Pandemic illuminates long-standing gaps in relations with Nevada tribes, an opportunity for closer ties

There are 27 federally recognized tribal nations in Nevada. Stacey Montooth is executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, a state agency. She communicates with all of them.

Before the pandemic, sovereign tribal governments had direct relations with the federal government. Now, under the national and state declarations of emergency, tribes  communicate with the US Government through the State of Nevada. Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak will meet with the Nevada Intertribal Council on Thursday, May 28 to discuss matters related to the pandemic.

“For Great Basin Native Americans, that’s the Paiute, the Shoshone, and the Washoe, along with the 50,000-plus self-identified urban Indians in the state of Nevada, we’ve never had a better opportunity to work with the state government in my lifetime,” said Montooth, a citizen of the Walker River Paiute Nation.

“I’ve never seen an administration like Governor Sisolak’s. In fact, I can tell you that he has asked me to be included in daily calls, so since the emergency was declared by the state of Nevada, the Indian Commission has been involved with his office every morning at 8:30.”

Pyramid Lake and Anaho Island. The island, from which Pyramid Lake got its name, is protected as the Anaho Island National Wildlife Refuge. Access to the island is restricted. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the nature reserve harbors a colony of American white pelicans and also supports breeding colonies of California gulls, Caspian terns, double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, black-crowned night herons, and snowy egrets – photo: Nevada Indian Commission

Tribal nations are sovereign states within Nevada. According to Montooth, ceding the diplomatic authority to communicate directly with the federal government is not done indiscriminately or without a compelling justification.

“I can tell you from working with the leadership, all of our chairs take sovereignty extremely serious,” Montooth said. “Having said that, they also realized that our tribal nations are not in a vacuum. Our leadership, they want to be good neighbors. They understand that what is good for Indian Country is good for the Silver State.”

For non-tribal members, Nevada’s native communities can be opaque. For instance, average annual income data from the US Census Bureau for the Fort McDermitt Paiute Reservation comes with a roughly 90 percent margin of error. Yet conjectural numbers are sometimes the basis for allocating social services and other government resources and representation.


Federal, state, and local governments have long struggled to gather accurate information in Indian Country. There is a long-standing cycle of mistrust and neglect.

The choice not to participate in the Census or other governmental inquiry has direct and indirect consequences for tribes and their relationships with all levels of government. Not participating in the identification and isolation of active COVID-19 cases comes with a distinctly different set of ramifications for the tribes and larger community.

Tribal nations in Nevada voluntarily report cases of COVID-19 to the Phoenix, Arizona office of Indian Health Services (IHS), a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Montooth says Nevada tribes are working with state and local health authorities as well.

For the first time, on May 19, 2020, COVID-19 cases were listed by Race and Ethnicity in the Nevada daily COVID-19 situation report. As of May 22, one percent of COVID-19 cases in Nevada are Native American.

The pandemic has prompted a more thorough accounting of tribal membership, and Montooth says more accurate communication between the state and native people is critical during the novel coronavirus emergency.

“For example, right now, the biggest outbreaks, the most positive cases are in Washoe County and in Clark County, which both are home to Native American communities.

“So if our relatives at Pyramid Lake or our relatives at the Reno Sparks [Indian Colony] don’t share how many positive cases that they have through their health clinics and their tribal health centers, then again, it’s hard to convey to the state where the latest lot of Abbott analyzers (a 5 minute COVID-19 test device) should be distributed,” Montooth said.

In an effort to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus, especially to elders, many tribes have closed their reservations to non-residents and consolidated member shopping trips.

According to the Washoe County Health Department map of COVID-19 cases by ZIP Code, there are currently 10 cases on the Pyramid Lake Paiute Reservation, with 5 in the town of Wadsworth.

The Reno Sparks Indian Colony is in the 89502 Zip Code where 233 cases of COVID-19 have been reported as of May 22. How many tribal members have active cases is not laid out in the published data.

