Paiute artisan cited for picking cattails

By Frank X. Mullen Jr.
Reno, Nevada (AP) July 2011

For more than 20 years, Wesley Dick of Fallon has harvested the native Nevada plants that his Paiute ancestors used to make baskets, duck decoys, medicine and other things.

In May, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer on the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge issued Dick federal citations totaling $800 for collecting cattail stalks he planned to use in an elementary school duck-decoy weaving demonstration. He’s the first American Indian to be cited for gathering plants on the refuge, officials said.

That’s because Dick and other Nevada Indians who have been harvesting native plants for generations didn’t know there was a new sheriff in town. Collecting any plants on the wildlife refuge or any U.S. property has been against federal law for decades, but until a few weeks before Dick got his tickets the property didn’t have a full-time law enforcement officer.

It does now.

“It’s outrageous,” Dick said. “I was just leaving the area when (the officer) gave me the citations. Those of us, and there are very few left, who keep our culture alive do this (gathering) a lot.”

The case is scheduled July 21 in federal court in Reno. He said it’s ironic he was cited so close to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife sign informing visitors that the Paiutes – in particular the Fallon-area bands known as the toi-ticutta (cat-tail eaters) – have been using the marsh plants for generations.

“It’s a nice history lesson, but I’m not history, I’m a living person,” Dick said. “The things on their signs are still happening whether they admit it or not.”

Mike Goodard, refuge manager at Stillwater, said when he learned Dick had been cited, he called the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe to let officials know members can collect plants on the refuge as long as they have a permit to do so. Special-use permits have been issued to researchers, he said, and although no Indian has applied for one there should be no problem in getting permission to harvest a few plants.

“It’s the law,” Goodard said. “No one can take plants without a permit. There are no separate treaty rights (for Indians) that I’m aware of. The special use permit system has been used in other places and there hasn’t been a problem. "

Adam Fortunate Eagle, an Indian rights activist and artist who lives on the Fallon reservation, said the case “is not a matter of law; it’s a matter of justice.”

“What we’re seeing here is bureaucracy at its worst,” he said. “Going out to get a permit every time you want to pick wild asparagus is ridiculous. I think it will have a chilling effect on basket weavers, decoy makers and people who do other traditional things.”

He said Indians should just be able to show their identification as tribal members and that should serve as a permit.

Gene Hatori, curator of the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, said Dick has helped the museum with projects and outreach programs and has always been willing to demonstrate his skills for school children and others. He said Dick is a well-known and respected artist in buckskin, tules (cattail stalks) and other materials. Some of his work is on display at the museum.

“When we (at the museum) do research we ask to collect plants and usually there’s no problem,” he said. “Often on Nevada state land it’s an informal process. I understand that permits are available (at Stillwater), but I know Wesley has a problem with that.”

Dick said the need for certain plants often is unexpected. He said he will refuse to pay the fines and opposes the permit mandate.

“You don’t know in advance when someone is going to be sick or otherwise needs a ceremony,” he said. “I’m taking a stand not just for myself, but for my children and for the rights of generations unborn.

“My grandfather, my grandmother, my people going back forever have been collecting this stuff and making things,” he said. “I’ve run into game wardens before and they’ve always been courteous and respectful.”

He said once permits are used, their number can be limited or, eventually, eliminated. A crackdown on plant gathering at Stillwater, he said, is a continuation of the 500-year eradication of the American Indians’ culture and is out of line with the policies of other federal land agencies.

He said the Stillwater game warden, who wrote him a $625 ticket for taking the plants and a $175 ticket for his pickup being off the designated road, told him he should collect plants on Indian land. But Dick said because of controlled burning, there aren’t many areas left on the reservation where he can find suitable cattail shoots.

“I was praying, as I do when I harvest things, and I tried to explain to the game warden what I was doing,” Dick said. “(The officer) didn’t want to hear anything. He just wrote the citations. ... I’m not a criminal or a vandal. I’m a toi-ticutta and I will not be punished for it.”