Norm Harry, water protector, remembered

pyramid lake tribal leader leaves a legacy to benefit generations

PHOTO/GRACE M. POTORTI: Norman Harry served terms as chairman and vice-chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.

In the desert, water is an answered prayer.

Beginning during the last Ice Age, Pyramid Lake and the people who lived there for millennia have been blessed with an abundance of water.  For uncounted generations the lake has been home to the branch of the Numu – the Northern Paiutes — known as the Cui Ui Ticutta, named for the fish that was their major food source.

Norman Oliver Harry was born into that ancient bloodline on Oct. 20, 1954. He grew up at a time when his people’s water supply – and thus their existence — was under threat from several quarters. He was elected chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, served in many other tribal and public positions, and fought repeated battles over water availability and environmental quality. He became the tribe’s water protector, land defender and wisdom keeper.

He died on Aug. 11 at the lake where he loved to fish, sing the timeless songs of his people and tell stories. On Aug. 15, family and friends gathered on Zoom in a virtual celebration of Harry’s life. They told of his connections that reached throughout the Great Basin and around the nation. And they celebrated a legacy that will benefit generations at the lake and people throughout Nevada and the West.

“Norm dedicated his life as a caretaker to our Mother Earth and we honor his leadership,” said Gregg Deal, a Pyramid Lake tribal member and Harry’s friend.

Bob Fulkerson, development director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, worked with Harry on many environmental justice issues for more than 30 years.

“Norm is the kind of leader that only comes once in a generation, if we are lucky,” he said. “Norm got things done, but never called attention to himself. He based his work on traditional knowledge. He said to me that his work was based on what the spirit moved him to do.”

“Norm was involved with historic water settlement issues and tribal government program management for more than 30 years, receiving numerous awards for his work in the environmental and tribal leadership fields. There is not an environmental justice issue in Nevada that does not have Norm’s imprint on it and he was a recognized leader in the national environmental justice movement.”

— Bob Fulkerson, development director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.

Harry served several terms as chairman and vice-chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. He and his team completed a multi-party negotiation of the Truckee River Operating Agreement, a key document that settled decades of litigation over water rights in Northern Nevada. The issue involved the 1904 diversion of water away from Pyramid Lake and into the Carson River system in order to irrigate lands in Churchill County. Lawsuits concerning the Truckee River, which some described as the most litigated river in the country, went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court. In the end, all parties agreed to give up some things to achieve the larger benefits offered by TROA.

The settlements returned water rights to the tribe and “ensured the preservation of Pyramid Lake and the future well-being of his people,” Fulkerson said. In the mid-1980s, Harry fought the Honey Lake water importation project. Planners eventually curtailed the amount of water to be withdrawn, which preserved the flow of water from nearby springs to Pyramid Lake.

Harry also waged a years-long battle that ended the open burning of munitions at the Sierra Army Depot in Herlong, Calif., a practice that sent toxic clouds eastward over the reservation and Northern Nevada. In 2005, he spearheaded the recovery of 13 tons of rockets, shells, and ammunition from Pyramid Lake that the military had been dumping there since World War II. He served as chairman of the board for Great Basin Mine Watch, and lobbied other Native American leaders to get involved in protecting groundwater from the destructive practices of gold mining.

“He always talked about the water: ‘What’s good for the fish is good for the people,’ he told me,” Fulkerson said. “Norm also dedicated a great deal of time to work with (his wife) Beverly to uplift the civic engagement of tribal communities, traveling throughout the state, encouraging other tribal leaders to take stands in their own communities. He mentored me and countless other activists and organizers.”

After Harry left tribal politics, he told Fulkerson he wanted to dedicate more time to his spiritual development. “He freely shared his singing, drumming and his prayers with the rest of us, native and non-native, in order to help us come together in a good way for the protection of the water and land he loved,” Fulkerson said.

His friends also remembered Harry as a student of history, who well knew the injustices committed against Native Americans, but who did not allow bitterness to rule his heart. He had a quick wit and easy laugh. He treated U.S. senators and impoverished people with the same respect. When faced with contentious opponents, he maintained a calm demeanor, opting for factual arguments over emotional appeals.

 “We’re so glad to see that Dad has had such a profound impact on so many people. The past few days have been difficult, but he was sent off in such a beautiful way, surrounded by his friends and family, by song and prayer…  I wanted to think about the work he’s done, as a water protector, as a land defender, as a traditional leader, as a dad, a father, a brother, a beautiful human being, a beautiful man who we are going to miss so much. Continue to think about the land and fight for the land.”

— Autumn Harry, Norm Harry’s daughter.

Bob Pelcyger, who worked with Harry on water rights issues, remembered his friend as “honest and sincere” and someone who “always lit up the room.”  He said Harry was the finest person he ever had the honor to know and to work with.

“Norm was centered,” Pelcyger said. “He knew who he was, where he came from and why he was here. He was here for the fish, he was here for the people. He was here for his family… Everyone knew he said what he meant and meant what he said. He never spoke just for the sake of speaking. He knew what he knew and what he didn’t know. He listened and learned and always respected the views of others. He respected them and they respected him.” Harry was the personification of bringing potential adversaries together, he said.

Harry was preceded in death by his father, Floyd; and brother, Eugene. He is survived by his wife, Beverly; son Jared; daughter Autumn; mother Charlotte; sisters Debra and Carolyn; brother Ed; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews. At the online celebration of life, relatives and friends shared eulogies, songs, a poem, prayers and stories.

Autumn Harry said that at her father’s burial earlier on Aug. 15, her family was speaking to his spirit when a quail flew into the arbor “and let us know that he was there.” The night before, when the family was in ceremony at home, a storm broke over the ancient lake. Water embraced water.

“There was lightning, there was thunder, there was rain,” Autumn Harry said. “So we know he’s there. He’s listening to us… When we go to Pyramid Lake, we know he’s there. He’s there with us; he’s standing on the shoreline next to us. This is a reminder to continue to talk to him because he’s listening.”

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