The Southern Nevada Health District publishes numbers of cases by Zip Code in and around Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Paiute Tribe is in the 89106 Zip Code where as of May 22, there are between 111 and 157 cases of COVID-19. Again, how many cases are on the reservation is not published.

“An aged Paviotso of Pyramid Lake,” 1924 – photo: Edward S. Curtis/Library of Congress

For Montooth, the novel coronavirus emergency has illuminated long-standing gaps in basic support and communication infrastructure between all levels of government and the native peoples of Nevada. The pandemic is bringing the state and the tribes closer together, and there is a lot to discuss.

“I believe that there’s always an opportunity in crisis,” Montooth said. “For decades, there’s been gaps between the health care that the federal government has a trust obligation to provide for Native Americans. There’s been a gap in the education that the federal government has a trust obligation to for our Native American communities. Again, it was the federal government’s intent when reservations were created to put our ancestors in remote isolated areas.

“So all of these thought out, contemplated decisions that have been in place for decades, they’ve been there, but this pandemic is shining a spotlight light on them.”

“A Walker Lake Paviotso,” 1924 – photo: Edward S. Curtis/Library of Congress

Tribes occupy some of the most remote parts of Nevada. For members of the Goshute Tribe or Walker River Tribe, comprehensive shopping is hours away, if you have a car or gas money.

The Ally reported on food insecurity concerns on the Walker River Reservation in the wake of the closure of nonessential businesses in mid-March. Concerned citizens from Reno and surrounding communities delivered truckloads of food and other supplies to the Schurz area and other remote native lands in response to acute food scarcity. On the Walker River Reservation, the unemployment rate was around 25 percent before the pandemic. Poverty was already severe.

Nevada tribes are diverse and far apart

The Las Vegas Paiute tribe, by contrast, owns a successful tax-free smoke shop. The tribe also operates the state’s largest cannabis dispensary with 2 locations in the Las Vegas area, each with 24-hour drive-through service and the state’s only cannabis use rooms. According to Census data, the average age on the tiny North Las Vegas nation is the lowest of any native group in the state at 20.8 years old.

“Because of that diversity [among tribes], the approach to the COVID, that global pandemic has really been just as diverse as those tribal governments,” Montooth said.

The availability of testing on or near tribal lands in Nevada is a good example of the need for an adaptive approach to novel coronavirus relief assistance. Some tribes are on the forefront of testing protocols while other tribal communities still lack adequate access to testing.

“We have some tribal nations that are working and have established relationships with their local health districts. They’ve been testing and they continue to test. We’ve actually got a couple of tribal nations that are testing for anti-bodies for the COVID, which at this point, if you look across the nation, that’s pretty progressive.

“But we also have tribal nations, our relatives, I can say, just in Battle Mountain, that Battle Mountain Band Council, those citizens have to travel at least an hour, a little bit more, just to be tested, and that’s if they have an appointment. To get that appointment, like a lot of Americans, they have to call in a number and talk to a provider and review their symptoms on the phone, so there’s a huge diversity [among tribes], specifically regarding the testing right now,” Montooth said.

Federal Aid

The initial round of CARES Act relief funding for tribes in the United States was held up in litigation over the US Bureau of Indian Affairs decision to funnel more than half of $8 billion dollars in aid through a for-profit corporation in Alaska. The legal knot has been untangled, and most tribes in Nevada have gotten emergency relief assistance, but two problems remain.

The funds must be spent by the end of this calendar year, and tribal leaders are hesitant to use the aid because the purposes for which the money can be spent without repayment are unclear. This ambiguity is also an issue for the Nevada State Government and nearly $900 million in CARES Act relief funds.

Montooth and Nevada tribal leaders are looking to the National Congress of American Indians and the National Finance Organization for American Indians for guidance, which is expected soon.

