How does Burning Man affect the nearby Pyramid Lake Paiute community?
This story was first published in the August 2017 edition of First Nation’s Focus.
GERLACH, Nev. — Over the years, Burning Man has grown from a small group of friends on Baker Beach in San Francisco in 1986 to one of the largest art festivals to date in the world.
The event moved in the 1990s to Black Rock City, Nevada — located about 3 hours northeast of Reno — and these days it attacts nearly 70,000 people annually from across the world to participate in the week-long festival to witness various forms of artistic self-expression.
With that many “burners” (what attendees are called) flocking to the desert, the small nearby tribal community of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation has seen a shift in the type of people who attend year after year.
“The community members have noticed a big change in how the participants were before, as opposed to how they are now,” tribal member Randy Hunter said in an interview with First Nation’s Focus in early August.
In the past, Hunter recalls, artists attending the event would be seen driving through the reservation in homemade art cars and would stop and interact with the tribal members.
When tribal members saw the burners going through the community and showing interest, they decided to construct pop-up taco stands and other vendor stands to sell last-minute necessities to the burners.
“You would have these independent artists, who I call the true burners, supporting the tribe’s little vendors before making their way over to the playa,” said Hunter. “But now we’re seeing a lot of $100,000 RVs going right on by without stopping at our side vendors.”
It’s just one example of how the small Pyramid Lake Paiute community, which has less than 2,000 members residing on the reservation located between Reno and Black Rock City, has seen many different impacts from the Burning Man festival, which this year is scheduled from Aug. 27 to Sept. 4.
There is a single-lane highway (State Route 447) that goes through the Nevada communities of Wadsworth and Nixon and is the only means of connecting tribal members to nearby Interstate 80.
“Our little highway is used to only seeing 1,000 cars a day,” said Pyramid Lake Tribal Police Sgt. Mike Durham, “but during Burning Man, it sees upward of 75,000 cars in two weeks.”
Durham, who has been working with the Pyramid Lake Police Department for over 12 years, has a more positive outlook on the festival.
“Our job is to ensure public safety,” he said. “We deal with the traffic, and it can get really hectic; vehicles commonly double the speed limit, which leads to citations and accidents.”
However, Durham said the crime rate does not increase as much as one would expect during the Burning Man weeks.
“I think they are overall law-abiding citizens; for the most part they respect us and our community,” he said. “When you have large festivals like this, you are going to have to deal with the trash and other things that go with it, but overall, I think it is a good experience.”
Debra Harry, Business Officer for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Council, has not attended the festival, but had a lot to say when asked about the impacts it has on her community.
“Well if you think about it, the impact period on our community is really more like seven weeks than three weeks, and definitely not just one week,” said Harry. “We see the big trucks, U-Hauls, and people driving through trying to get their supplies out there and ready for the festival.”
Burning Man is usually held annually, spanning from the last Sunday in August to the first Monday in September, but burners and artists come early to set up for the festival.
The impacts sometimes force tribal members to travel the 35-mile drive to Reno just to get necessities.
Burning Man offers assistance in order to alleviate some of the costs and impacts that occur. Some of the assistance is for gas usage, as well as a $500 contribution to the tribal museum. The festival also offers 350 tickets to tribal members to attend if they choose.
“I think the financial support could be more than what it is, considering the overall size and impact on the community,” said Harry. “It is a very high-dollar project because of how much people are willing to pay to attend and just its enormity in general, and what they do provide is not very significant.”
Burning Man definitely has its pros and cons, just like any other festival, and will always be a controversial issue for those involved. Harry said more people need to realize that this festival impacts more just those who attend — it impacts entire communities.
Jarrette Werk (Aaniiih) is a journalism student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who worked this summer for the Sierra Nevada Media Group as an intern, writing and taking photos for First Nation’s Focus.
I am over the moon with how strong our school-community relationship is, how easy it was to grow, and surprised by the willingness of my community, students and parents alike, to move in this direction too.