The Native tuition waiver bill is a historic reckoning in the Legislature

As Riley Snyder and Michelle Rindels wrote on May 2nd, the 2021 session of the Legislature is rapidly approaching a close. Many crucial policy debates remain unfinished. Legislators’ decisions on these issues will echo in the lives of Nevadans for years to come. Despite historic mobilization from Tribal leaders and advocates of Native issues, one crucial bill remains unpassed: AB262, which would waive tuition fees for Native students in Nevada’s institutions of higher education.

The notion of waiving tuition fees for Native students is not new. It has been a practice in educational justice for a century. Educational institutions have waived tuition for students from the Nations on whose land those institutions were built starting decades before foundational American programs like Social Security were ever enacted. In Minnesota, Congress stipulated the inclusion of a tuition waiver when the Morris Industrial School for Indians was closed in 1909 and its lands transferred to the state government to establish the University of Minnesota-Morris. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many of the current legislators in Carson City were children, Michigan legislators pointed to Minnesota in their arguments in favor of a tuition waiver. “For [Jackie Vaughn, a Detroit lawmaker who introduced the Michigan tuition waiver bill in 1975], the Native American tuition waiver program was one step toward addressing the grievances of America's minorities” — and as a result, a central component in the fight for basic civil rights in the United States. 

Nevada lawmakers have also historically valued a tuition waiver for Indigenous students as simply necessary for civil rights. According to Warren d’Azevedo’s Nevada Historical Society Quarterly article The Ethnic Minority Experience at the University of Nevada, 1874-1974, the “University of Nevada Board of Regents … established twenty fee waivers for Indian students in response to the new Civil Rights Act [in 1964].” In other words, Nevada lawmakers waived fees for Native students 10 full years before Michigan’s legislators. That is precisely because lawmakers valued civil rights as critical in Nevada and were willing to put their money where their mouths were. Despite the cost of those tuition waivers at a time when Nevada received even less funding for institutions — not only because of the lack of adequate taxation of the mining industry, a problem that persists, but also because of the dramatically lower number of Nevada taxpayers as a result of population size — lawmakers decided that educational justice was worth the investment. Because civil rights were worth prioritizing financially, so was a tuition waiver for Native students. 

They were right. Nevada’s institutions of higher education were built on unpaid debts to Native peoples. As Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez reported in The Indy, “the history of the state’s flagship university [the University of Nevada, Reno] is intertwined with the dispossession of the Washoe and Paiute Indigenous land and the displacement of its people as the state’s only land-grant university.” UNR was built through these unpaid debts to Indigenous people on Indigenous lands. In recent years, many legislators have passed through UNR’s doors, including members of the Committee on Ways and Means that now decides the tuition waiver bill’s fate. The highest-profile Republican in the state, Brian Sandoval, now serves as the president of UNR. An institution from which many Nevadan lawmakers and political leaders graduate has never paid back that debt accrued as a land-grab university and, to this day, many young citizens and descendants of the Northern Paiute and Washoe still cannot access a stable education from the institution built on money and land stolen from their ancestors. Lawmakers with UNR degrees and UNR affiliations, as beneficiaries of the land-grab and unpaid debts that built the state’s flagship university, should especially champion AB262.

Like many political issues, a tuition waiver for Native students is something every reasonable politician of any political party can enthusiastically back by virtue of simple common sense. This bill deserves the same bipartisan consensus in Nevada as some Native bills have acquired in other states in recent days. In North Dakota, an overwhelmingly Republican legislature recently passed into law a bill requiring all schools in North Dakota to teach Native American history, culture and treaty rights. Not only did Republicans vote in favor of the bill in large numbers, but Democratic leadership prioritized the bill’s passage. The Senate minority leader, Joan Heckaman, sponsored the bill and championed it to its eventual passage. North Dakota became a shining example of bipartisan politics and what happens when Democratic state leaders prioritize issues important to the Indigenous people in their state.

Now, AB262 sits in front of the Legislature. Nevada Republicans have an opportunity to pass a fiscally responsible bill that would greatly improve Nevada educational institutions’ track record of paying their debts. Democratic leaders, like legislators in the Ways and Means Committee and Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas), also now possess a historic opportunity to reinforce that civil rights are a priority for Democrats. Waiving tuition for Native students is a no-brainer for anyone who cares about fiscal responsibility and the idea that every student should have equal opportunity to pursue an education.

In no uncertain terms, AB262’s fate is a moment of historic reckoning. Tribal leaders, Nevada Native and Urban Natives from other tribal communities here living on Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe land will remember this moment in time. The people who never ceded the land, even as executive orders and the Treaty of Ruby Valley paved the way for Nevada’s colonization, will remember the names of legislators who show good faith in righting historical wrongs and those who do not. Lawmakers will illustrate their commitment to fiscal responsibility, educational justice, and more largely, civil rights, or they will not. Will legislators remember not only where the land they live on comes from, but where they themselves come from? 

Mercedes Krause, Ryan (Cal) Boone, Travis Sanderson, Natalie O'Neal and Loni Romo are members of the executive board of the Nevada Statewide Native American Caucus.