The nemesis of Fallon:
He's Called 'Bob'
(Part I)

For more than a quarter of a century now, Robert Pelcyger has made a career of restoring to Pyramid Lake the water he says rightfully belongs to the Paiute people and the Cui-Ui Ticutta sucker fish, who were there when Fremont "found" the lake.
In that time, Pelcyger has become the nemesis of the late-comers to the Great Basin -- the farmers, the ranchers, the families still settling today in the oasis named Fallon made, in part, from water Pelcyger insists belongs to the Paiute.
Now, he seems near an important victory, and even at Pyramid Lake itself there are those who wonder for whom that victory may really be won.

By Tim Findley
The Magpie

As the old Paiute thought, his eyes scanned down the familiar pale slope of the big butte, then across the lush early summer green of cottonwoods, and finally focused on where the river made its bend in a magnificent unspoiled roll of deep wild water.
"A little too late now," he said at last. "Too late. Now it's up to them lawyers and the government. The people won't get nothing from it. None of them."
They tried, some of them anyway. For nearly 10 years a few members of the Pyramid Lake Tribe made quiet efforts to open more direct communication with their neighbors in Fernley and Fallon, usually only to be suspiciously turned aside with an attitude that seemed to confirm what their tribal lawyer warned them would be a stubbornly selfish attitude of the white farmers.
The same group had tried again and again to question why Colorado lawyer Robert Pelcyger seemed to have so much authority over their elected tribal government, and to ask where the money



was coming from to pay the lawyer his ever-increasing fees.
They never really found out, except that once in Carson City they were told Pelcyger could call on tribal trust funds from the Bureau of Indian Affairs whenever he needed them, to the amount of at least $150,000 a year. They understood that to be less than half what Pelcyger was earning from Pyramid Lake. Their own finance officer made less than $20,000.
They had even toyed with the idea of introducing a resolution to fire the attorney.
But it was too late now. Pelcyger has brought them this far in the more than


 
26 years he has been associated with the tribe, and especially in the last 10 or 12 years when the Settlement Act, Public Law 101-618, was developing. This year, 1997, is the year when it must finally be implemented; the year when the one million acre feet of water Pelcyger says the farmers own the tribe must begin to be repaid. The year when he hopes at last to shut off diversions from the Truckee River at Derby Dam and perhaps lose forever the Truckee Canal.
It's too late to question him now, even if they do distrust his motives more than ever.
"Personally, I think he's just in it for the money now," said a tribal member, "but we can't afford to stop him."
Robert Pelcyger will only say this is a flimsy attempt to divide the loyalties of a 600-member tribe he has almost single-handedly taken to the verge of an historic victory for Native American rights and for generations to come in the governance of water law throughout the West.
Pelcyger can count on Nevada's most powerful politician and the self-proclaimed author of the law the tribal lawyer helped write, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), for ultimate support. He is also sure by now of backing from nearly all the top




bureaucrats in the U.S. Department of the Interior whom he has carefully nurtured or intimidated. He has many friends in the environmental movement gladly willing to canonize his record. And he is certain that if all else fails, he can call in the chits from years of dealing with Sierra Pacific and WestPac Utilities.
"We're treated like children in this," a Pyramid Paiute said. "We are meant to be seen, but never speak without permission."
It has become dangerous around Wadsworth and Nixon and the river bottom lands stretching to the great lake itself to be heard speaking publicly against Pelcyger. Too much is at stake for many individuals, including some who themselves once questioned the lawyer's power on the reservation. He himself is no threat, but there are those who feel they owe Bob Pelcyger. So we have disguised the identities of Paiutes willing to talk to The Magpie about their lawyers. It is, they say, too late to make a real difference anyway in anything except what might personally be brought upon them.
Pelcyger himself believes it was a one-of-a-kind telephone call in the mid-1960s that started his long career as a tribal lawyer. Pelcyger was studying on a Clinton-like Fulbright fellowship in London, England, when the call came in from UCLA professor Monroe Price, in


