Nevada Indian Country celebrates wins at the Legislature, including greater access to higher education for students

Tribal leaders and advocates are eyeing their communities’ futures with more hope after priority bills for Native leaders made it across the legislative finish line last week. 

“I say unequivocally there’s never been a better time to be Indigenous and live in the state of Nevada,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, during an event last week at the Stewart Indian School in Carson City, where Gov. Steve Sisolak signed three bills affecting Nevada tribes  — AB262, AB88 and AB270 — into law. 

Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission speaks during a bill signing ceremony with the Governor at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The legislation prioritized by Native leaders that cleared the lawmaking session include measures that waive fees at Nevada colleges and universities for Native students; prohibit racially discriminatory language or imagery in schools; and provide environmental protection for sacred sites, among others. 

Marla McDade Williams, an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone and lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said legislation crafted with input from Native community members has been steadily increasing over the last few years in the Legislature, a trend that continued this spring.

“As long as people just continue to keep issues at the forefront, there's always going to be a legislator who is willing to bring those issues forward and see how we can craft a solution that is beneficial for the Native American community and tribes,” she said. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) said the inclusive legislation fosters unity amid an era of reckoning with historical injustices. 

“This is, I think, a groundbreaking legislative session for advancing the rights and issues of Indigenous people and fostering inclusion among all of us, because while we come from many different communities, we're also all one community and all Nevadans,” he said during the bill-signing event. 

Governor Steve Sisolak during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City after signing bills AB88, 262 and 270 on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Here’s a look at the bills that passed during the session, all of which have also been signed into law by Sisolak, that affect Nevada tribes:

AB262: Fee waiver for Native students 

One of the top priorities this session for Native leaders and advocates, AB262 waives registration, laboratory and other mandatory fees at Nevada System of Higher Education institutions for Native people who are members of federally recognized tribes in Nevada or descendants of enrolled tribal members. With in-state tuition, waiving fees at universities and colleges significantly reduces the financial burden to attend school for students.

The law goes into effect on July 1. 

At the signing event, Montooth said the measure “exponentially broadens” the futures of 70,000 Native Americans in the state. 

“I use that large number, not to scare NSHE (Nevada System of Higher Education), but because in Indian Country, when one of us earns a degree, our entire family earns a degree,” she said. 

Tribal leaders, such as Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez, who advocated for the bill during the session said the increased access to education will help lift tribes and their community members out of disproportionate poverty rates. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Reno), who sponsored the bill, told The Nevada Independent that her hope is that it will ultimately benefit those who live on tribal lands. 

“The goal is really for students to be able to attend school and then come back hopefully to the community so that way we can get Native American doctors on the Native lands, we can get an attorney on Native American land — those things make a difference,” she said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Cheryl Simmons, an enrolled member of the Washoe Tribe, said she’s excited for the measure to be implemented in time for her classes to start in the fall. As a single mother of two children who is also helping raise her grandchild, she said the fees pose a barrier to people such as herself who want to work toward an associates or bachelor’s degree. 

“I’d like to see that change in our school system because it’s penalizing [students] to learn more,” she said, adding that she’s working toward her fifth associates degree in criminal justice at Western Nevada College. She has other degrees in general studies, art and business management. 

Besides being an enrolled Nevada tribal member or descendant of one, students also must be eligible for enrollment in a university or college, be a Nevada resident for a year or more, maintain a 2.0 grade point average and fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form to be eligible for the fee waiver. 

The bill also requires the Board of Regents to submit a report to the Legislative Counsel Bureau regarding the number of students eligible and the total funding available for the waived fees by Sept. 1, 2022, in order to provide accurate data for future legislative bodies.

The original version of the bill included providing in-state tuition at colleges and universities for members of tribes outside of Nevada, which was amended out of the final version. 

In a fiscal note, the Nevada System of Higher Education stated it could not determine the financial impact of the bill as it depends on how many students will take the opportunity to use it. 

The Assembly approved the bill nearly unanimously, with Assemblyman John Ellison (R-Elko) as the lone lawmaker who voted against it, and the Senate unanimously approved it on the final day of the session. 

AB88: Bans offensive, racially discriminatory imagery in Nevada schools 

Sponsored by Watts, the measure bans offensive or racially discriminatory language and imagery, names, logos or mascots in Nevada schools. 

The legislation came about during a time of reckoning across the country, with Native people calling for sports teams, businesses and schools to remove offensive names. Earlier this year, UNLV retired its Hey Reb! mascot after taking its statue down last June in response to a history tied to confederate symbolism and, last year, the Squaw Valley Ski Resort announced it would drop “squaw” from its name after years of protest from the Washoe Tribe. On the national stage, the Washington professional football team announced a name change in January, dropping the “Redskins” title after 90 years. 

Assemblyman Howard Watts attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Watts said the goal of the measure is to continue promoting awareness about the injustices of the past in order to move forward. 

“That's really what Assembly Bill 88 tries to do is help educate people about some of the racially discriminatory aspects of our history, from our school mascots, to the names that we've given to places, places that were named first by Indigenous peoples, and then renamed when settlers arrived, and also addressing the issue of sundowner sirens,” he said during the bill-signing event. “I believe that by confronting these issues, and working together to address them, we can all move forward together and have a brighter future for the state.”

Nevada schools may still use language, imagery or mascots in connection with tribes as long as they have consent from local tribal leaders to do so. For example, the Elko band of the Te-Moak Tribe allowed the Elko High School Indians mascot to remain the same. 

Signs and flags of the Elko Indians at the Elko High School in Elko, Nevada. (Famartin / Creative Commons)

The bill also prohibits Nevada counties, cities and unincorporated towns from sounding sirens, bells or alarms historically used to alert people of color to leave town at a certain hour, known as a “sundown ordinance.” The bill specifically applies to Minden in Douglas County, which repealed the sundown ordinance in 1974 but continues to sound the siren at 6 p.m. each day. Tribal leaders have asked for years that the siren be removed, or at least changed to a different hour of the day.

Serrell Smokey, chairman of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, said the measure gives the tribe a better “foothold” in its fight against the siren, which is triggering for some tribal elders who lived through the era of sundown ordinances. 

“We’ve seen this even in some elders nowadays, if you ask them about the siren, they'll say, ‘Don't mess with that, don't talk about it,’” Smokey said. “That's historical trauma. They're still scared about it and they don't want to address it. Us younger generations have more fight in us and we know we need to capitalize on taking action with social injustices that have been going on throughout the world.” 

The bill also asks that the State Board on Geographic Names recommend name changes for geographic features of places in the state that have racially discriminatory language or imagery. The board includes two Native representatives. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill 36-6 and 12-8, respectively, with some Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law during the event on June 4. 

AB270: Stewart Indian School preservation

Sponsored by Assemblyman Philip O’Neill (R-Carson City), the measure allows the museum director of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum designate certain buildings and grounds of the former boarding school for Native children for special events and authorizes the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages at such events. 

The Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The bill also earmarks any funds made through the special events to be paid into the State Treasury for credit to the Nevada Indian Commission Gift Fund. Those funds must be used by the commission to maintain and preserve operations and cultural integrity of the Stewart Indian School. 

During the bill-signing event in Carson City, O’Neill said the measure will help ensure the museum can continue to educate the public on the harsh history of the boarding school. The measure also includes preservation efforts for the State Prison. 

“[The Stewart Indian School and the State Prison] are long standing in our Nevada history, both good and bad. And we need to teach that, have that available, so our future generations do not repeat. And that's the strongest part of all of our bills today is that we prepare our future generations to be better than we are,” he said. 

Assemblyman P.K. O'Neill attends a bill signing with Governor Steve Sisolak for AB88, 262 and 270 during a ceremony at the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The Stewart Indian School was one of hundreds of federal boarding schools in the United States that housed Native children, often kidnapped from their families and forced to attend, in order to assimilate them into white culture. Their traditional long hair was cut short and their languages and spiritual practices were forbidden. It reopened last year, after receiving funding from the state, as a museum to share the story of what happened there, as told by school alumni, some of whom are still living in the state. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously, and Sisolak signed it into law during the event on June 4. 

