Boon or burn?

Members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe have mixed feelings about the tens of thousands of Burners who drive through their land every year.

by Kris Vagner

The gates to Burning Man opened at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 28, a day earlier than usual. The schedule change was intended to alleviate traffic jams by spreading out the arrival times of the expected 70,000 participants.

As noon approached that Sunday, it was 84 degrees and rising outside the I-80 Smokeshop in Wadsworth, which, for the duration of the week, would be a temporary outdoor mall. Cars, RVs and buses stacked with bikes and camping gear formed lines at the gas pumps that started out long and quickly got longer. A muscular man wearing shorts and a carefree grin stepped out of a rented RV and performed a handstand.

Joyce McCauley—a grandmother who lives in Wadsworth—was just about finished setting up her booth on the north side of the smoke shop. She’s one of the many Paiute tribe members who run small, seasonal vending businesses that cater to the Burners who pass through the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation on their way to the event. Tribal officials estimate that about 80 percent of people en route to Burning Man travel through the reservation.

McCauley’s booth was made of a portable shade structure, fold-out tables covered with fabric, handmade signs advertising her wares, and produce boxes containing neatly organized packages of merchandise. After five years of selling to Burners, she knew exactly what they’d want—things like blinky rings and lightsabers.

“I just listened to them,” she said. “Every year I listened to them, and I just did better and better and better.” She didn’t want to talk numbers, but she did mention that part of her motivation is to earn enough to help her son, who is a college student, with expenses.

“I did great last year,” she said. “I ran out.” She added that the previous day she’d worked from 9 a.m. to midnight. How does she keep up the energy for a week of 15-hour workdays?

“Meeting all the people,” she said. “It’s international now. I have a list somewhere. I write down all the countries that come through. A lot of people from Australia come through here, Italy, Israel. This morning, there was a guy here from Wales. London. Where else? India, Indonesia. Nova Scotia.”

She pulled out half a dozen dropper bottles of lavender lemonade concentrate that a customer had given her—some of which she, in turn, would give away, just as Burners do on the playa. She scrolled through her phone to some photos she’d shot a few days before of her granddaughter, looking tiny in front of the 747 that a Southern California art team had trucked through on the way to the event.

McCauley said she likes hearing foreign accents in Wadsworth: “People from France, when they start talking, I’m like, ’Would you say that again?’”

As if on cue, a Swiss traveler in a buoyant mood arrived at the booth and asked what kind of lights she would need. McCauley showed her some lights that clip onto bicycle spokes and a nine-foot length of electroluminescent wire. The woman spent $20.

McCauley said warmly, “You said this is your first time here? Here, I’m gifting you this” and handed over a puffy, yellow, polka-dot bow on a headband.

Pros and cons

McCauley seemed to enjoy getting in the Burner spirit—chatting with travelers, gifting swag, and using the word “gifting,” which Burners go nuts over. And, despite the fact that the new gate-opening time really was alleviating traffic—which was dampening her opening weekend sales compared with recent years—she expected do well for the week.

About 1,700 tribe members live on the reservation, which covers 724 square-miles and includes the towns of Wadsworth, Nixon and Sutcliffe. According to 2014 census data, the unemployment rate there is 15.5 percent. (Compare that to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ July 2016 numbers: 4.9 percent nationally and 6.5 percent in Nevada.) Of those who are employed, almost half commuted over 30 minutes to work in 2014, the latest year for which there is data.

“To me, this statistic states that a lot of tribal members do work off the reservation,” Tribal Business Officer Scott Carey wrote in an email.

In a place where it’s this hard to find work, some tribe members appreciate the opportunity for extra income during Burner season. Other economic boosts over the years have included increased revenue from Pyramid Lake permit sales and brisk seasonal sales at the smoke shop and the Nixon Store, both of which are operated by the tribe. (The tribal government declined to release figures.) Community groups profit from car washes, food sales and trash-collection services during and after the event.

There’ve also been drawbacks to having all these Burners around.

Food stand: Elaine Duncan’s food stand in Wadsworth is decorated with the same bright flags as Comfort and Joy, a Burning Man camp that helps organize a food drive.


