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Washoe rock solid on stance

Jenifer Ragland

After being criticized for advocating a climbing ban on Cave Rock, a Washoe Tribe spokesman Tuesday said preservation of the spiritual site is a last attempt to hold on to what the tribe regards as the birthplace of its people.

“Lake Tahoe is the genesis for the Washoe people; it is a very great place to us, and our ancestors and relatives are buried here,” said Brian Wallace, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. “Cave Rock is a fundamental and significant piece of that religious history.”

U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit officials closed the popular area to rock climbers last week until Dec. 31, when the agency is expected to have a long-term management plan for the site in place.

The primary reason for opposition to climbing on Cave Rock is that the equipment driven into the face of the rock is adding to the collective destruction of the site.

Rock climbing enthusiasts have criticized the decision, citing several reasons why they should be allowed to use Cave Rock, including the belief that they improved and beautified the area after adopting it as a favorite climbing spot.

Mitch Underhill, a Meyers resident, said it’s too late to preserve Cave Rock because a major roadway – U.S. Highway 50 – runs through it in two locations.

“It has already been disturbed,” Underhill said.

But Wallace said it is the intent of the tribe to preserve what is left of the sacred site, and pointed out that it was not the Washoe who constructed the highway.

“(The ban) is not taken well with some people who find our ways and our rights contemptible,” he said. “We have gone from inhabiting 4,000 square miles to a 2-acre area surrounded by rubble. … People born on the shores of Lake Tahoe are being treated as trespassers.”

Wallace made clear that while Washoe Tribe leaders have only been working to preserve Cave Rock since 1990, the site has always been a part of their lives and their culture.

The Washoe people lived in the basin for more than 10,000 years, but were driven out by white settlers within the last century. However, Wallace said every Washoe person knows Lake Tahoe was part of their ancient territory and that their ancestors had named every mountain, rock stream and cove around it.

“To assert that the Washoe recently took interest in Cave Rock is something that I don’t agree with,” he said. “The Washoe have been expressing their displeasure to the activity, but only recently have we been allowed to be heard.”

According to Washoe history, Cave Rock was a place so sacred that it was worthy only of the presence of the tribe’s highest religious leaders.

Warren L. D’Azevedo, a professor of anthropology at University of Nevada, Reno and a specialist in Washoe culture, has written a book on the tribe’s history as well as a special note about Cave Rock and its significance in Washoe heritage.

“Elderly Washoe remember the shock they felt when the highway was blasted through Cave Rock in 1931, and then again in the 1950s,” he wrote. “They feared that the spirits of the place would be angered and would send a deluge of water from Lake Tahoe through the ancient tunnel under the mountains to flood Carson Valley and destroy all the people who had allowed such a desecration to occur.”

Now, the elders of the tribe still use the caves as a quiet place to commune, and do not want to be surrounded by climbers and other visitors, Wallace said.

He said when the ground inside the largest cave was paved over by rock climbers who thought they were improving the area, a portion of the aboriginal history was lost.

“To say that it has been improved from its natural state is condescending,” Wallace said. “Improving with cement is not what I would call improvement.”

Catherine Fowler, UNR anthropology professor, explained that sacred sites are highly significant places for Native Americans.

“There is a spiritual essence that has to be protected,” she said. “You wouldn’t desecrate a Cathedral by climbing on it, would you?”

Wallace expressed a similar opinion in a formal response to some of the negative response the closure order has generated.

“If sports and recreation is to prevail here over religion, heritage and culture, we might expect to see handball off the wailing wall and volleyball at the Vatican,” he wrote.

Regardless of what happens with the long-term management plans for Cave Rock, Wallace said he and the tribe will remain committed to projecting their feeling of reverence for the site and the entire basin.

“Cave Rock and its power represents all that shouldn’t happen,” Wallace said. “It can serve as an icon of a history that does not need to be repeated – something we can’t let happen throughout the lake.”

He said the damage done to the rock is irreversible, but the Washoe people want to make sure no more desecration occurs.

“It isn’t mythology or something we pretend to believe in, it is something we do believe in.”

But is the tribe willing to at least compromise with the rock climbing community?

“If you asked the elders that, they would assert that they have been compromising for the last 150 years,” Wallace said.


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