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Thunder Mountain Monument outside Imlay, Nevada, is more than the maudlin work of an obsessed man.
Photography by Christopher Smith

Thunder Mountain Monument outside Imlay, Nevada, is more than the maudlin work of an obsessed man.

Reminders of the price paid

Desert Companion

Imlay, Nevada

Fred Lewis cradles his Yorkie, Oscar, and rocks reflexively in an upholstered recliner near the front window of the mobile home from which he oversees Thunder Mountain Monument. A hearing aid is visible under the stem of thick glasses burrowing into his wiry gray hair, and he speaks deliberately, like someone repeating a story told many times.

Thunder Mountain Monument outside Imlay, Nevada, is more than the maudlin work of an obsessed man.“When I moved out here, and I actually saw everything that Thunder did, and I went around doing light maintenance on it, I was very impressed,” he says. “I was impressed with his beliefs, what he thought and believed. … Thunder was very eccentric. He was a little bit on the crazy side, I would say. Very different. His philosophy was very different from a lot of people’s.”

Lewis is putting it mildly. Take the name, Thunder. The World War II veteran born Frank Van Zant dubbed himself Chief Rolling Mountain Thunder in 1968, not long after his truck broke down, stranding him, his wife and their children at this spot just off the shoulder of Interstate 80 in Northern Nevada. As Lewis tells it, the family squatted on the property, whose owner had a cabin in nearby Sacred Canyon, while Van Zant tried to fix the truck. Every time he’d hitch up the trailer, the truck would crap out again. But if he just needed to go to Reno for parts, it started up fine. Van Zant believed this was a message from the spirits to stay put and build a monument to North American Indians, a project he’d been dreaming of and trying unsuccessfully to launch in his home state, California, for years. Coincidentally, the property owner was amenable to a land-lease deal. Van Zant became Thunder and got to work.

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Further evidence of his eccentricity is the monument itself, a collection of structures improvised from discarded objects — bottles, cookware, children’s toys, typewriters, wagon wheels, all from within 50 miles of the place — embedded in walls of cement and stone. These are covered in more than 200 sculptures, statues and murals, mainly of Native American figures, and makeshift plaques engraved with cryptic aphorisms and epitaphs (“Warrior Pat Kirby 25 Years Now Into The Thunder So That Others May Know The Idea of Freedom Gave His Life 1975”). A 1983 fire destroyed six of the buildings, including a hostel and Indian school, leaving only the main house, where Thunder and his family lived, a round house and chicken house. Although Thunder had help building the monument from his family and visitors who wandered through over the years, he was the driving artistic force. It so obsessed him, Lewis says, that he’d get up and work on it in the twilight, while his family slept.

Then, there’s the legend: Thunder clashing with hippies, who were drawn to the place in the ’70s, for breaking his “no drugs” and “no sex in the open” rules; Thunder sending his oldest daughter, Obsidian, into the hills for a year with only a gun and the clothes on her back as a rite of passage into adulthood; and a destitute Thunder killing himself in 1986, after writing a suicide note bequeathing the monument to his son (and childhood friend of Lewis), Dan Van Zant.

Yes, Thunder Mountain would be easy to dismiss as the maudlin frenzy of a charlatan. Many of the locals did, questioning whether its maker was actually part Creek Indian, as he claimed. Even the thousands of folk art gawkers and photographers who have conquered the crumbling detritus of Thunder’s vision on artistic expeditions are embracing their own kind of condescension.

And yet, Thunder had a point: In the faded, rain-spotted literature tacked to the walls of the visitors center, Dan Van Zant wrote that his father “built Thunder Mountain Monument as a testimony to the suffering and the plight of the American Indian ... both endured at the hands of the white invaders. (Note my emphasis on invader and not settler.) It is a reminder to all who visit of the price paid by a race of people who were marked for genocide in the name of ‘Manifest Destiny.’”

Seen through the lens of this bitter truth, the monument looks different. The scale of the outward-facing exhibit, with its spire of bones reaching skyward, is meant to stop traffic and draw people in to read its message up-close. Thunder fashioned walls of white men’s refuse to make a statement about native, as opposed to colonial, ethics concerning resources, conservation and waste. The statues, such as the pair depicting a white soldier shooting an unarmed Indian woman, convey real loss and suffering.

And no matter how much the modern traveler may ignore them, historical sites of this loss and suffering are all around him, particularly in the American West. One need only drive a couple hours in either direction from Thunder Mountain to visit places where the spirits that haunted Thunder still linger, and where the natives still see their land and resources as threatened by outsiders today.

