Silver Tailings: Original Burning Man

Burning Man began as a bonfire on the summer solstice in 1986 in San Francisco when a few friends got together and burned a 9-foot wooden man, although some of the current organizers claim it started a of couple years previous. By 1990, the event moved to the bleached white playa of the Black Rock Desert near Pyramid Lake.

Little did these friends know the history they were stepping into. From 1842 to 1846, Lt. John C. Fremont and his guide Kit Carson led expedition parties to Nevada, where they met the Paiute that inhabited northern Nevada and southern Oregon.

Lake Pyramid Paiute, Thocmetone – better known as Sarah Winnemucca – describes one of these meetings in her 1883 memoir, “Life among the Piutes.”

“The following spring there came great news down the Humboldt River, saying that there were some more of the white brothers coming, and there was something among them that was burning all in a blaze”

Jump forward to 1999, listed in the AAA’s RV guide under “Great Destinations,” the encampment boasted 320 registered theme camps. The following year it had 460 camps and the first active law enforcement activity, with 60 arrests and citations.

Sarah Winnemucca continues: “My grandfather asked then what it was like. They told him it looked like a man; it had legs and hands and a head, but the head had quit burning, and it was left quite black. There was the greatest excitement among my people everywhere about the men in the blaze.”

Seventeen years after moving to Nevada, the 20-foot effigy was set ablaze during the early morning hours of August 28th, causing the need to rebuild “the Man,” before the next day’s official burning. Paul Addis pleaded guilty in May 2008 to arson and was sentenced to the Nevada state prison, and ordered to pay $30,000 in restitution.

It wasn’t the first time there was commotion on the playa as Sarah Winnemucca explains: “They were excited because they did not know there were any people in the world but the two, — that is the Indians and the whites; they thought that was all of us in the beginning of the world, and, of course, we did not know where the others had come from, and we don’t’ know yet.”

As of 2011, participation had grown from a few to 50,000 people, complete with a city aptly named Black Rock City. It’s also been listed as the 10th largest city in Nevada, with it very own airport — so much for Burning Man being all about counter-culturalism.

But it’s Sarah Winnemucca who really gets the last laugh: “Ha! Ha! Oh, what a laughable thing that was! It was two Negroes wearing red shirts!”

Parallel’s in time can be interesting.

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