They have brought “terrible blight and destruction” to some of the world’s greatest historical treasures, says Dr. Eugene Hattori, curator of anthropology at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.
“These criminals and thieves have caused unbelievable damage to our tribe and heritage,” exclaimed Elwood Lowery, chairman of the 3,800-member Pyramid Lake Paiute Indian Tribe, who makes his headquarters here on reservation land adjacent to the lake, about an hour’s drive northwest of Fallon via highways 50 and 447.
“They’ve violated our sanctity ... they are vandals and looters,” echoed Ben Aleck, director of the Pyramid Lake Museum at the southern end of the 27-mile-wide-long, 9-mile-wide lake which plunges 370 feet at its deepest.
And famed explorer and Army officer John C. Fremont, who, on Jan. 10, 1844, became the first white man to visit and then name the lake, also would decry the despoiling of this great American treasure were he alive in 2013.
Today, nearly 170 years after Fremont stumbled upon Pyramid Lake and wrote in his journal, “It came upon us like a sheet of green water that broke upon our eyes like an ocean,” its stone monuments, statues and petroglyphs are under siege by hooligans, graffiti artists, paint-ballers and the “vandals, thieves and criminals” described by Hattori, Lowery and Aleck.
“This has been going on for a very long time ... people are breaking of parts of the petroglyphs and statues with battery-powered chisels and chain saws,” said a tribal policeman patrolling the lake which annually hosts thousands of boaters, swimmers, hikers, campers, landscape painters and photographers from around the world.
“And gangsters have sprayed gang symbols and black paint on the statue of the Great Stone Mother,” said a tribal fireman in referring to the massive, nature-carved image of a woman who, according to Paiute legend, wept so long and profusely for her missing children that she filled the lake with her tears before turning into stone.
As a consequence of the continuing desecrations, the Pyramid Lake Tribe, whose land became an official U.S. Indian reservation in 1869 under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, was forced two years ago to close the road which hugs its eastern shore and is the only access to the Stone Mother, the famous stone Pyramid that rises out of the lake, Anaho Island and the petroglyph site, said tribal chief Lowery.
“The road will remain closed until we figure out a plan to permanently protect the sacred sites. We hope to do this soon ... possibly within the next six months ... when our Tribal Council comes up with a policy such as only allowing escorted tours of photographers, historians, scientists and others whom we know would cause no damage,” he said.
“Our tribal police, game wardens, boat patrols and Indian cattlemen are now protecting the lake night and day to keep out unauthorized individuals, and at present we are permitting only tribal members participating in prayers and religious ceremonies to visit the sites,” he added.
Because of the road closure, the petroglyphs cannot be seen at all, and the Stone Mother, the Pyramid and the other sites on the east may be viewed solely from the distant western side.
Photos of the monuments are difficult to take as well because photographers must station themselves along the far-off western side, and the monuments are often obscured by heavy mists, haze and blowing sand.
Meanwhile, back at his office at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, Curator of Anthropology Hattori emphasizes the importance of the petroglyphs which are complex hand drawings dating back between 10,000 and 18,500 years that were incised or carved with crude tools into outcroppings of limestone boulders.
Located within the reservation’s boundaries and north of Pyramid Lake in an area encompassing the long-dry Winnemucca Lake, the petroglyphs consist of mysterious linear, circular and geometric patterns, groups of diamond-shaped drawings and etchings that resemble trees. said Hattori, who holds a PhD in cultural anthropology from Washington State University and is an adjunct professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
“We call the people who made these carvings ‘paleo-Indians,’ and we believe they migrated to Nevada and Western America from Southeast China in kayaks via the Bering Sea Land Bridge,” added Hattori, who has permission from the Pyramid Lake tribe to enter the site and investigate, photograph and catalogue the petroglyphs.
Hattori, who authored a paper on the petroglyphs with two other scientists which was published recently in the prestigious Journal of Archaeological Science, said the carvings, which are the oldest- known petroglyphs on the North American continent, “must be protected at all costs.”
“Some of the vandals have removed parts of the petroglyphs with diamond saws and have decorated their fireplaces and backyards with the carvings. This must be stopped at once. The petroglyphs are a national and international treasure,” he said.