Meet Native America: Vinton Hawley, Chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, President of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, and Vice-Chairman of the National Indian Health Board
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Vinton Hawley. I'm chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, or Kooyooe Tukaddu (Kooyooe Eaters); president of the Executive Board of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada; and vice-chairman of the National Indian Health Board (NIHB). I am an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and also Hopi–Tewa (Tobacco Clan).
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
Two Native names I've been given are Sahkoo Penge (Black Pipe) and Saah Ehnoo (Tobacco Boy). There are many other names that were given, as well.
Where is your tribal community located?
Pyramid Lake is located 27 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada. We have three towns that comprise our reservation—Wadsworth, Nixon, and Sutcliffe—and a huge water base in rural Nevada. On the Hopi–Tewa side of my family, I come from the Tewa Village First Mesa, Polacca, Arizona.
Where is your tribe originally from?
Pyramid Lake is the traditional homeland of the Kooyooe Tukaddu (Kooyooe Eaters). The arid desert and mesas in Arizona are the traditional homeland for the Hopi–Tewa people.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
Pyramid Lake has been at the forefront with water rights. The tribe recently finalized the Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA), a 20-plus-year water negotiation between the tribe, local governments, the City of Reno, and the City of Sparks that will provide economic development opportunities and funding to the tribe. We are working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the Department of the Interior Office of the Special Trustee to gain access to the economic development funds that are attached to the finalization and implementation of TROA.
The tribe’s Section 17 Corporate Charter was also recently approved by the BIA.
In somewhat older history, the tribe recognizes battles that took place on the reservation against settlers and the U.S. Army.
The Pyramid and Domes, 1867. Pyramid Lake, Nevada. Photo by Timothy O'Sullivan. Collections of the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/98503891/.
How is your tribal government set up?
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is governed by ten Tribal Council members who are elected biannually in December to staggered two-year terms. The officers, including the chairman and vice-chairman, are part of the ten-member council. The tribe operates under the Indian Reorganization Act Constitution and By-Laws approved in January 1936 by the Department of Interior.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
The Pyramid Lake Tribal Council meets three times a month. Council meetings are held every first and third Friday of every month, and we have a Water Team meeting on the third Wednesday of every month. The Water Team meeting is held with the tribe’s water attorney and addresses only water issues.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Unfortunately, we have lost a large portion of our people who have this kind of traditional knowledge. The majority of our members are now involved in Native religions outside of our own Paiute culture. They are mostly involved in the Native American Church and Sundance religions. There are a few families who continue to practice our old way, but Paiute life is simple and I think that is why it can’t compete with the more popular and glamorous Native cultures.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I was raised in most part by my great-grandmother Gussie Dunn Williams, who lived the old ways. We would get up in the morning and eat breakfast and then go visiting our relatives on our reservation. We didn’t own a car and we walked all over. Each visit involved conversations in Paiute about everyday happenings, dropping off food for those who needed help, checking on others who might not be able to leave their homes, and just plain old visiting.
I learned traditional activities such as weaving, gathering, doctoring, etc. It wasn’t the show that it seems to have become today; it was just day-to-day living. I learned the priorities of our old people and I was taught what is really important to our tribe to ensure our survival. My life was simple, and our life is simple, but what is most important is that our people survive, that our environment is protected, and that water is life. I learned to understand the language at an early age and began speaking. I learned the survival arts of the Pyramid Lake Paiutes. I also learned a lot from my Hopi–Tewa grandparents, who were very hard workers and have instilled in me what exactly a simple life is.
What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?
It is my responsibility to make decisions that ensure our way of life continues. So many people associate money with success, but that isn’t our way. The level of our lake is our success. To ensure that our tribal language and traditions are sustained is my priority. My people are my responsibility. It is my commitment to this that I carry each day.
Decisions made must ensure that the future membership is cared for and protected, our lake is sustained, and our land and its boundaries remain as close to their original state as possible.
I continue to advocate for the sustainability of the Paiute culture. However, despite my position, culture is not funded by the tribe, nor do we have a grant to assist cultural sustainability. Tribal members in our community volunteer to maintain the culture and have classes on a weekly basis. I have to give high praise to those individuals who are as passionate about cultural preservation as I am.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I am inspired by my elders, by our old people who have lived a simple life filled with our beautiful language and traditions.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
All Natives are historical leaders. Without their leadership and courage, none of us would be where we are today as Native peoples. We are still here!
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
Currently our tribe has increased to 2,803 enrolled members.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
All persons of Indian blood whose names appear on the official, certified Constructed Base Roll of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation as of January 1, 1935; or all children born to any enrolled regular member of the tribe who is a resident of the reservation at the time of the birth of said children, provided it is proven that said children are direct lineal descendants of a Base Enrollee as identified above.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
A handful of tribal members still speak Paiute. The number of tribal members who understand Paiute is a lot higher, but they do not speak. Our language is going to become extinct if we do not take measures to sustain and teach our people!
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
Currently our Tribal Enterprises comprise three stores on our reservation. We are in the process of increasing our economic development and are looking at a multitude of business opportunities that will generate revenue for the tribe.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
We have an annual powwow and handgame tournament in the summer and a rodeo in the fall.
What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?
Pyramid Lake is widely acclaimed as North America’s most beautiful desert lake, but it’s actually the world-class fishery that has brought Pyramid Lake worldwide fame. Pyramid Lake is the only habitat in the world for the kooyooe (cui-ui) fish that has been around for over two million years.
The Pyramid Lake fishery also includes the famous Lahontan cutthroat trout that have grown to record sizes and have lured fishermen from all over the world for several decades. Celebrities, foreign royalty, and even a U.S. president have come here in hopes of catching trophy fish at Pyramid Lake.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has a government-to-government relationship with the federal government. The tribe contracts with or receives grants directly from federal agencies or the State of Nevada, to provide services to tribal members and residents of the reservation addressing issues that will impact the tribe.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
To learn your language and your traditions; to commit yourself to higher education and to bringing back your knowledge to sustain our tribe; and to see what you have been blessed with, which is to be Numu, and to always be proud of who you are and where you come from!
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.