 

The Shoshone Cedars

As Highway 50 descends from the Schell Creek mountain range into Spring Valley, less than an hour southeast of Ely, it passes a white wind farm on the left. Just beyond that, at the foot of the Snake Range, is a stand of trees. Someone who’s not looking for it, specifically, might not notice that these trees are taller and more jade-colored than their surroundings. Once pointed out, though, the grove of 20- and 30-foot evergreens seems obvious.

It’s known to scientists as “the swamp cedars,” a globally unique occurrence of what are actually Rocky Mountain junipers at such low altitude, according to CSN biology Professor David Charlet. In his 2006 report, “Effects of Interbasin Water Transport on Ecosystems of Spring Valley,” Charlet writes, “The swamp cedar stands are fascinating for several reasons. First, they are the only native arboreal feature in the valley, providing valuable structural complexity for native wildlife otherwise unknown in the valley.” He goes on to explain how they got there: pushed down from the mountains by glaciers during the Pleistocene Epoch. A high water table and natural springs allowed them to survive the area’s hot summers.

For generations, Western Shoshone and Goshute Indians gathered at this desert oasis several times a year to harvest medicinal plants, hunt game, socialize and participate in ceremonies. Recognizing the grove as a precious source of Earth’s bounty, they had a deep sacred attachment to it — and then, that meaning was tainted by violent contact with white men.

Delaine Spilsbury, an elder of the Ely Shoshone tribe, is descended from a survivor of this contact, her grandmother Mamie Swallow Joseph. Standing in the grove on a windy March afternoon, Spilsbury, who owns a jewelry and crafts wholesale company in McGill, remembers the story of one massacre: “There was a unit of the cavalry that was sent from Fort Ruby, and they came down the mountains on the other side of Schell Creek. They came across where the gap is by Cleve Creek and up the valley. And at the mouth of the valley, there were some Shoshone people who were camped there. The military waited until after night, and when (the Shoshones) went to sleep, they came in and just killed the entire camp.”

Ely Shoshone elder Delaine Spilsbury

Ely Shoshone elder Delaine Spilsbury. Photo by Heidi Kyser

Spilsbury says that, other times, white soldiers mistook peaceful gatherings at what her people call the Shoshone Cedars for war parties and attacked. At least two such incidents are documented. Mamie Swallow Joseph’s daughter, Lillian Stark, recounted the 1897 massacre she escaped from for Russell Robison’s 2006 book, Our Swallow Heritage Volume III: The History of George Swallow’s Daughters. And the Gosh-Ute war of 1863, as told in the History of Nevada, published by Thompson & West in 1881, includes this episode:

 

Dorothy Stark was the mother of Ely Shoshone elder Delaine Spilsbury (above) and daughter of Mamie Swallow Joseph, who escaped a massacre at Shoshone Cedars near Ely.Here (Company K) surprised another Indian camp in a cedar swamp, south of the present Cleveland ranch. The cavalry charged down upon the hostile band, but were brought to a halt by the swampy character of the ground. Many horses were mired, but some floundered through, and the consequent confusion, with temporary delay, enabled most of the Indians to escape. Twenty-three were found dead after the short, sharp conflict which ensued. The casualty to the whites was a soldier wounded and one horse disabled. From the scene of the last encounter the command returned to Fort Ruby, where it arrived May 10th, with the report that through its efforts fifty-two Gosh-Utes had been permanently converted to a peace policy.

 

The Great Basin Shoshone and Goshute people believe that the spirits of their ancestors live in the juniper trees under which they died. Occasionally, they’ll still come out to gather herbs or perform ceremonies here. Delaine Spilsbury’s son Rick Spilsbury says he likes to bring visitors to the site to show them how special it is.

And they worry that the Southern Nevada Water Authority’s drought-backup plan to pump groundwater from Spring Valley (along with several other valleys in Eastern Nevada) and pipe it south to Las Vegas would kill the swamp cedars. It’s one reason the tribes oppose the project and have joined various legal actions to block it, so far prevailing in court. SNWA’s enthusiasm for the project has waned, and the agency has said all along that danger signs turned up in regular environmental reviews would halt any detrimental activity. But opponents believe it’s far from dead.

