Amber Torres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe has been taking on leadership roles and advocating for her tribe for decades — and now, in a historic appointment, she will be taking on an even larger leadership role as part of the Department of the Interior’s first-ever Tribal Advisory Committee.
In June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced the formation of the Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee (SATC), and Torres was selected at the recommendation of Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak and Nevada Senators Catherine Cortez-Masto and Jacky Rosen as the primary member of the Western Region, one of twelve total regions across the U.S.
While the appointment is an achievement for Torres personally, she is more focused on what an achievement the advisory committee is for indigenous communities throughout the U.S. as a whole.
“It’s going to be a game changer,” said Torres. “This is a table we haven’t been invited to previously for quite some time, and to have [Haaland leading the committee], who has walked a mile with her staff, as well as her growing up on a reservation — being at that table is going to be historical for us, and we’ll be able to make significant change within a small time frame.”
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, made history herself when she became the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, following an achievement of becoming the first Native American woman to be elected to lead a state party as Lieutenant Governor of New Mexico, as well as the first woman elected to the Laguna Development Corporation Board of Directors.
“Tribes need a seat at the decision-making table before policies are made that impact their communities,” said Haaland in a committee announcement. “The creation of this new Advisory Committee is a timely and much-needed development that will ensure Tribal leaders can engage at the highest levels of the Department on the issues that matter most to their people.”
Representation is important when it comes to making decisions that are meant to have meaningful change on those directly impacted, said Torres.
“We’re seeing a lot of our indigenous people moving up and moving to the administration,” said Torres. “Seeing the president himself putting information out there about submitting resumes and qualifications to work at his level — I’ve seen a lot of our indigenous men and women take on those roles. It’s spectacular; they know Indian Country, they’re familiar with the issues. The inclusion so far has been phenomenal.”
Torres said that including native Americans in leadership roles isn’t only important for our current generation, but for many generations to come.
“Seeing native women take on those roles, it’s inspiring,” said Torres. “Young women see that, not only could you work at that level, you could move up and take on some of those key positions. I’m looking forward to the day we see our first native indigenous woman president. I don’t think that’s too far down the line.”
The Committee, which will hold its first meeting this month, will focus on trying to develop priorities, as well as assigning roles and responsibilities to committee members – a feat not to be taken lightly, with so much variation between tribal communities.
However, Torres said that, despite their differences, there will always be common ground between tribes.
“With 576 tribal nations at the table, we’re all unique but alike in so many ways,” said Torres. “No one knows better than tribal leaders and tribal citizens themselves. We need to make sure to have those different perspectives at the table.”
The priorities will range in everything from land, tribal enrollment, social services, water rights, and much more. However, something Torres hopes will be better understood is that, in the opinion of the tribes, no issue is above another.
Torres would like to see a formula change in how issues tribal members are undertaking are talked about. Currently, tribes are asked which issue is most important – a fundamental misunderstanding of how tribes view these issues.
“All of these different programs are our priority. The biggest intent is, ‘What are we going to do with that?’ Are we looking to change policy, go after funding? Also having the flexibility as Indian Country to determine what that looks like, because there are a lot of barriers to accessing these barriers because they don’t fit with what Indian Country knows.”
Torres says that having to tackle these issues within a small time period is going to be a challenge, but she and the committee are ready for it.
Issues that Torres would like to tackle that she sees affecting our local tribes in Nevada revolve around housing: probates, lease agreements at the BIA level, building capacity at the BIA level, streamlining processes for the 184 program (Indian Home Loan Guarantee Program), and expanding HUD requirements to allow for middle class citizens to receive assistance.
“We’re really looking after and taking care of our low income [people], but we’re forgetting about those people who have good paying jobs and are getting educated, and want to come back home,” said Torres. “But we don’t have any housing for them right now.”
Torres went on to say that what is needed now is to start building homes for the middle class, as well as creating flexibility with HUD dollars on how programs work together.
“That’s the biggest thing right now: it’s not working in silos, but working together to see how ultimately we can create health and wellness and mental stability for our tribal citizens.”
The topic of missing and murdered indigenous women is a nationwide issue as well as one that hits close to home, as the still unsolved public murder of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal citizen Anna Marie Scott is heading towards its year anniversary with virtually no movement from investigators.
Scott, 23, was found shot to death inside the trunk of a burning car on the I-580 bridge between Carson City and Reno in the early morning hours of Feb. 3, 2022. While another murder in the community, that of 18-year-old Fernley resident Naomi Irion, received international headlines, Scott’s murder has received no updates or details for months, indicative of nationwide issues surrounding the murder of indigenous women, who are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than all other ethnicities.
However, Torres hopes that having representation at the federal level will have a “trickle-down effect” to enact real change at the local level.
“In a place like Nevada, we’ve got 28 tribes across the state, but we only have one investigator for all of the 28 nations,” said Torres. “It’s very disheartening – if there is a sexual assault here, but a murder in McDermitt — which crime is going to supersede?”
That’s where additional funding would come in, says Torres, especially when it comes to tribal law enforcement and investigations.
Having a seat at the table will also allow tribes to be more aware of what’s coming, especially when it comes to “man camps” — temporary workforce housing accommodating workers in extractive industries like mining or oil, which is often set up very near reservations. Instances of violence, rape, sex trafficking, and disappearances of women increase significantly within tribes when man camps set up nearby.
According to Torres, for many tribes, they are not even made aware of these camps being set up until they begin coming onto their reservations after the fact.
There is currently an ongoing fight between the Fort McDermitt Tribe and the proposed Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, which the tribe says will not only destroy their environment, but will put their women in danger with a man camp that will have to be built to supply the mine with workers.
“We need to get tribal nations at the table regarding these projects for the fact that we’d be more aware of what’s coming on, we could be more alert as to watching out for one another, making sure people are prepared for man camps coming on — or be able to put resolutions in place saying absolutely we do not want this and rally around that.”
To learn more about the Committee and the issues it hopes to tackle, please click here.
Kelsey Penrose grew up in Carson City, Nevada is an alumna of Arizona State University, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Creative Writing with Sierra Nevada University. She lives and gardens in Washoe Valley. Support Kelsey’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.
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