AB261: Expand historical contributions of diverse groups in education 

Sponsored by Anderson, the measure requires that education curriculum used throughout the state promote greater inclusion and accurately reflect societal contributions made by various demographic groups.  

The bill requires the board of trustees of each school district and the governing body of charter schools ensure educational material includes contributions to science, arts and the humanities made by Native Americans and tribes, people of marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity, people with disabilities, people from African American, Basque, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander backgrounds and more. 

The bill addresses frustrations expressed by Native leaders and educators that education generally focuses on Native people as historical figures and fails to acknowledge the historical contributions and modern day presence of Native people and tribes in Nevada. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill in 26-16 and 12-9 votes, respectively, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and Sisolak signed the bill into law in May. 

AB321: Expanded voting measure becomes law 

Sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas), the bill sets in stone the expanded voting measures implemented last year in response to the pandemic. Native leaders and advocates have widely supported the measure as it includes extended deadlines for tribes to request polling locations and so-called “ballot harvesting,” which allows people to submit ballots for non-family members.

McDade Williams, Te-Moak tribe member and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony lobbyist, said the law improves access to voting for tribes. 

“Being able to recognize that tribal communities are isolated and figuring out ways to help them participate in the state selection process — these are all good things for tribes,” she said. 

A Native voter wears a "voting is sacred" T-shirt at a polling location for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Nevada Native Vote Project.

The next step: Educating Native voters about how to access the ballot in time for the midterm election season next year, she said. 

“Hopefully those initiatives can really bear some fruit over the next 12 months, getting some resources at the tribal level to start training voters on how to access the process and how to understand candidates and what to look for in candidates,” McDade Williams said. 

The bill passed along party lines in the Assembly and Senate, and Sisolak signed it into law on June 2. 

AB103: Protecting Indian burial sites in Nevada 

A follow-up to legislation approved in 2017, the bill clears up ambiguities in the law regarding excavation of Indian burial sites across Nevada. Sponsored by Assemblywoman Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), the measure clarifies that entities engaged in lawful activity, such as construction, mining and ranching, are exempt from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the activity will not affect a known burial site. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law following the end of the session in May. 

During a hearing for the bill in March, Michon Eben, manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony cultural resource program, said the current law does not protect Native items or objects found across Nevada and is something Native people would like to change in the future. 

AB171: State protection for “swamp cedars” 

The measure sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee grants state protection to Rocky Mountain juniper trees, known as “swamp cedars,” outside of Ely in Spring Valley. Native elders and tribal leaders widely supported the measure because the site where the swamp cedars are found, known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone, is sacred to Indigenous people. 

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13. It later passed the Senate in a 13-8 vote, with Republicans voting against it, except for Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), who crossed the aisle to approve the measure despite raising concerns about historical inaccuracies regarding massacres of Indigenous peoples cited in the bill. Sisolak signed the bill before the session ended in late May. 

AJR4: Federal protection for “swamp cedars”  

Further expanding on AB171, the resolution, also sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, urges Congress and the Biden administration grant protections to  swamp cedars and designate the area as a national historic monument or expand the Great Basin National Park to include Spring Valley.

The Assembly approved the bill 29-13, with Republican lawmakers voting against it, and was later unanimously approved by the Senate. 

AJR3: Naming Avi Kwa Ame a national monument 

Sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas), the resolution heads to Congress to establish Spirit Mountain, known as Avi Kwa Ame in the native Mojave language, as a national monument. Avi Kwa Ame is a spiritual center for several tribes spanning across Nevada, California and Arizona, including the Fort Mojave Tribe. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill largely along party lines, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. 

Adding Native representatives to state groups: 

AB72: State Board on Geographic Names 

The measure adds another spot for a Native representative from the Nevada Indian Commission on the State Board on Geographic Names. The board already included a spot for a member from the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada and includes representatives from the state Bureau of Mines and Geology, UNR, UNLV, the U.S. Forest Service and more. 

The Assembly and Senate unanimously approved the bill and Sisolak signed it into law on May 21. 

AB52: Land Use Planning Advisory Council 

Sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources committee, the bill adds a voting member appointed by the Nevada Indian Commission to the Land Use Planning Advisory Council. The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law last week.

AB54: Advisory Traffic Safety Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Growth and Infrastructure committee, the bill creates the Advisory Traffic Safety Committee, which will be tasked with reviewing, studying and making recommendations regarding best practices for reducing traffic deaths and injuries. As part of the committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council. 

The Assembly approved the bill 36-4 and the Senate 12-9, with Republican lawmakers voting against it. Sisolak signed the bill into law on May 21. 

AB95: Legislative Public Lands Committee 

Sponsored by the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections committee, the bill adds a member representing Nevada tribal governments recommended by the Inter-Tribal Council and appointed by the Legislature to the Legislative Public Lands Committee. 

The Assembly and Senate approved the bill unanimously and Sisolak signed it into law on May 27. 

Tribes celebrate pine nut blessing, and a study abroad shakeup

This week on IndyMatters, Reporter Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez talks with tribal members who were finally able to gather and bless the pine nut harvest for the first time since the pandemic started. After that, Host Joey Lovato talks with Alyssa Nota, the CEO and president of the University Studies Abroad Consortium, and a student, Tyler Moye, who was studying abroad in China when the pandemic hit last March. Then, Assistant Editor Michelle Rindels and Reporter Riley Snyder talk about the state budget as we approach the final days of the 120-day legislative session. At the end of the episode, we have a short clip from Third House! The comedy show put on by the press corps at the end of every legislative session.

0:00 - Intro

1:15 - Pine nut blessing ceremony

8:25 - Studying abroad during a pandemic

14:10 - Legislative update

25:30 - Third House

27:50 - Outro/Credits

Native American Nevadans celebrated gathering for the first time since the pandemic began for pine nut blessing ceremony

A small church at the foot of the Smith Valley mountain range buzzed with energy on Friday as members of Native communities shared a meal and eagerly embraced one another for the first time in more than a year. 

Members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, Yerington Paiute Tribe, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and more expressed a sense of relief to be in each other’s company since tribal leaders closed many of their reservations last year because of the pandemic. 

“The biggest thing that we enjoy is seeing our elders from other surrounding areas,” said Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres. “Getting to say hello because, again, tomorrow is never promised. We enjoy that time to visit and converse over a good hearty meal.”

Nevada Native community members share a meal in Smith Valley. (David Calvert / The Nevada Independent)

The gathering followed the annual pine nut blessing ceremony, meant to help yield bountiful pine nuts, a traditional food source shared among tribes throughout Nevada, come the fall season.  The ceremony and subsequent gathering posed an opportunity for the communities to check in with one another and continue practicing traditions vital to the preservation of their cultures. 

“We’ve held onto the [pine nut] blessings here in Yerington over the years and we just share it as we go along, that's the way history is kept for us,” said Yerington Paiute Tribe Vice Chairman Elwood Emm. 

Some of the tribal members gathered at the church had spent the morning traveling from Yerington, Schurz and Reno to participate in the annual blessing, driving through scattered snow and rain showers that muddied the dirt road leading to a spot on the waters of the Desert Creek in the mountains. 

Young Native community members played in the snow on the road leading to Desert Creek. (David Calvert / The Nevada Independent)

Emm said the tribes historically traded pine nuts, along with deer meat and buck berries, for other food sources, such as acorns and salmon. Torres added that some tribal members continue to barter for goods if they have pine nuts, which she said "are like gold."

While the annual blessing ceremony is intended to reap a healthy pine nut harvest, it also helped alleviate the stress from the past year for Native people such as Walker River Paiute tribal member Bill Frank.

“It’s good medicine to be around people but it's also good medicine to be out there by the water, to be out there in nature in the sunlight and then the blessing of the cleansing of the rain and the snow — it actually felt relieving,” Frank said. “You can feel coming back down the hill, a lot of things were lifted off your shoulders.” 

Bill Frank helps bring in food to the church. (David Calvert / The Nevada Independent)

Tommy Gutierrez, a Yerington Paiute tribal member, said he regularly visited community  members during the pandemic as part of his job as an essential worker providing resources and safety supplies. But he noted a sharp difference between interacting with his community during a public health emergency and spending time among them in ceremony. 