“If you include the financing costs, this pipeline and the system of collector pipes and wells would cost something on the order of $15 billion,” says Dan McCool, a University of Utah political science professor whose specialty is water law. “How will they make the payments on that? They have to do it on continuous new hookups. In other words, Las Vegas has to continue growing. … The idea that they’re going to invest $15 billion, create an enormous economic liability, and then abandon the entire thing because of environmental or cultural or historical issues, is out of the question.”

Delaine Spilsbury shares this view. Looking down at the ground beneath her feet, she imagines the water flowing just below the surface, feeding the Shoshone Cedars. “If they take the water, the trees will die,” she says, her voice cracking with emotion. “The spirits will have nowhere to go.”

 

Pyramid Lake

The Pyramid Lake Paiutes have a sacred relationship with the water and its bounty.  Getting one of its fish species protected has helped the tribe in its conservation efforts.

The Pyramid Lake Paiutes have a sacred relationship with the water and its bounty.  Getting one of its fish species protected has helped the tribe in its conservation efforts.  Photo courtesy UNR Special Collections.

Five hours west of Ely, the Pyramid Lake Paiutes are worried about water, too -— less so now than 16 years ago, when the Truckee–Carson-Pyramid Lake Water Settlement Act became law, settling an age-old conflict over the Truckee River, which feeds the lake, and giving them an economic development fund of $40 million. But they’re still worried.

“The level of the water in the lake is very concerning, because, basically, Pyramid Lake is our identity, being the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe,” says Billie Jean Guerrero, sitting in a back room of the Pyramid Lake Museum and Cultural Center, which she directs, surrounded by archival documents and maps. “So, if we no longer have a lake, it also influences our cultural identity and who we are as a people.”

That identity is not reflected in the pyramid-shaped rock rising from the lake, which inspired explorer John C. Fremont to give it its English name in 1844. Rather, it’s best understood from a nearby rock formation that resembles a woman sitting in the water. Known to Pyramid Lake Paiutes as the “stone mother,” this formation represents a mythological progenitor who is said to have sat looking in the direction of her two banished children, weeping so much that a body of water formed around her, and pining so long that she turned to stone. The children who were sent away, the myth goes, became the Pitt-River Tribe. Those who remained became the Paiutes.

The contrast between what white men and Native Americans see in the lake defines its, and the tribe’s, last 170 years of history. In his writings, Fremont described the Paiutes as peaceful people, and yet 16 years after his arrival, they were engaged in war with the white miners and pioneers who were squatting on land designated as theirs by the federal government’s establishment of a reservation in 1859. The Paiutes eventually lost the war, but not before killing more white men than had died in a Native American-White confrontation for nearly seven decades. The U.S. was put on notice: These people are fighters.

They’re also patient. For nearly a century after the war, the tribe watched their 112,000-acre lake suffer a series of abuses at the hands of usurpers.

“The contention for water began as soon as people came in and wanted to use it,” says Bernard Mergen, an American Studies professor emeritus at George Washington University who wrote the 2014 book, At Pyramid Lake. “In order to build the mines for Virginia City, they cut down a lot of the timber around Carson City, and that sawdust and erosion made its way downstream.”

But the greatest harm to the lake, Mergen says, came from government reclamation projects, notably the 1905 construction of Derby Dam and diversion of Truckee River water to farmland in Fallon.

The Paiutes’ strongest connection to Pyramid Lake also turned out to be their best weapon for protecting it. The abundant fish, specifically Lahontan cutthroat trout (Nevada’s state fish) and cui-ui, on which the Paiutes depended for subsistence, have also attracted droves of outside anglers. The stanched flow of the Truckee and the lake’s subsequent drop in level interfered with the fish’s ability to spawn, drastically decreasing populations. The Paiutes took advantage of rising environmental awareness in the 1960s to get the cui-ui listed as one of the country’s first endangered species.

It was the beginning of a fight to get water put back into Pyramid Lake, a long slog that the Paiutes finally seem to be winning. In 2016, following a coordinated conservation effort between the tribe and government, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented the first lower Truckee River migration of Lahontan cutthroat trout in 80 years. The cui-ui is also making a comeback.

“The incredible thing about the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is that they’ve never had a large number of members,” Mergen says (the tribe’s website currently says it has 2,275). “They’ve had to deal with all these opponents, and they’ve come out on top.”

But drought and climate change continue to threaten the lake, and, Guerrero says the tribe is ever-wary of commercial incursion into its natural resource.

“Our tribal elders fought very much so that our lake water could be maintained,” she says. “To us, water represents life. Water is sacred.”

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