Reservation residents mentioned traffic jams in their usually quiet towns, drivers who speed and trash left strewn around after the event.

“The biggest impact to the tribe, and the number one concern, is public safety,” Carey said. During Burning Man season, the demands on tribal law enforcement, trash services and emergency response services increase, and there are fires and car crashes to be dealt with. Carey said the cost to the tribe to provide these services has increased as the event’s attendance has increased—from about 120 people in 1990 to about 70,000 people this year.

“For many years, the tribe worked off a handshake with the festival organizers who paid $10,000 for police, ranger, trash and emergency response services that the tribe provided during the festival,” he said via email. After the 2011 event, the tribe took a look at the overall fiscal impact the event was making on these services.

“After compiling these costs it was determined that there was a shortfall in what was being paid for with the services being provided,” Carey said.

The tribe’s report reads, “It is the policy of the federal government that if a private entity is conducting business on public lands that it should not cost the tribe money for them to conduct their business.” Carey said the costs totaled over $100,000 that year.

In 2013, the Tribal Council approved a services agreement with Burning Man under which Black Rock City LLC, the company that organizes the event, would pay the tribe $111,392.92. This year, the amount was $113,634.

Not all black and white

In addition to all those benefits, drawbacks and agreements, some people said they have mixed feelings about the sudden influx. Different individuals have formed different kinds of alliances with Burners—or experienced varying kinds of culture clash—or both.

Wakan Waci is a dad who lives in Wadsworth and sometimes commutes to Nevada City, where he works in the garden industry.

“You know, it’s rather quite interesting,” he said, describing the people-watching that ensues this time of year. “You get to see all kinds of different races of people, genders, coming through. We could just, like, watch them, go sit at the store and just watch everybody.” He said many locals enjoy mingling with the Burners.

“Myself, I have been in the department of helping people get into Burning Man,” he said deliberately. Burning Man used to offer Paiutes $40 tickets. As Waci remembers it, around 2007-2009, tickets retailed for about $200-300, and Paiutes could also purchase half-price guest tickets for friends.

“And so, a few people, myself included, saw an opportunity in that,” he said. It was easy to find people on the reservation who wanted to attend but couldn’t afford the $40. Waci said that “for two or three years” he would front people the $40 for their discount tickets.

“In return they would let me purchase their guest passes,” he said. He would pay $150 for each and resell them for around $300, doubling his investment. He’d either find buyers on Craigslist and meet them directly at the gate—or sell to an unofficial dealer set up along the roadside.

“During that week I would average two hours of sleep a night,” he said.

“It’s hard enough out there for us already,” Waci said. At the time, he was employed by Black Rock Solar, a non-profit supplying free solar arrays to institutions in the area such as schools and the Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitors Center. Because Black Rock Solar employees attended Burning Man, Waci said, work was suspended around the time of the event.

“It was the beginning of the school year,” he said. “I have children that need things. I have to provide for them, you know.”

He said each year he made between $2,500 and $3,500, adding, “I don’t go to exotic places afterward. I’m able to be financially stable for like two months, maybe three.”

In 2009, he said, Burning Man stopped offering the half-price guest tickets and started offering free tickets to Paiutes. Thus ended his ticket-selling days.

“I wish they weren’t so strict about it,” he said. “For us to make that amount of money in that short of time, it really helps us out. Otherwise we watch thousands and thousands of people drive through, and we get nothing. In my thought process, we should be able to get some kind of something out of it.”

Vendor Joyce McCauley, from Wadsworth, advises Tanja Fischer, a first-time Burner from Switzerland, on what types of lights to purchase.


He added, “After the event is done, you get the garbage. … Sometimes you just get the bags of trash dumped on the side of the road, from people not loading it up right, or just throwing it out.”

Drive-thru culture

While Joyce McCauley looked like she was having a good time selling blinky lights on the north end of the smoke shop, on the south side of the lot tribe member Elaine Duncan was getting less business than she would have liked.

“You’re on a reservation,” she said. “You catch a few people. You don’t catch ’em all. You know, people are eager to get out there and eager to get back.”