 
Window Rock, Arizona. Price, forming a course on Indian law, was close to the Navajo Legal Services Program that would eventually capture the interest of Hilary Clinton and, later, Bruce Babbitt.
It was a meaningful beginning to the young Yale graduate's networking career -- which would eventually place him in a pivotal and powerful position to influence the development of U.S. Interior Department policy.
His UCLA law professor friend brought Pelcyger into the idealistically minded California Indian Legal Services, where Pelcyger soon won major attention with successes in federal court on behalf of the Rincon Band of California Mission Indians, in the so-called San Luis Rey water case.
Until that case in 1969, Pelcyger says he knew nothing at all about cubic feet per second or acre feet or the more exotic terms that he himself would eventually introduce into the legal lexicon. Such as "recoupment."
Again, it was networking among lawyers, this time with former U.S. Justice Department and then Bureau of Indian Affairs Counsel William Veeder, who brought Pelcyger to Pyramid Lake in the early '70s on behalf of the Native American Rights Foundation.
"I felt it was a terrible injustice,"




Pelcyger told an Advanced Natural Resources Seminar at the University of Colorado law school in 1992.
"The legal system had utterly failed these people and this resource, and the government had brought this elaborate water case and had purported to represent the interests of the reservation, but had totally sacrificed and subordinated them to the larger interests of the Newlands Project, and nobody had done anything about it. It was a travesty."
The Pyramid Lake Tribe already had a lawyer. In fact, the tribe had gone through a series of lawyers, especially after questions were raised about possible influences from gaming interests eager to pick off a gem in their resort expansion from Reno.
Neither that, however, nor, despite what Pelcyger says, the favoritism toward Newlands, was what really worried the tribe. In the moves of Senator Paul Laxalt (R-NV) to secure passage of the long-elusive Interstate Water Compact with California, the Pyramid Tribe saw the hints of possible termination of their federal trust status.
Termination, they feared, would follow a water agreement that would allow utility companies and developers upstream the major control of the Truckee.
At the time in 1984, in fact, it appeared


 
that Newlands and TCID should have mutual interest with the tribe in seeing that they were not locked out by upstream control of the river. Or at least, so some tribal members thought.
Pelcyger was only sub-counsel to the tribe's chief attorney Mike Thorp then. But already, Pelcyger was showing that he wanted no general input or interference from his clients beyond those on the tribal council whom he selected to brought in on strategy.
When hearings in Washington D.C. on the Interstate Compact were to begin in 1985, members of the Pyramid Lake ad hoc Committee on Water said they were excluded from the discussions their tribal attorneys were having with selected members of the council.
In desperation, the ad hoc committee went to Fallon and met with officials of the Truckee-Carson Irrigation District (TCID) to ask for their help in sending a five-member tribal delegation to testify against the bill in Washington.
Many subsequent mistakes would be made by TCID in underestimating Robert Pelcyger and his intentions, but that refusal to grant a neighborly request for help from tribal members in 1985 would prove to be a telling error for the irrigation district.
The five tribal members did go to Washington, scraping up bare funds with




the help of the American Indian Movement that allowed them only enough money to stay in what one remembers as "a flop house."
"We had to walk all the way to the Capitol," one of them said, "and we hadn't brought the right shoes. Some of us even changed into moccasins."
Carrying a petition signed by a majority of tribal members, the delegation went first to the headquarters of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There, a BIA representative warned them that they had better act quickly to halt what their own legal counsel was planning in dealings with Laxalt. The warning, ironically, came from Bill Veeder, the man Pelcyger credits with introducing him to the Pyramid Lake Issue. Uncertain of what Veeder meant, the tribal members searched out their own lawyer in Washington.
Bob Pelcyger, meanwhile, was ensconced in a posh downtown hotel. He was evidently not happy to see the arrival of the tribal delegation.
"I remember, we came in and everybody was sitting on beds or the floor in this fancy hotel, and all he wants to know is 'what are you doing here?'"

Next week: Part II


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