“It's incredible because they’re in such better spirits, big smiles,” Gutierrez said. “It's nice. You get to see them as they actually are, not miserable and cooped up.” 

Tommy Gutierrez and Alvin Tom worked together as essential workers to provide services for the Yerington Paiute Tribe. (David Calvert / The Nevada Independent)

The gathering included a diversity of tribal members who regularly participated in the pine nut blessing, some who joined for the first time, young children and elders who remembered being there as children themselves, accompanied by their grandparents. 

Looking at the desert valley before him, tribal elder Emm reflected on what the pine nut blessing entailed for his ancestors who trekked through the mountains and valleys for days in order to carry out the ceremony Emm and others performed Friday morning. 

“They would have been two days ahead of everybody and they would have been set up and camped there already,” he said. “Those campsites they set up for all the others they knew were coming from Fallon and Walker River and Pyramid Lake and Bishop and Bridgeport, they would all come and join just like today, all those tribes are here. We’re all related somehow, we're all tied together.” 

Sowing seeds for a brighter future

Torres said the Walker River Paiute Tribe has been involved in the annual blessing for more than 90 years, but like most gatherings, it was canceled last year because of the pandemic, resulting in consequences on the harvest. 

“We saw that there was nothing, it was scarce,” Torres said. “When we can’t find our traditional food, it makes it hard for us to carry on our tradition.” 

The traditional pine nut harvesting is also threatened by the warming climate and clear cutting, building on the urgency to continue the practice, added Stacey Burns, language and cultural coordinator for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

"It's a threat on food sovereignty every year, so the more we come out, the more we make presence, the more we let our U.S. Forestry know to designate our lands for us," Burns said.

She said she hopes Friday's gathering will translate to a greater harvest this year. 

“I'm hoping all of our songs and prayers and dances will bless us because already we've been seeing a lot more moisture, so we're hopeful for that,” Burns said. “We need the rain, we need the snow. We need so many of these things but we also need the people to come out and acknowledge them, speak to them, gather.” 

Stacey Burns, a Reno-Sparks Indian Colony tribal member, on her way to share a meal with community members. (David Calvert / The Nevada Independent)

Torres said she is confident there will be more pine nuts this fall. 

“As long as it was carried through by our elders and the right people who bring good medicine, good spirit, good energy, that's the most important thing,” she said. “I know there will be a good harvest come fall and seeing everybody's faces and just how excited they were to gather again, I know it's going to be there.” 

Walker River Paiute Tribe Chairman Amber Torres said she is confident in a good pine nut harvest to come in the fall. (David Calvert / The Nevada Independent)

Burns added that she’s looking forward to more cultural gatherings and ceremonies to strengthen their communities as they continue to heal from the effects of the pandemic. 

“I’m looking forward to a culturally centered mindset,” she said. “Throughout this pandemic, it has made us reevaluate the way we carry ourselves in this world. I hope that that strengthens us and knowing that what connects us is our language, what connects us is our culture, our songs, our dances, our ceremonies — I'm hoping to get back to that in a safe way because we need to keep our people safe.” 

Nevada lawmaker calls into question the history of Native American massacres, causing backlash from advocates

Sen. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks) angered some Native advocates earlier this month when he rebutted the historical accuracy of testimony shared by tribal leaders and elders, but doubled down on his comments saying he was focused on accuracy. 

Native elder Delaine Spilsbury and Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation Chairman Rupert Steele delivered testimony during a hearing on AB171 earlier this month, explaining the importance of Spring Valley (known as Bahsahwahbee in Shoshone) where they said hundreds of Indigenous people were killed in at least three massacres between 1850 and 1900. 

During the hearing, Spilsbury emotionally recounted her own grandmother’s experience of surviving a massacre as a young child.

“As she hid in a ditch, she witnessed bloodthirsty thugs viciously kill off her relatives and friends and desecrate her place of worship, her place of solace,” Spilsbury said. “For the remaining Nuwu people, it is our firm belief that the swamp cedars in Spring Valley embody the spirits of the lives lost during these massacres, bodies of our relatives nourished those junipers. Their spirits, souls and remains are all that is left in Spring Valley in those trees. That is why I continue to visit.” 

But Hansen pushed back on the historical accuracy of the massacres described in Spilsbury’s testimony and by Steele in a letter of support for the bill. During the hearing, Hansen argued that there were anomalies between the testimony and the historical record, including indications that U.S. Cavalry divisions were involved in the 1897 massacre while saying there was no cavalry in the region at that time. 

“No offense to anybody, but the historical inaccuracies disturb me, as part of the bill,” Hansen said during the hearing in early May. Despite concerns, Hansen ultimately voted to pass it during the Senate Natural Resources Committee meeting last week. 

The Nevada Native Voters Alliance called for a public apology for the comments from Hansen earlier this month, stating that they “reflect a lack of cultural competency and Indigenous education that is endemic in this country” in a press release. 

“It's super disrespectful for Senator Hanson to assert that he knows more about tribal history than our tribal people,” Taylor Patterson, executive director of the Nevada Native Voters Alliance, said during an interview with The Nevada Independent last week. “If he's truly a student of history, as he says he is, he realizes that history is written from a certain perspective and often leaves out indigenous perspectives as well as other BIPOC communities.”

In an interview, Hansen apologized for hurting people’s feelings but said he would not apologize for his statements on the historical record. 

“I'm standing by it,” Hansen said during an interview Thursday with The Nevada Independent. “I apologize for hurting their feelings. But you know, I'm not going to apologize for basically saying something I think is inaccurate, it’s inaccurate.” 

Hansen said he thinks the history needs to be “solid” in the language and history behind both the bill and a separate resolution urging Congress and the Biden administration to designate the area as a National Heritage Area.

“I’m voting for this. The only thing that concerns me is we have some historical things that frankly just aren't accurate in this thing,” Hansen said during floor debate on AJR4 on Friday, adding that he believes the region merits protection for the 1863 massacre but continued to raise doubts about the massacres in 1859 and 1897. 

Patterson said she didn’t expect Hansen to offer an apology, but hopes the exchange could spur the senator and others to increase conversations with tribal leaders and community members, adding that the Legislature would benefit from having elected tribal members to represent their communities. 

“So we have this issue where we're not being included, number one, schools are not teaching about Native Americans in a real meaningful way, and then we have legislators that are perpetuating stereotypes and false narratives about our people,” she said. 

Hansen also said that he considers himself native to Nevada, as well, as his grandfather arrived in the Great Basin region in 1925. 

“I'm as much a product of the Nevada desert, born right here, so in my mind I'm a Native American too,” he said. “True, I don't have the ancestry that goes back thousands of years, but hundreds of years in my case, almost a hundred.”

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

At the Legislature, tribes focused on environmental protections, tuition waiver bill

The Legislature on Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020 during the third day of the 32nd Special Session in Carson City.

Native leaders launched into the legislative session with momentum gained during the 2020 election season, when they ramped up political mobilization efforts and urged more civic  participation among tribal nations in the state. 

Now, tribal leaders and advocates are focusing their energies on priority issues at the Legislature, such as securing tuition-free higher education for Native students and protections for culturally sacred and environmentally sensitive areas. 

Marla McDade Williams, an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of the Western Shoshone and lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said “there’s a lot of legislation out there” she’s watching, and that as long as some of it passes, she will consider it a successful session. 

But she’s also specifically rooting for AB103, a measure that seeks to clear up ambiguities in the law regarding the excavation of prehistoric Indian burial sites, which she helped draft and shepherd through the 2017 legislative session. Another priority bill is AB262, which would waive tuition and fees at Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) institutions for Native students. 

Williams said there is an increased number of tribal members involved in the session this year over past sessions, but that for bills to make it across the finish line, there also needs to be greater community support from non-Natives. 

“Tribes can't do this by themselves,” McDade Williams said. “And tribal advocates can't do this by themselves. We need support from the larger community to be able to continue to have some momentum, particularly on AB262.”