Last week Nevada Congressman Steven Horsford convened a roundtable discussion with Native American leaders to include Stacey Montooth. She says several leaders asked the congressman for an extension on repayment, though no congressional fix has been proposed.

On the ground in Nevada, tribes need help. Time is of the essence.

“Hopefully, there’ll be more clarity with time,” Montooth said. “But when you’re in a global pandemic, time is not on our side. So, again, our leaders are trying to be prudent, but it’s not easy.”


The Future and Consultation with Tribes

During the 2019 legislative session in Nevada, lawmakers passed and Governor Sisolak signed Assembly Bill 264 into law on June 8, 2019.

The law requires the Nevada Indian Commission to implement a policy that promotes collaboration between state agencies and tribes. The governor must hold an annual meeting with tribal leaders. State employees who work with or impact tribes must attend cultural awareness training.

Environmental groups in Nevada have long advocated for greater consultation with tribes when permitting resource extraction activities like mining on or near tribal lands.

Kyle Roerink is executive director of the Great Basin Water Watch and says to deny the native people of Nevada access to ancestral places of significance, from burial grounds to artesian springs, is tantamount to genocide.

“A bill like AB264 was a great first step, but now we need something with some teeth in it,” Roerink said by phone. “Because I’ve been involved in situations since that bill was passed where there should have been consultations, and there weren’t any. The bill doesn’t really have anything punitive to really provide the type of accountability that I think it deserves.”

Writing and passing laws is usually easier than implementing them. Fixing more than a century of broken and mistrustful relations between Nevada tribes and the state and federal governments will take more than a pandemic and a law, but Stacey Montooth is working on it.

“Right now, the Nevada Indian Commission is gathering information, not just from our tribal nations but from the state agencies as well, to talk about what they believe the definition of consultation is and how we get to a place where it’s agreeable for both sides,” Montooth said.

An argument could be made that every state agency has some connection to the tribes, so cultural awareness training mandated in AB264 would apply to all state employees. Exactly which state workers will need to take the class is yet to be determined.

“I guess I would call it more of a special education course for those state workers who are frequently doing outreach and who work on a regular basis with our native communities. And what that special education or training is going to entail is the history and the current, the contemporary issues of the respective tribal nations.”

The Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center will hold its grand opening when museums are allowed to reopen – image – Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

The Stewart Indian School and Cultural Center is meant to tell an important story.

Plans began forming more than twenty years ago to develop a cultural center and museum on the campus of the Stewart Indian School, just a few miles south of Carson City. On June 8 of 2019, Governor Sisolak signed AB44 into law, a measure that formally establishes the Stewart Indian School and Cultural Center in statute and provides an operating budget for the biennium.

The Stewart Indian School opened in 1890 and was one of as many as 60 Indian boarding schools located throughout the nation. These were schools where students were involuntarily gathered from local tribes and forced to adopt western, Christian culture. The Stewart school and others like it were front-line tools of cultural assimilation.  The first of these off-reservation boarding schools was launched in 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where the motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

According to the Stewart Indian School website, “The school opened on December 17, 1890 with 37 students from local Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes and three teachers.”

Stewart Indian School, 1946 Yearbook, Grade 1 – image – Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

The museum and cultural center opened to the public earlier this year. The grand opening has been postponed until more than 10 people can safely gather and museums can once again reopen.

Stacey Montooth says the stories of Native Americans in Nevada have not been told and need to be more formally adopted in  K-12 curriculums. Montooth hopes the museum will play an important role in sharing the stories of Nevada tribes, bands and colonies in one of the fastest growing and urbanized states in the nation.

“It’s a firsthand account,” Montooth said of the museum and cultural center. “In a lot of aspects of Native American culture, our stories are told by nonnatives. And for this project, there’s no place else on the planet where a citizen can explore and take in these exhibits. They’re all interactive and [visitors can] learn about the impacts that actually still make a difference in the educational system for Native Americans in the state of Nevada to this day.”

Brian Bahouth is the editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. He has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.


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