Carrying on the lineage: Curtis Harnar, wanting young Paiutes to have access to their history, helped get his mother’s 1974 book republished

Nellie Shaw Harnar, a Northern Paiute woman who lived from 1905 to 1985, wrote a book titled Indians of Coo-Yu-Ee Pah (Pyramid Lake): The History of Pyramid Lake Indians in Nevada. It was first published by Dave’s Printing and Publishing in 1974, and a second edition by Western Printing and Publishing came out in 1978. The book hadn’t been widely available in many years, so in the fall of 2023, the author’s son, Curtis Harnar, had it republished. 

Harnar’s second cousin, Billie Jean Guerrero, had approached him about republishing it. Guerrero’s experience as director of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Museum and Visitors Center helped push the book project forward. 

“Some friends and relatives on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Council wanted to make the book available for the younger generation,” Harnar said. “They had never seen or heard of it.” 

He had always wanted the Pyramid Lake High School library to have copies of the book for students to check out and read, but none were available. “That was my main motivation, so that our young people could read about their history, and it would always be available,” he said. 

Nellie Harnar began writing Indians of Coo-Yu-Ee Pah (Pyramid Lake) as part of her master’s degree in history from University of Nevada, Reno, in 1965.  

“She might have been one of the first in a very long time to write a book like this,” Harnar said. “My mother looked to Sarah Winnemucca as a kind of hero as far as literary accomplishments.” (Winnemucca had written Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims in 1883.) 

Harnar said his mother was a highly respected schoolteacher. “She did a great amount of research for the book, Indians of Coo-Yu-Ee Pah (Pyramid Lake), going into old files at the Stewart Indian School, because that’s also the Western Nevada Agency for the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” he said. 

“Pyramid Lake was her home and her family at the time. She thought this would be a way that she could provide education to Native American Paiutes living at Pyramid Lake, because no one had ever written their history before, only (sharing it) verbally. … Nearly every member of our paternal family was killed by the cavalry in an ambush at Cane Springs in 1865, and my grandfather was the sole survivor at 10 years old. He was so traumatized by the experience that he never told my mother anything about his parents after seeing them killed by the calvary.” 

He added quietly: “We came close to extinction.”  

Harnar’s grandfather went to Fort Churchill and was given to a livery stable man by the name of David Shaw in Dayton. There, Harnar’s grandfather, whose Paiute name was Makes Dust When He Walks, was given the name James Shaw.  

“That’s where he received a homeschool education thanks to David Shaw and his family,” Harnar said.  

Shaw later returned to the Pyramid Lake Reservation and became a deputy police officer. There, he raised a family of nine children.  

“He thought he should have a bunch of kids, kind of to put it in the white man’s face that they didn’t wipe us out after all,” Harnar said with a chuckle. “So that’s one thing about having all those kids—there are Shaws and relatives all over the place now.” 

Nellie Harnar was highly praised for her teaching skills and resourcefulness, working as a teacher for the Bureau of Indian Affairs for 37 years. She taught in government-run Native American schools throughout the Western United States. This included two years with the Pima Indians in Arizona, one year at the Reno/Sparks Day School, one year with the Northern Shoshone in Wyoming, and five years with the Navajo in New Mexico. 

“Finally, she was sent to teach at her beloved alma mater, the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, where she remained for 29 years,” Harnar said. “There, she met my father, who was one-quarter Cherokee Indian from Oklahoma. 

“My mother was dedicated to her profession and didn’t get married to my father until she was 33 years old,” Harnar said. “And so I wasn’t able to get to know my Paiute grandparents, as they had both passed away before I was born. I wasn’t able to partake in the many Paiute customs and legends passed down by my family. But my mother did pass on much of that knowledge to me as a child when we stayed at the Pyramid Lake reservation during the summertime.”  

Harnar also spent time learning hunting and outdoor survival skills from his father and Paiute male relatives at the Fort Independence Reservation in California. 

Now, Harnar is holding the mantle. A grandfather and active 84-year-old, he is known as the family historian, wielding an extra sharp memory—with more stories to tell. 

The 2023 edition of Indians of Coo-Yu-Ee Pah (Pyramid Lake), published by Keystone Canyon Press, is available at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Museum and Visitors Center in Nixon.