Here’s a list and brief synopsis of the bills we’re tracking related to Nevada Indian Country:

Tuition waiver for Native students 

AB262, sponsored by Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks), would waive tuition and fees for Native students attending Nevada public colleges and universities and provide in-state tuition for members of federally recognized tribes outside of Nevada. Tribal leaders say the bill could economically strengthen their communities, which have historically faced high poverty and unemployment rates and low graduation rates for students. 

Alternatively, AB213, which would enshrine in-state tuition and eligibility for state scholarships for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) and Temporary Protected Status (TPS) students in state law, would also secure in-state tuition for Native students who belong to tribes in Nevada as well as outside of the state. AB213 is sponsored by Assemblyman Edgar Flores (D-Las Vegas).

The Assembly Education Committee held a hearing for AB262 in March, but has not taken a vote on it. 

Acknowledging the history of Native Americans in school curriculum

Lawmakers aim to provide diversity and inclusivity in the state’s curriculum through AB261, which would ensure Nevada students learn about the history and cultural contributions of certain groups, including Native Americans and tribes. Assemblywoman Anderson is the bill’s sponsor. 

The bill also requires the State Board of Education select instructional materials that “accurately portray the history and contributions to science, the arts and humanities” of Native Americans, persons of marginalized sexual orientation or gender identity, people with disabilities and people of color, among others. 

The Assembly Education Committee held a hearing for the bill last week. 

Banning racist school logos or mascots 

Amid a national reckoning regarding historical figures who had racist pasts and sports teams with names considered offensive, AB88 seeks to localize the momentum to ban offensive or racially discriminatory language or imagery in Nevada school names, logos or mascots. Assemblyman Howard Watts (D-Las Vegas) is the bill’s sponsor. 

The bill allows schools to adopt names, mascots or logos related to tribes as long as the tribe consents. 

Lawmakers in the Assembly Committee on Education amended the bill to remove schools in the Nevada System of Higher Education from requirements, noting that the Board of Regents has the authority to develop a policy to prohibit racist logos or mascots. Another amendment no longer focuses efforts on schools named after people with a racist past.

The amendment also removes a deadline set for the State Board on Geographic Names to submit name change recommendations by Dec. 1, 2022, in order to allow the board more time and flexibility to engage community members before making recommendations to change place names. The committee passed the measure as amended, and its next step could be a vote of the full Assembly. 

Preserving expanded voting measures from last year

A measure sponsored by Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) seeks to permanently establish the expanded voting measures approved amid the pandemic in a special session last year in state law. 

For Native communities, AB321 would extend the deadline by which tribes are required to request a polling location within Native colonies or reservations to April 1 for a primary election and September 1 for a general election. Under current law, tribes must request polling locations by the first Friday in January for a primary election and the first Friday in July for a general election. 

Last fall, tribal governments joined the legal struggle when President Donald Trump sued to challenge the legislation that expanded Nevadans’ voting opportunities. The new law included a variety of accommodations, including making it legal for people to turn in a ballot for a non-family member. That change had long been sought by Native voters who face unique voting challenges because many reservations are in rural Nevada, sometimes hours away from the nearest polling location or county seats. 

The Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee held a hearing for the bill last week. 

Protecting Indian burial sites from excavation 

AB103, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susie Martinez (D-Las Vegas), further protects Indian burial sites in Nevada from excavation. The bill would clarify ambiguities in current law, which exempts entities engaging in lawful activity such as construction, mining and ranching from obtaining permits from the State Museum so long as the activity is exclusive from excavating a burial site, or occurs solely on the portion of private land that does not contain a known burial site. 

The Assembly unanimously passed the bill, but a committee hearing has not yet been scheduled in the Senate.

Protecting Spring Valley’s swamp cedars

The Assembly Natural Resources Committee is sponsoring a bill that seeks to protect a valley in eastern Nevada that is sacred to Native communities for the presence of Rocky Mountain juniper trees referred to as “swamp cedars” that grow there.

AB171 passed the Assembly and awaits a hearing in the Senate.

Establishing Spirit Mountain as a national monument

AJR3, sponsored by Assemblywoman Cecelia González (D-Las Vegas), would designate Spirit Mountain, known as Avi Kwa Ame, in Southern Nevada as a national monument. The mountain is sacred to the Fort Mojave Tribe, whose land spans Nevada, Arizona and California. 

The Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted to approve the measure, and it now awaits a hearing in the Senate. 

Adding Native representation to state boards and councils:  

State Board on Geographic Names 

The State Board on Geographic Names consults with tribal members regarding place names throughout the state in an effort to preserve the Native languages and history in the region. AB72, sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, would add another spot for a representative from the Nevada Indian Commission to the board, which already includes a representative from the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada. 

The measure passed the full Assembly and awaits a hearing in the Senate. 

Land Use Planning Advisory Council

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is seeking to add a nonvoting member appointed by the Nevada Indian Commission to its Land Use Planning Advisory Council through AB52, sponsored by the Assembly Natural Resources Committee.

The Assembly Government Affairs Committee held a hearing for the bill in late February but has not voted on it. 

Legislative Public Lands Committee

The Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee seeks to add a representative of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada to the Legislative Public Lands Committee through AB95

The bill passed the full Senate in March. 

Advisory Traffic Safety Committee

The Assembly Growth and Infrastructure Committee seeks to create an Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety through AB54, sponsored by the Assembly Legislative Operations and Elections Committee. The measure would require a tribal representative appointed by the director of the Department of Public Transportation. Other members of the committee would include representatives from the departments of transportation, health and human services, motor vehicles and more. 

The advisory committee would review, study and make recommendations regarding best practices for reducing traffic deaths and injuries. 

The committee voted to approve the bill in March. 

Proponents of free college for Nevada Native students say it will right historical wrongs, strengthen tribes

Before white settlers arrived in the state, the Washoe and Paiute people lived along and north of the Truckee River, in the area that is now downtown Reno.

It’s also now home to the UNR campus, which stretches across 290 acres and is scattered with red-brick buildings, tree-lined sidewalks and grassy blocks where students relax or work on assignments between classes.

The history of the state’s flagship university 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. Founded in 1874, UNR was funded by the Morrill Act, which turned Indigenous lands into colleges across the country meant to focus training in agriculture, science and engineering in the 1860s and later again in the 1990s. Federal or state governments often repossessed the land by force. 

Tribal leaders pointed to this history earlier this week during a legislative hearing in the Assembly Committee on Education as they testified in support of AB262, which would waive tuition and fees at Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) institutions, including two-year and four-year schools, for citizens of the state’s 27 tribes. It also would provide in-state tuition for citizens of federally recognized tribes outside of Nevada. 

“It seems really ironic and strange that we have to petition the institutions for access, when these institutions are built on the blood and bones of our people,” Brian Melendez said during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “It’s a fair ask.”

Brian and Teresa Melendez of the Nevada Native Vote Project on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020 at the University of Nevada, Reno. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Melendez, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony of Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute and Western Shoshone descent, worked with lawmakers to craft the bill, along with other tribal leaders including his uncle and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez.

The chairman told committee members that tribal governments strongly support the bill in the hopes that having greater access to a higher education can economically enrich Native communities. 

“It will also strengthen our tribal communities with a skilled workforce which in turn would greatly enhance our tribal government sovereignty, our tribal economies and our tribal culture. When tribal nations are strong, then the state of Nevada is strong also,” Arlan Melendez said. 

Assemblywoman Natha Anderson (D-Sparks), a primary sponsor of the bill, presented it Thursday.

“We need to do something as a state if we're going to start to recognize the importance that this community has had for us,” Anderson said. 

NSHE Budget Director Julia Teska said that institutions may see a financial impact, specifically a loss in out-of-state tuition, but that NSHE cannot determine the amount because it would depend on how many students meet the criteria and which institutions they choose to enroll in. 

In 2018 and 2019, Native American students at four-year NSHE institutions had the lowest graduation rate of any other demographic at 25 and 22 percent, respectively. The low graduation rates are compounded by other factors, such as higher-than-average poverty and unemployment rates across Native reservations.  

“We're looking at this process of trying to get our communities out of these disparities, trying to get our people out of these socioeconomic strongholds, in trying to bring them into places of prosperity,” Brian Melendez said. “And the only way that we've been able to do that is through education.”

