Treading on a Shrine - Two Month Closure?


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Treading on a Shrine - Two Month Closure?

Post by Crowdog » ... 40301/1053

Treading on a Shrine

Sacred site now an ATV playground

Maxim Kniazkov
For the Coloradoan

Rochanne Downs, a member of the council of the local Paiute-Shoshone tribe, says that for tribal members, the mountain is the same as a church. She says the tribe does not demand the return of the dune, just a suspension of ATV traffic for two months every year.

SAND MOUNTAIN, Nev. - Rochanne Downs has trouble explaining it even to her own children.

If going to the mountain is a big taboo, how come hundreds of total strangers careen every weekend over it in their buggies and all-terrain vehicles?

"I really have not been able to come up with a credible explanation," she shakes her head in disbelief.

Is it because most of them don't believe in God? Or because their God may not the same as the one worshipped by Paiute people?

No answer. Either from the riders, or the Paiutes, or the mountain. When strong wind whips up its white sand, the dune emits just a monotonous, high-pitched wail.

"Yes, it can sing. But it's not really the mountain," Downs explains. "It's Kwasi the serpent hissing."

It lived with the Paiute people centuries ago, when western Nevada was just emerging from under massive Lake Lahontan, a remnant of the ice age, the legend goes.

The serpent came out of a burrow in the Stillwater Mountains and traveled with his spouse all around what is now western Nevada — to Pyramid Lake, and Walker Lake, and Lake Tahoe, and lots of other places, spreading wisdom and happiness.

But one day his faithful spouse died, and grief-stricken Kwasi buried himself in the sand at the foot of his native Stillwater Range and has remained there ever since.

He is still alive, tribal elders insist. And they can communicate with the serpent, asking him for guidance and protection.
That is if Kwasi can hear them through the roar of muffleless engines.

The mountain has been turned into a popular recreation site for ATV aficionados, extreme bikers and drivers of rumbling buggies that often pack enough horsepower to win a NASCAR race.

Revving up their engines, they rush to the top of the dune, make a breathtaking U-turn practically at its crest, and plunge back down the slope, leaving a mini-sandstorm in their wake.

On long weekends, the mountain located about 25 miles east of Fallon, resembles an anthill, with several hundred vehicles mercilessly plying its sides and clusters of agitated watchers cheering below.

The number of these motorized tourists grew from 16,000 a year on the 1980s to more that 50,000 now, according to the Paiute-Shoshone tribal government.

If Kwasi the serpent ever opined about this, the elders keep it secret. But leaders of the tribe, whose tiny reservation is nestled on the outskirts of Fallon, are losing their patience.

Sand Mountain is a sacred place of worship, they try to drive their point home.

“For us it is really an open-air church,” argues Downs, a member of the tribal council. “When I was growing up, my grandfather forbade us from going there because he said the mountain may roll over on us. Only the spiritual people are allowed to go to the mountain. And that’s what I tell my children. But now the elders and spiritual people can hardly go there anymore. There is no more place for them to pray.”

Last year, the tribal council finally decided to act.

In a petition sent to the Bureau of Land Management, the federal custodian of the landmark, tribal Vice Chairman Len George asked to close the mountain to motor vehicle traffic for two months every year.

The first of these spring months, he explained, would be dedicated “tribal spiritual practices by Great Basin tribal elders and spiritual leaders.” During the second month, the mountain will be open to pedestrian traffic, which, in his words, will allow it “to heal itself through rejuvenation.”

Reclaiming the mountain for the tribe has never been on the agenda, officials assure.

That hardly assuages fun-loving folks, sometimes from as far as California.

The Indian request has elicited angry comments and even occasional appeals for a boycott of a Paiute-owned gas station in Fallon, Downs said.

But what is more distressing to tribal members, the case has not moved very far, even after a full year.

Elaine Briggs, a top BLM official in Carson City, said that although the bureau has full jurisdiction over the mountain, action was not likely any time soon.

“We recognize that the mountain is sacred to the Paiute people. We have no reason to question that,” she said. “But there could be a long process of consultations ahead of us.”

In the immediate future, the agency is hoping to transform the landmark into a solid generator of cash by raising access fees, in some cases perhaps by more than 100 percent, Briggs said.

“The Indians will probably lose, even though their request seems reasonable,” predicted Chester Gillis, professor of theology at Georgetown University and a leading expert in interfaith relations.

Underlying political and economic power, he explains, often determines the level of deference afforded a religion.

But here, at the foot of the dune, Jerry Faulkner, a retiree from northern California, gunned his ATV, sending it down what Indians describe as the sacred serpent’s spine, and saw no need to offer any excuses.

“My friends and I have been doing this since 1988. It’s a lot of fun, and we hope to keep coming here for many years to come,” he stated with a force of conviction.

No, he never heard about Paiute religious leaders willing to have unmolested access to the site at the expense of his rides, but he was visibly upset to learn about it.

“Well, I’m sure they will build a good casino here someday,” he uttered after a pause. “But I probably should not be saying this.”

Originally published August 14, 2005


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