc., a renewable energy company in Reno, wants to construct a geothermal project that would include two 30-megawatt geothermal power plants and would help meet the state and the country’s renewable energy goals.

Geothermal projects use underground heat produced by the Earth to generate electricity. They involve pumping water and extracting the heat, and are usually next to hot springs.

The Dixie Valley project calls for the drilling of up to 18 production and injection wells, as well as the construction of pipelines for the geothermal fluids.

In December 2021 the tribe filed a lawsuit with the Center for Biological Diversity against the Bureau of Land Management for approving the project.

The lawsuit contends the project would harm the Dixie Valley toad, a rare species found only in the area. A federal judge ordered that construction be halted for 90 days after the lawsuit was filed.

The tribe is not against renewable energy, Hale said, but there needs to be a balance between protecting the environment and the tribe’s culture with the need for energy.

The Dixie Valley toad was granted temporary emergency protection in April, for 240 days, under the Endangered Species Act, although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to extend the protection longer.

The tribe’s lawyers are going to federal court in June for an update on the lawsuit, Williams-Tuni said.

When she recently went to the hot spring, she saw one of the toads. It was small, fast and had a bluish-greenish-grayish color to it, camouflaging into the surroundings. Seeing the little amphibian that calls the area home, she compared the experience to meeting an ancestor.

“I feel like I’m meeting my grandmother,” she said. “We’re always told to take care of our plants and animals and Mother Earth because they will take care of us. It’s meant to be there to take care of us and to protect us.”

About six miles from the reservation sits the Naval Air Station Fallon, which is billed as the nation’s “premier tactical air warfare training station.” It’s where the pilots of “Top Gun” fame train.

Since it was established during World War II, the station conducts comprehensive training with four bombing ranges, an electronic warfare range and other training facilities.

It has more than 3,000 active-duty personnel, civilian employees and Department of Defense contractors, according to its website.

Military leaders want the station, which over the years spread to 84,000 acres, to expand by another 600,000 acres. It has been brought up over the last few years, but every year it has been put on hold. The project is awaiting approval from Congress.

Through the years, aircraft exercises out of the base have bombed the tribe’s sacred Medicine Rock in the valley, where Paiute people would gather medicinal plants, Williams-Tuni said.

Multiple times almost every day, planes fly over the reservation, drowning out any conversations and making the area smell like engine fuel, she said.

The Navy is working with the tribes to ensure they are involved in the process, the project website said. It is also working to limit the impact the expansion would have on sacred and cultural sites important to tribes, and intends to develop protocols on how tribal members could access areas on the base that are important to them, according to the project website.

Similar to balancing the need for renewable energy with conservation, the tribe wants to see a balance between the need for strong military with the protection of land.

“We know we need to have good national defense,” Hale said, “but how do we do that in a way that still protects the natural environment, protects our cultural sites?”

The Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe joined forces with the nearby tribes of Walker River Paiute Tribe, Lovelock Paiute Tribe and the Yomba Shoshone Tribe to propose a 3 million-acre Numu Newe National Monument. “Numu” and “Newe” mean “the people” in Paiute and Shoshone.

It would be Nevada’s fifth national monument and would be the largest in the country if it is approved.

The site could either be created by a presidential proclamation or by a law through Congress.

In March, Williams-Tuni and Hale went to Washington, D.C., to meet with Biden administration officials and congressional representatives about their vision.

“For us our ultimate goal is the protection of the land,” Hale said.

While the tribe deals with issues relating to land and water, another equally important problem must be addressed: preserving the tribe’s culture.

Lillie Bright, a 96-year-old elder in the tribe, lost her Native language over the years. In school, when she would try to speak Shoshone, teachers would punish her by putting a clothespin on her lips.

“It was so painful,” Bright said.” I can never forget it.”

Efforts to teach and revitalize the language are under way. Charlane Starlight, Bright’s daughter, understands quite a bit of it, but she can’t speak it. Starlight is putting together a school curriculum on Native American history that she hopes to see taught in schools.

“We’ve lost so much,” Starlight said.

Tribal members want to build a cultural center that will hold old photos and items important to the tribe and show people how to play traditional games.

One game Hale and Williams-Tuni used to play involved little willow sticks and a token. One of the players would hide a small token, such as a piece of wood, and the other players had to guess who had it. If you guessed wrong, you’d have to give up some sticks.

When Williams-Tuni was young, her grandmother gave her a grinding rock, which is a big bowl in which she would grind pine nuts. She also has a pair of moccasins and an eagle feather that she would love to show to others and “so people can come and see what we did and what we had.”

“That’s like an identity,” she said.

The area has been home to Shoshone people for thousands of years, and they believe they were created on Fox Peak, which can be seen in the distance of the reservation.

When Hale was a child, she would pick medicines with her grandmother on Fox Peak, go fishing and gather wild onions.

Traditionally, people would eat rabbit, fish, birds, pine nuts, toolies — or cattails — and fresh wild onions, Hale said. But now the rabbits have parasites, and much of the other wildlife is gone.

“Here we are today just trying to hang on to what we have left of our cultural history,” Hale said.

The cultural center is part of the tribe’s proposal for the national monument, Williams-Tuni said, which could take a long time to come to fruition.

In the meantime, tribal members gather at the senior center for meals, attend tribal council meetings and talk about their history and future.

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