Blood quantum and who counts

The bill’s text includes citizens of federally recognized tribes, but also those who “are certified by such a tribe or nation as being of at least one-quarter Indian blood.” 

Blood quantum refers to the level of blood the U.S. government required a Native person to have in order to enroll as a citizen of a tribal nation. Native people are the only demographic in the U.S. who have to prove to the federal government that they belong to their respective group. 

Additionally, Native people’s identity regularly gets mistaken for a racial or ethnic one. It is actually a political identity, hence the sovereign authority of tribal nations. Nowadays, tribes independently and individually decide how to determine citizenship, just as the U.S. government does. 

Depending on how strict the tribe is on citizenship requirements, some Native people who have descendancy from multiple tribes may not meet the blood quantum levels necessary to be considered a citizen for one specific tribe.

Brian Melendez said the bill language about blood quantum was included as a result of consultation with various tribal leaders who recognized the complex system of tribal enrollment could cause some Native students to be left out of the measure. 

“What that provision is in there for is to provide services to that base of tribal individual, that phenotype that we know is out there and perpetually just doesn't get services,” he said. 

Building generational wealth through education

Myrton Running Wolf, associate professor of race and media at UNR, is one of the university’s two Native professors. Running Wolf, who is of Blackfeet descent, said the university faces a Native student enrollment crisis, with only three new incoming Native students this year, down from 18 last year. He sees AB262 as a way for Nevada colleges to not only invest in and support the Native population, but also to develop a greater relationship to the state's tribal nations.

“This shows, in a real way, a real investment in the health and the wellbeing of our tribal communities and their children, specifically their children,” Running Wolf said in an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Native students account for less than one percent of the student body at both UNR and UNLV. From 2017 to 2018, Native students were 0.8 percent of the UNR student body, and in the fall semester of last year, Native students were 0.3 percent of the UNLV student body. 

Native people account for 1.7 percent of the state population. 

Many who testified in support of the bill during the hearing pointed to financial struggles as the greatest obstacle to building the numbers of Native students at Nevada colleges and universities. 

“I want to debunk the myth that being enrolled in a tribe automatically yields a free education. It does not. While I had some tuition assistance, I still graduated in 2003 with over $70,000 in student debt,” said former Assemblywoman and Cherokee Nation member Shea Backus, who is a graduate of Arizona State University’s law school. 

UNLV student and Walker River Paiute Tribe member Ryan Boone said that in addition to being a full-time student, he is currently working two jobs and searching for a third in order to help his mother with utility bills, his own car payments and the increasing costs of tuition. 

“This tuition waiver would sustain our education for generations to come,” Boone said. 

Boone added that his friends, who are also Indigenous students, have considered dropping out “because of the stress of lingering debt paired with unjustifiable lack of support,” and that his own sister dropped out of UNLV as she was pursuing a path to veterinary school. 

“What I hope for and long to see is myself and my Native peers graduating and going back to our communities to support and uplift,” Boone said. 

Many of the bill proponents expressed providing greater access to higher education for Native students as a moral imperative for the state. 

“This issue is beyond partisan perspective, this is a matter of morality, this is a matter of educational justice,” said Brian Melendez.

Indigenous leaders, environmentalists urge lawmakers to pass protections for sacred swamp cedars

Good morning, and welcome to the Indy Environment newsletter.

A lot of news this week, and it’s only halfway over. On that note, a small piece of programming. As we spring forward into daylight saving time, so too is this newsletter. We are moving the run date for the Indy Environment newsletter up to Wednesday for the foreseeable future. 

As always, we want to hear from readers. Let us know what you’re seeing on the ground and how policies are affecting you. Email me with any tips or suggestions at daniel@thenvindy.com

To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here.


Most Rocky Mountain juniper trees grow at elevation. But near the eastern edge of the state, a  unique population of large juniper trees rest on a valley floor. For generations, the trees have lived in an area within Spring Valley, outside of Ely, that is known as Bahsahwahbee, or “the sacred water valley” in Shoshone. For Indigenous communities in the area, it is everything.

On Monday, Delaine Spilsbury, an Ely Shoshone elder, told lawmakers that the land is sometimes compared to Mecca or Vatican City. Bahsahwahbee is a ceremonial site for many communities in the area. It could also be compared to Wounded Knee. The land is the site of multiple gruesome massacres of hundreds of Indigenous people in the 1800s.

“But,” Spilsbury said, “I want to say that you cannot compare Bahsahwahbee to anywhere else. There is only one. And if the Swamp Cedars are gone from Bahsahwahbee, then it is all gone.”

The stands of unique juniper trees in Bahsahwahbee are described as the swamp cedars, and under proposed legislation, they could receive state protection, a measure widely supported by Indigenous communities and environmental groups during a hearing Monday evening.

Assembly Bill 171 would make it the state’s policy to protect the geographically distinct Rocky Mountain juniper population and make it illegal to damage the swamp cedars without obtaining a special permit from the state, similar to rules that govern other sensitive species. 

“When you get to this valley, you see how different and significant it is to have a stand of Rocky Mountain junipers thriving in this valley floor,” said Assemblyman Howard Watts III (D-Las Vegas), the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the Assembly Committee on Natural Resources.

Watts said the bill’s language mirrors the protections given to distinct species for threats. Those designations are typically species-wide. But the proposed bill applies similar regulations, Watts said, to a subsection of the Rocky Mountain juniper population in Bahsahwahbee because of its importance to Indigenous communities and its unique presence in low-elevation habitat. 

Rupert Steele, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Goshute Reservation, described the area as a sacred, spiritual and holy place for Goshute and Shoshone communities.

“My people were massacred in a very, very harsh way at swamp cedar,” Steele said. “Just like a seed, each one of those swamp cedars was fertilized by one of those that was massacred there. And through that, we live spiritually and connect with Mother Earth through them. And to destroy those trees would be an act of genocide.”

His message resonated with communities from other parts of the state. Marla McDade Williams, a lobbyist testifying on behalf of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said the ancestors of their Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe members “have been affected by issues like this throughout the history of this country.”

“That said, historical cultural areas of Nevada are important to all of us and we urge your support for AB 171,” McDade Williams said. 

If the legislation is approved, it would mark a significant moment for state law because it would be the first time a statute specifically protected a plant because of its cultural value. Watts said he saw the legislation fitting in with broader efforts to recognize Indigenous rights at the state level.

“One of the things I’ve been advocating for is addressing the long and painful history that our state and government has with Native American people,” Watts said in an interview Tuesday. “I think there’ve been a lot of instances, over time, including recently, where the cultural, spiritual beliefs of Native populations here have been overlooked or disregarded.”

Tribal leaders across northeastern Nevada stressed the importance of Bahsahwahbee, and the need for state protection. Although the land, controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, has several layers of protection, state protection would more concretely protect the plant. 

In the past, the swamp cedars faced threats from the proposed Las Vegas pipeline. For decades, the Southern Nevada Water Authority had sought permits to pump groundwater in Spring Valley and pipe it to Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which shelved its plans for the pipeline last year, has not taken a position on the legislation.

Several environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Nevada Conservation League, Great Basin Resource Watch and the Great Basin Water Network, supported the legislation.

In written testimony, the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources said it supported the “spirit and intent” of the bill, but the agency raised concerns about precedent.

“We appear to be standing at the top of a long slippery slope,” Dominique Etchegoyhen, the agency’s deputy director. “There are innumerable important natural resources across this vast state, many of which are located on federal lands. These unique resources cannot all be individually recognized in state statute, each requiring a special permit issued by the State Forester Firewarden. The burden would simply be too great.”

But Etchegoyhen, in later testimony, said the state did support a second piece of legislation, AJR 4, an assembly joint resolution calling on the federal government to increase protections for the area.


Here’s what else I’m watching this week:

A historic confirmation: Incoming Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made history as the first Indigenous person to serve in a cabinet-level position. The Senate confirmed Haaland to the position on Monday in a 51-40 vote. The Department of Interior oversees federal public land across the West, and the agency plays a decision-making role in everything from protecting sensitive ecosystems to permitting mines. The Interior Department is especially important in Nevada, where the federal government is responsible for managing about 85 percent of land within the state. 

