Indianz.Com > News > ‘You’re trespassing on tribal lands’: Outsiders block reservation highway during busy Burning Man festival
FreedomNewsTV: Burning Man Festival Road SHUT DOWN, Attendees Fight Protesters and RANGERS RAM Blockade – NEVADA
‘You’re trespassing on tribal lands’
Outsiders block reservation highway during busy Burning Man festival
Monday, August 28, 2023

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is speaking out after a viral video showed outsiders being removed from a highway on the reservation in an incident that took place during one of the busiest times of the year for the community.

In an interview with Indianz.Com on Monday, Chairman James L. Phoenix said five people — all non-Indians — were issued civil citations for blocking State Road 447, a primary road on the reservation in Nevada. The incident occurred a day prior, just as tens of thousands of people traveled through tribal lands to get to the extremely popular and long-running Burning Man arts and culture festival.

“It was just unfortunate that they would block the main highway like that,” Phoenix told Indianz.Com.

Phoenix said traffic was backed up for 10 miles due to the actions of the outsiders, who indicated on the widely-viewed video that they were “environmental protesters.” Regardless of their reason for being on the highway, their presence caused a significant disruption on the reservation, where resources are already stretched thin due to chronic underfunding.

“It’s pretty, pretty busy at this time of the year with the Burning Man traffic,” Phoenix told Indianz.Com of an event that has drawn up to 80,000 people for a week of activities during the Labor Day holiday season.

“It’s not like, you know, you’re just out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no one else to be there,” the chairman added. “We have a lot of miles and miles of cars. If you learn more about Burning Man, you’ll see how busy it is.”

Pyramid Lake Paiute Rangers, who help enforce various laws on the reservation, responded to the call of the highway blockade on Sunday afternoon. Phoenix pointed out that these public servants, while they engage in a wide range of activities, are not the same as tribal police officers.

“They’re rangers for the lake,” Phoenix said in reference to Pyramid Lake, a large body of water located entirely within reservation boundaries, one known for its spectacular scenery and fishing opportunities.

“They assist the police department because we’re so small,” noted Phoenix, who previously worked as a law enforcement officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, another tribe in Nevada, as well as one for the city of Reno.

Among the five people who were cited, none are local to Nevada, the tribe said in a press release on Monday afternoon. One individual was from the Republic of Malta, an island nation located thousands of miles away in the Mediterranean Sea.

“They were cited and released, pending their court dates,” Phoenix told Indianz.Com. “And so it’s really like no locals were here. They’re just all out of towners and, you know, it’s hard to say if they knew they were going on the reservation or not.”

Whether they knew they were in Indian Country, the climate activists have drawn widespread attention thanks to a video that was filmed by journalist Oliya Fedun, who posted it on FreedomNewsTV, an independent news agency that she founded. The footage, of which there is a long version and a shorter one, shows several people trying to remove the protesters from the highway before the tribal rangers are able to make it to the scene.

“We have a right to protest,” a man with a foreign-sounding voice can be heard saying.

“Get the cops, get the cops,” he insists.

On the video, the protesters can be seen handing out information to attendees of Burning Man, who are also known as Burners. But not everyone who was on the highway was on their way to the festival — one person indicated they were trying to go to work while others pointed out that the protest was taking place on a sovereign government’s territory.

“You’re trespassing on tribal lands,” someone can be heard saying.

As the video continues, a tribal ranger vehicle arrives on the scene. “Disband, get off the highway,” a voice over a loudspeaker states.

“Everybody will be arrested if not,” the voice continues.

The ranger then offers a timed directive: “Thirty seconds.”

The tribal ranger vehicle can soon be seen running over signs and equipment that protesters had placed on the highway, resulting in most of the road being cleared. As a second tribal ranger vehicle appears on the video, the operator of the first turns around and drives right up to the outsiders, jumping out and ordering them on the ground.

“One of the rangers used — after being told to clear and move — he used his vehicle to push that debris out of the roadway there,” Chairman Phoenix told Indianz.Com, “so that they could open up the traffic.”

“That officer — his conduct is under review,” Phoenix stated.

James Phoenix
James Phoenix serves as chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, an Indian nation with homelands in Nevada. In February 2019, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel within the Nevada National Guard before retiring from military service. Photo by Sgt. Walter H. Lowell / U.S. Army

Like most law enforcement agencies in Indian Country, the one operated by the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe makes do with a small group of personnel, who are responsible for covering a wide range of territory. Including the lake, the reservation spans more than 475,000 acres, with State Route 447 being the primary route for Burners to get to Black Rock City, as the center of activity at Burning Man is called.

“You know, they have to respond from wherever and it took a while to get out there,” Phoenix said of the tribal rangers who eventually made it to the blocked road. “They had to deal with the situation.”

Burning Man originated in 1986 with a gathering in San Francisco, California. The event soon found a home on federally-managed public lands in neighboring Nevada, where it has been held since 1990 although the location moved to a different site under a local county’s jurisdiction for one year. The COVID-19 pandemic caused cancellations for two years in a row, in 2020 and 2021.

As the festival has grown in popularity and size, Phoenix said organizers have always been willing to work with the tribe. He remembers the event during its early days, dating back to his time with the police department in Reno, which is about 100 miles from Black Rock City.

“Burning Man has been going on for quite some time and we actually work well with [them],” Phoenix said of the event, which returned from its COVID-19 hiatus in 2022. “We’re working with Burning Man because we know that they’re gonna come through the state highway and it’s part of what we have to endure.”

Burning Man
The Burning Man festival attracts large, outdoor art installations like the ones seen here in 2019, which preceded the cancellation of the event in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival returned in 2022. Photo: Curtis Simmons

Burning Man officially began on Sunday, with protesters indicating on the video that they timed their activity with the intention of disrupting traffic. But the incident also came at a somber time for the tribe.

Only three days ago, a tribal police officer was struck and killed by a vehicle while trying to stop a fleeing suspect on the reservation. The Friday evening incident caused State Road 446, which connects to 447, to be closed for several hours overnight. The highway reopened on Saturday morning, the tribe said on social media.

The fallen officer was identified as Anthony Francone by a county sheriff’s department. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the incident, which also resulted in the death of the suspect.

The FBI’s involvement, Phoenix noted, points to the complex and often conflicting levels of law enforcement and public safety in Indian Country. Depending on the location of an incident on a reservation, as well as the racial status of the perpetrators and victims, an investigation might involve tribal, local, state and federal authorities.

“Big major crimes, though — the FBI takes care of,” Phoenix said.

The protesters who were cleared from the road on Sunday were issued civil citations, another indicator of the nature of public safety in Indian Country. Generally, tribal governments lack criminal jurisdiction over non-Indians due to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that tribes and their advocates say has contributed to high rates of violence against American Indians, especially women and girls.

The U.S. Congress has taken steps to address the 1978 decision in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe by recognizing the inherent authority of tribes to arrest, prosecute and punish non-Indians who commit violence against their partners, against children and against law enforcement. The law, however, does not cover all violent incidents and does not apply to every non-Indian who comes onto Indian Country, regardless of the severity of any alleged crimes.

Pyramid Lake Police Department
An August 7, 2023, social media post from the Pyramid Lake Police Department urges tribal citizens to be aware of increased law enforcement presence on the reservation due to the Burning Man festival. Screenshot from Pyramid Lake Police Department