Duncan’s food stand, which she also brings to other events—the Numaga Indian Days Pow Wow in Hungry Valley, an arts festival in Genoa—had been constructed in the style of a Burning Man camp. A carport shaded a portable, five-table café with tablecloths, plastic flowers on each table, a tasteful carpet to cover the dusty ground, and oversized fluorescent-colored flags sticking up from the canopy.

Inside, a boy asked his dad, “What’s a frybread?”

A frybread, for the uninitiated, is a flat, round, deep-fried piece of bread dough, about the size of a standard paper plate. It’s the base for an open-face Indian taco, piled with ground beef, pinto beans, lettuce, shredded cheese and salsa—easily the most common food item sold by seasonal vendors along the route to Burning Man.

Duncan started selling Indian tacos in 1998, when Burning Man’s attendance was around 15,000. She set up expecting hunters for antelope and chukar season and was surprised by an influx of customers who looked like they were on their way to a big party.

Over the years, she’s formed a close relationship with a Burning Man camp called Comfort and Joy.

“Comfort and Joy is primarily a queer camp,” explained camp member Kokoe Johnson, calling from a garage in San Francisco where he was packing for the event. It’s also a non-profit group in the Bay Area that focuses on community service and arts.

Duncan connected with the group via her brother, Randy Burns, who, in 1975, cofounded Gay American Indians.

Comfort and Joy has an elaborate camp set-up, said Johnson, with fluorescent flags just like the ones on Duncan’s food stand. Members put in a lot of work and money to build it.

However, he said, “We’re not going to do all this work just to have a fabulous party. We love doing it, but we want to have more meaning in life. We want more things to help people feel better in life, more things that help people out.” The camp holds a food drive with collection points in Wadsworth, Nixon and at Burning Man, collecting canned food and produce.

“Two years ago the pile of food [at the Burning Man camp] was maybe 10 feet square,” said Johnson. Last year the pile was about 10 by 30.” (The piles were about four feet high, he clarified.) He reckons the threefold increase was largely due to an announcement played over BMIR, the seasonal Burning Man radio station.

Camp members pack the food into any spare space they can find in their gear-stuffed vehicles as they exit and drop it off with either Duncan or another roadside food vendor, named Bunny, in Nixon. The women distribute it to the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Food Bank & Pantry. The group has also raised cash donations. Last year Comfort and Joy donated $1,700, which the food bank used to purchase a freezer. Johnson estimated that this year’s donation would be about $3,000.

Much as Duncan is pleased to be a link in the food-bank chain, she and her sister, Gretchen Burns, who was helping at the food stand, have found that not all the relationships between them and the thousands of travelers are as smooth.

Appearing from behind the counter, Burns said, “See, you’re on Indian land. You look down here, it’s nothing but sand. This is nothing but sand, so you know at one time this was full of water. And, see, people are not interested in the history of the Paiutes or the water fight.”

Duncan nodded, adding with a tone of concern, “If I went to Europe, I’d want to know where I’m going to go, what I’m going to see, what kind of people. I’d want to check out their cuisine.”

“People, they don’t think that way,” Burns said. “They just don’t really take time to. For a while, I used to sit over here and explain to the people about the Paiute tribe and where the water used to automatically flow into Pyramid Lake … and they don’t want to hear, like the Anglos in Reno/Sparks, and all the surrounding areas, Carson City, Lahontan. They all have stolen—stolen—the water from the tribe, you know. They don’t want to hear that. … It’s just like history goes. They don’t want to hear the truth. They don’t give a rat’s ass. All they care is going out and getting drunk to party.”

Burns added that she’d attended some parties herself in her day, that she could understand the rush.

Duncan and Burns ran the food stand as if it was any small-town business. Either woman dipped the occasional wheel of dough into a cast-iron Dutch oven full of boiling oil and flipped it with tongs each time a customer ordered a taco. Strangers and friends came and went to eat the frybread, gossip, talk about the weather or ask for directions, and the conversation shifted smoothly back and forth between lighthearted pleasantries and serious concerns about the big picture of tourist relations on the reservation.

Duncan said she wants people going Burning Man “to take into consideration that they’re passing through our native land, that they should learn a little bit about the culture, be respectful of the people, and be respectful of public safety, and slow down, and think about other people and other people’s lives. That’s how I feel. That’s the flow of what I have to say.”