  • Importantly, the agency oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs. That means “Haaland will also be responsible for upholding the government’s legally binding obligations to the tribes – treaty obligations that have been systematically violated with devastating consequences for life expectancy, exposure to environmental hazards, political participation and economic opportunities in Indian Country,” as reporter Nina Lakhani writes for The Guardian.
  • Soon after the election in November, the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada sent a letter of support to the incoming Biden administration for nominating Haaland. “As the leaders of sovereign tribal nations, we believe it is long past time that a Native American person serve as Secretary of Interior,” the Inter-Tribal Council wrote. After President Joe Biden nominated Haaland to lead the agency, we reached out to tribal leaders from across the state to talk about what her historic nomination meant. 

The mining tax debate: On Tuesday night, we hosted an IndyTalks panel on the debate in the Legislature over whether to change the constitutional cap on taxing mines. In August, legislators passed three resolutions in a special session that would increase how much the industry pays in taxes. Although legislators have not yet taken up the resolutions in this session, lawmakers are expected to weigh the proposals in the coming weeks. To amend the Constitution, the Legislature must approve the resolutions again. Then they would go to a vote in the 2022 general election.

All three resolutions kickstart the process of amending the Constitution. Two resolutions remove a 5 percent cap on the net proceeds of minerals and replace it with a 7.75 percent tax rate on gross proceeds, raising an estimated $541 million, with a portion of that revenue going toward education and health care or to Nevadans as a dividend. A third measure, cast as an “olive branch” to the industry, raises the net proceeds tax cap to 12 percent, but it is estimated to generate less revenue than the other proposals.

Our panel included Lorne Malkiewich, former Legislative Counsel Bureau director; Laura Martin, executive director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada; and James Wadhams, a longtime lobbyist for the mining industry. Check out the full discussion here.

Sisolak on Blockchains and water: Last month, we reported on concerns, including from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, about acquiring the water needed for Blockchains LLC to develop a Smart City as part of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “Innovation Zone” proposal. Last week, Sisolak’s spokesperson Meghin Delaney replied to two questions I sent to the office. Here they are:

  1.  Is the governor concerned about the environmental consequences of importing water? “Responsible and equitable use of Nevada’s water resources are top of mind and will be the focus of much work between all the parties involved before any approvals are granted.  An Innovation Zone developer will be required to navigate the same water use rules as any other developer in Nevada.”
  1. Has the state consulted with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe or considered their views? “The state is in the very early stages of a long-term project, and the state is committed to working with all stakeholders on the responsible development of the Innovation Zone. The door is always open to the PLPT to answer any questions the tribe may have about the proposal.”

Gold mining outside of Death Valley: The Los Angeles Times’ Louis Sahagún writes about Indigenous communities and environmental groups pushing back against a proposed gold mine near Death Valley. He writes that “environmental groups and tribal nations have drawn a line in the alluvial sands overlooking the community of Lone Pine, population 2,000, on the eastern flanks of the Sierra Nevada range: No mining in Conglomerate Mesa, not ever again.”


Drought across the West: “The Western US is in the midst of yet another dangerous dry spell. The drought has been building over the past year, and since November, a greater stretch of the West has been in the most severe category of drought than at any time in the 20 years that the National Drought Mitigation Center has been keeping records,”  Lili Pike writes for Vox in an article that makes the connection to climate change. 

New report calls for stronger climate action: “A new analysis finds that Nevada is not on track to meet its 2050 greenhouse gas reduction targets absent stronger clean energy policies,” Jeniffer Solis reports for the Nevada Current. “The analysis by research firm Energy Innovation — based on a state-specific version of the firm’s “energy policy simulator“— shows that without additional action Nevada’s emissions will actually increase 12 percent by 2050 as fossil fuel use outpaces solar power and electric vehicle growth.”

30 by 30: The Sierra Nevada Ally’s Brian Bahouth has a good piece about testimony in the Legislature on a resolution supporting the conservation of 30 percent of the state by 2030.

Thacker Pass, lithium and mining: Grist’s Maddie Stone writes about the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, approved in the final days of the Trump administration. From the story: “The controversy over Thacker Pass highlights a much bigger challenge the Biden administration will have to grapple with in order to quickly transition the U.S. economy to carbon-free energy sources: How to acquire the vast mineral resources that are needed, such as metals needed for batteries, like lithium, cobalt, and nickel, without sacrificing biodiversity or the health of communities living nearby mining projects.”

Something to watch: “As part of its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has identified more than 2,000 MW of new renewable energy generation in southwest Nevada that would help California achieve its climate change goals,” Gridliance announced in a press release this week. More to report on this in the coming weeks.

Nevada tribes roll through vaccine process, feel hopeful for the future

Pyramid Lake

At dawn on a Saturday morning in late February, Autumn Harry eagerly secured her spot in line to receive the Moderna vaccine through the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s health clinic. 

Seated in her vehicle at 6 a.m., she was three hours early to the 9 a.m. vaccine event for tribal members, with only three vehicles ahead of her. 

“And when I left, there was probably closer to 50 cars that were lined up waiting to get their shot,” Harry, 28, said. “And many of those cars were whole families that were inside, you know, so it was really moving to see so many members from my community wanting to get their vaccine.” 

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is one of many tribes around the state and country moving quickly through the vaccine rollout process, opening appointments and eligibility to the general tribal population 18 and over. There are more than 2,000 enrolled members of the tribe in Northern Nevada. 

For tribal members, reaching the final stages of the vaccine rollout provides a greater sense of safety and hope among the disproportionately hit population. 

“It has been really devastating for so many of our Native communities with COVID because we have had a lot of elders and knowledge-keepers who have passed from the virus,” Harry said. “There's still so many families that are grieving, and also just people who have recovered from the virus, they're still dealing with the long-lasting effects from COVID.” 

There have been 223 cases of COVID-19 and five deaths among the tribe as of Thursday. Across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that Native Americans are nearly twice as likely to die from the virus than non-Hispanic whites, with the disparity highest among those ages 20 to 49. 

Harry said she felt happy upon receiving the vaccine, but more than that, she felt a sense of relief. 

Autumn Harry of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe received her first dose the Moderna vaccine in late February. Photo courtesy of Autumn Harry.

She and the other tribal members who received vaccines in late February are scheduled to receive the final dose in a few weeks. As of Thursday, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe had administered 733 doses of the Moderna vaccine. 

Other tribes that have moved to the final stage of the vaccine distribution process include the Walker River Paiute Tribe, the Moapa Band of Paiutes, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Elko Band. 

Walker River Paiute Tribal Chairman Amber Torres said the small population size of the tribe helped the vaccine distribution speed along to its final stages within two months of receiving the initial allotment of Moderna doses from the Indian Health Service, a federal agency responsible for the public health needs of tribes across the country. There are more than 1,000 tribal members living on the reservation 100 miles southeast of Reno. 

“I think it did work to our advantage because we did see that in the urban areas, they were still trying to work on first responders, health care personnel, teachers, those types of things where we were ready to move into the second tier at that point,” Torres said. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has administered vaccines to more than 500 tribal members as of last week, with the goal of reaching more than 600 on the reservation. 

South of Las Vegas, the Moapa Band of Paiutes expanded availability for the Moderna vaccine to tribal members over the age of 18 on March 1. More than 300 enrolled members live on the reservation. Tribal Secretary Ashly Osborne credits the success of the tribe’s quick distribution to the preparedness of the tribal council. 

“We were always a step ahead. Things back at home, I would say are running efficiently. They felt safe, they felt secure, they had access,” said Osborne, referring to tribal members. 

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony will also expand the vaccine tier to the population 18 and over on Monday, announced tribal leaders during a live meeting on Facebook last week.  

There are more than 1,000 enrolled members in the Reno colony and the Hungry Valley Reservation. But the tribal health clinic treats non-Native patients as well, so the vaccine distribution process has been a heavier lift for the clinic and tribe. 

Tribal Administrator Angie Wilson said the tribe has been tight on vaccine allotments through the Indian Health Service, which she acknowledged as an issue the state and local counties have experienced as well. 

Wilson said another issue the tribe and clinic are facing amid the vaccine rollout is that some tribal members who have received their first shot are not showing up to their appointments for the final dose, which is needed for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, but not the newer Janssen vaccine. The tribe won’t receive allotments of the latter until April. 

“Getting the vaccines is critical,” said Wilson. “We're not only facing the challenge of these vaccines, but we're also being challenged in the administration and the logistics of getting these vaccines out to such a high Indian population here.” 

In the farthest northeast corner of the state, Elko Band Chairman Davis Gonzales said the tribe moved smoothly through the vaccine process, now distributing vaccines to all members 18 and older. More than 1,200 tribal members live in the colony. 

Gonzales said the tribe is focused on reaching tribal members who haven’t received their shots at this point. He said he scolds tribal members he comes in contact with who haven’t received the vaccine. 

“Get the damn shot because COVID don’t care who you are, what you look like, it’s going to jump on you and make you sick!” said the chairman, who received his shot about a month ago.

Bethany Sam, spokesperson for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, echoed Gonzales’ urgency. 

“Our ancestors went through this with smallpox and they didn't have the science that we have now and I just think about how our tribes had to leave people behind so they wouldn't infect the rest of the community,” Sam said. “And now we have a vaccine, we don't have to do that, so I'm just encouraging you all to really think about the vaccine and scheduling your appointments as we start opening it up by March 15.” 

Looking ahead with hope

As sovereign nations, many Nevada tribes implemented tighter restrictions on reservations than state or local directives in the last year during the pandemic. Many ordered curfews, mask mandates and completely closed reservation borders to non-residents in an effort to protect vulnerable communities. 

Torres of the Walker River Paiute Tribe credits the strict measures with the tribe’s success in maintaining low case numbers throughout the reservation. 

“We put a lot of measures in place early on in March. I think that was also what helped us keep our numbers down, because we do have a majority of our membership who work off of the reservation. So they're going in and out every day, but we wanted to make sure that once they were home, everything was safe here,” she said. 

As the state and local directives have yo-yoed through phases and “pauses,” tribes remained steadfast in their orders, with some only now, a year later, having conversations among tribal councils about loosening restrictions while maintaining mask mandates and social distancing. 

“We're really trying to also promote that if you get vaccinated, we can get back into the new normal and start looking at soft openings of businesses, entities, possibly Weber Reservoir in the future because our people will possibly be safe at that point,” Torres said. 

She added that she’s concerned about stalling a reopening in the springtime, as nonresidents seek to spend time among the reservation’s recreational areas, such as the reservoir. Last year when the tribe closed its borders, nonresidents trespassed and broke, shot and burned signs that warned the reservation was closed. 

“If we do decide to keep our reservoir closed, I hope that people can respect that decision because again, we as a sovereign nation make decisions on the best behalf of our membership,” she said.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe reopened the reservation to recreational visitors in November. The Moapa Band of Paiutes lifted the curfew order and reopened the reservation for residents, but still requires non-residents to present a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination to enter. The Elko Band Colony doesn’t have many restrictions in place for the reservation, except for a mask mandate and a restriction on events or large gatherings. 

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez said the tribal council would weigh the decision in a meeting last week, adding that he wanted to be cautious of opening too soon. 

“What we don’t want to do is open up too early,” he said during the live meeting on Facebook, adding that loosening restrictions prematurely could make all their “effort go down the drain.” 

“So we're just gonna have to wait and see what happens there but we're being vigilant here at Reno-Sparks and we're taking our time and trying to do things right as far as opening up,” Melendez said. 

Torres and Osborne from the Walker River Paiute Tribe and Moapa Band of Paiutes, respectively, said tribal members are eager to participate in important cultural gatherings and be in community again. 

“I think that's been the biggest burden on our reservation is that people can't practice ceremony, and just the way we interact with people as our relatives, as Native people, it’s not what we're used to,” she said. 

Both Torres and Osborne also said they didn’t know what to expect when their first vaccine allotments arrived from the Indian Health Service. Torres said she received “kickback” from tribal members initially regarding the vaccine, but that pushback has subsided and it’s become more normalized now. 

Osborne said that when the pandemic began a year ago, the tribal council grappled with how to handle the unprecedented event. 

“It was terrifying,” she said. “It was challenging at times, when we didn't feel that this was going to end. And I think that our biggest concern that I've always stressed to a lot of people that I spoke to about this is that not only do we have to worry about our immediate families, like losing a loved one, but the preservation of our culture.” 

Osborne credits the work of the tribal council in protecting their community through the pandemic during the last year. 

“All of us working simultaneously together really was able to preserve not only our culture, but take care of our people and keep it going — resilience,” she said. 

Vaccines arrive in Indian Country, but are met with hesitancy from some tribal members

As COVID-19 disproportionately affects Native people across the state and country, Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute tribal member Lynn John knew she needed to act quickly when a mere 100 doses of the Moderna vaccine arrived at the tribal health center. 

She likened the small act of receiving the vaccine to the culturally significant buffalo, which stand shoulder to shoulder amid an attack or threat while protecting the youngest and oldest of the herd behind them. 

“As a person who's now received a vaccine, I consider myself one of those buffalo standing shoulder to shoulder with other people who have received the vaccine, protecting those who either can't, or choose not to,” John, 44, said during an interview with The Nevada Independent.

Lynn John, of the Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute Tribe, received the Moderna vaccine in early January. Photo courtesy of Lynn John.

A school administrator, John noted the reason she was able to receive the vaccine as early as Jan. 4 was because many other tribal members in the top priority tiers had refused it, making room for essential workers such as herself. She is scheduled to receive the second dose on Feb. 2. 

She said she felt leery at first, but found comfort in the evidence supporting the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. 

“I chose to get vaccinated, first off, because I believe in the science,” John said. 

As of Wednesday, there have been 171 cases of COVID-19 recorded on the Duck Valley reservation, where approximately 1,700 tribal members live, with no deaths or current hospitalizations. The tribe has administered vaccines to 125 people, 10 of which have received the second and final dose. 

The tribe declared a state of emergency on Mar. 13 and implemented a stay at home order on Mar. 27 that includes a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. The tribe also prohibited social gatherings and closed recreational fishing, camping and hunting areas to non-residents. The order has not since been rescinded. 

Entrance sign to Duck Valley Reservation along Nevada State Route 225 near Mountain City in Nevada. (Famartin/Creative Commons)

Statewide, Nevada Indian Commission Executive Director Stacey Montooth said in an email to The Nevada Independent, the agency had tracked 281 active cases and 13 deaths as of Jan. 15 — a record peak of cases for Indian Country in the state. Native people make up 1.7 percent of the state population. 

However, she also clarified that data for Native communities is rarely complete, as some tribal nations prefer not to report data and tracking Native people living in urban areas is difficult, so the numbers could be higher. 

Across the U.S., COVID-19 has infected the Native population at three and a half times the rate of white people and taken the lives of Native people at nearly double the rate of white people.

Infection and mortality rates are compounded by the population’s disproportionate rates of chronic health conditions, such as diabetes. American Indians and Alaskan Natives are nearly three times more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes than white people and died from the disease at more than twice the rate of white people in 2017. 

Indian Country mourns community members 

John’s aunt, Velda Lowery, an enrolled member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, was among the first tribal members in Northern Nevada to die from complications with COVID-19 in April. She was 58. 

The loss affected John, her family and community members early on in the pandemic, but it didn’t stop with Lowery. Nevada’s 27 tribal nations are interconnected across the vast state, and the death of a tribal member in Yerington is mourned by tribal members as far as Owyhee nearly 400 miles away. 

John named Dennis Smart from Fort McDermitt, a language and cultural keeper; Monty Williams from Fallon, a Marine veteran and advocate for substance and alcohol-free living; and Elliott Aguilar from Yerington, a spiritual leader and Indian Child Welfare Act specialist for the Walker River Paiute Tribe. All have died from complications with COVID-19.  

“I've known these people,” John said. “I've been taught by them. I've been influenced by them. I know their children, I know their grandchildren. And it hurts. It hurts a lot. And I'm frankly shocked when people tell me they don't know anybody who's gotten sick, or they don't know anybody who's died. Because right now I would probably take up both of my hands to count the number of people who I know personally have lost their lives to coronavirus.” 

For Native communities, priority lies in protecting tribal elders in order to preserve their cultures, history and languages. 

This is especially significant for tribal members who still remember a time when the U.S. federal government had forbidden their languages, religions and spirituality and traditional ceremonies and dance. 

Fortunately, John was able to receive the Moderna vaccine alongside both of her parents. Her mother, 64, is one of the few fluent Paiute speakers in her generation and her father, 66, is a former tribal leader. Both her parents have underlying health conditions. 

Lynn John's parents, Yolanda and Lindsey Manning, received the Moderna vaccine on the same day as their daughter. Photo courtesy of Lynn John.

“It's extremely important because without those individuals to keep our language active, and also to promote the languages they use, we lose so much with every death of an elder… My dad is the former chairman of our tribe. So while he isn't a fluent speaker, what he does have is a tremendous wealth of historical knowledge of our tribe,” she said.

Vaccine rollout 

Tribes across the U.S. were given the choice to receive allotments of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine through the Indian Health Service, the federal agency responsible for providing public health services to tribes, or through tribes’ respective state governments. 

As sovereign nations, individual tribal governments determine how they will distribute the vaccine among tribal members. The Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute Tribe and other Nevada tribes are following the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices guidelines, which prioritize essential health care workers, other essential workers, the elderly and people ages 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions before moving onto the general public. 

Tribes across the country received nearly $200 million in the second aid package passed by Congress in December to assist with the vaccine rollout and $800 million for COVID testing and contact tracing. 

The pace at which each tribe administers the vaccine varies and depends on vaccine allocations, population size, health care center resources and willingness among tribal members to receive the vaccine. 

And while hope to curb the spread of the virus lies within the vials of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that have arrived at all tribal health clinics across the state, tribal members, along with members of other communities of color, report being less likely to get the vaccine, which some attribute to long-standing distrust in the government and an outgrowth of historical inequities

Some tribal members even wonder whether the vaccine may be the government’s attempt to poison their communities, as John has heard from some community members. The Native people of the U.S. and their tribes have been decimated by previous disease outbreaks, such as measles, smallpox and the Spanish flu, spread by white settlers. 

John said she’s making efforts to speak up with accurate messaging amid disinformation swirling among community members. She said she’s even convinced a few family members to change their minds about the vaccine. 

“We don't have a lot of information,” John said. “And some of my family members don't watch the news, they don't have social media. So any information they receive is through word of mouth. So I do try to be an informant of accurate, scientifically backed information to help my family members make a decision that will be number one, their choice, but to give them information that isn't conspiracy theories, or founded in fear.” 

For John, and for Native people everywhere, the gravity to preserve their communities remains. 

“I really, really would hope that more Native people would (get vaccinated), I think we need to put aside some of the historical trauma that we sit with. And in this instance, consider that we are an endangered species. We are the descendants of the original people of this land, there aren't many of us. We have to protect ourselves.” 

In a small, rural school reside big hopes for Nevada’s Native students

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19 created in partnership with the Institute for Nonprofit News and several member newsrooms. The project is made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.


Before class on a warm and sunny December morning, eight kindergarten students at Schurz Elementary School listened quietly as the Shoshone Indian Flag song played over their computer screens. 

The lyrics, translated to English from the Shoshone language, mean, “Across the big water, the red, white and blue is fluttering in the wind. War spear thrown in the ground by a foreign water.”

This is how students begin their virtual school day on the Walker River reservation, which spans 325,000 acres across the Nevada desert, east of Yerington and north of Hawthorne. Surrounded by mountains, the river valley is home to a little more than 1,000 people. And 69 of the 72 students who attend Schurz Elementary School, which sits on the reservation, are American Indian.

The school’s principal, Lance West, who’s filling in for a teacher on medical leave, waits for the song to finish before diving into traditional academics: studying the alphabet, identifying nouns and reading with partners. 

The school operates on a hybrid schedule in response to the pandemic, with some students learning in person at school and others connected virtually from home, split into morning and afternoon sessions. On this morning, West is in the classroom speaking to a computer screen, with the kindergarteners’ faces staring back at him.

Schurz Elementary School Principal Lance West teaches kindergarteners, who are distance learning, sight words on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The small, empty room looks like most kindergarten classrooms, full of colorful wall art, rugs with numbers and letters, miniature tables and chairs fit for 5-year-olds. But a tribal drum and a poster depicting Native American children, adults and elders distinguish the space as a classroom on a Native reservation. 

The public school, which is part of the Mineral County School District, is about two hours southeast of Reno. The remote location jibes with a 2010 Civil Rights Project report, which found that American Indian students are more likely to attend school in rural areas than non-Native students. Additionally, about a third of Native students nationwide attend schools in which at least half the student population is American Indian.

A poster in the Schurz Elementary School kindergarten classroom shows a Native American community. (Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez/The Nevada Independent)

Of the school’s six teachers, four are Native American, five if you count Principal West. 

Although he is an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, West grew up in this community on the Walker River reservation, his family split between the two tribes and reservations. He once sat in the same miniature seats as the ones in this classroom.

His path to the principal gig on Walker River reservation wasn’t direct. He lived and taught in schools across Northern Nevada — in Reno, Fort McDermitt and Spring Creek — for 17 years before returning to the reservation. He came with a singular goal of improving education for the young Native people in his community, and therefore contributing to the community at large, and for the long run. 

“No one's fighting for us,” West said. “Well, hard enough. So that's kind of where my push is now, and everywhere I go, I'm always talking about Indian education.” 

But improving education for Native students is a daunting task for a single person to tackle, weighed down by historical disparities that cannot be resolved or remedied overnight. Nationally and statewide, American Indian students have low graduation rates, high dropout rates, low math and reading proficiency scores and often don’t see themselves reflected in their teachers, many of whom are white.  

Principal Lance West inside the Schurz Elementary School kindergarten classroom on Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

It’s a situation, West said, built on years of systemic racism — the same racism behind federal boarding schools, where young Native children were separated from their families and forced to assimilate into American culture and society. Consider what Indian School Secretary John B. Riley said in 1886:

“Education affords the true solution to the Indian problem … only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.”

More than a century later, Native students still find themselves facing prejudice in other forms, West said.

“There’s a good ol’ boy system that exists and the system is not designed, never was designed for minorities or people of color to be fully successful as they should be,” West said. “There is a racist system, if we’re speaking clearly, particularly toward American Indian populations. Our kids, they’re minimized.” 

He’s on a mission to change that. His journey just happens to coincide with a tumultuous period in the history of the nation’s K-12 education system, which has been rattled by the pandemic. 

***

In Nevada, there are almost 4,000 American Indian and Alaskan Native students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. It’s the smallest ethnic group. By comparison, Nevada’s school systems include more than 7,000 Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, 26,000 Asian students, 56,000 Black students, 209,000 Hispanic students and 144,000 white students.

Nationally, American Indian and Alaskan Native students make up a little more than 1 percent of public school students, or approximately 644,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. About 90 percent of all Native students attend public schools, and about 8 percent attend schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, under the Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

There are 183 schools across the country in 23 states funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, including two in Nevada — a junior and senior high school on the Pyramid Lake reservation north of Reno and an elementary school on the Duckwater reservation south of Eureka. Other schools governed by local districts and the Nevada Department of Education — like Schurz Elementary School — educate a large share of Native students.

Improving education for these students is the priority for Nevada Native leaders, such as West, who say they cannot rely on local, state or federal organizations to take the initiative. 

“I think that the topic, the issue of education in Indian Country, in Nevada, has always been near the bottom. It's always been in someone else's hands, but at the same time those other people's hands don't have our best interests in mind, because they have their own,” West said. 

Mineral County students trail their peers in other districts when it comes to academic achievement. During the 2018-2019 school year — the most recent year of testing data — only 23 percent of Mineral County students were proficient in math and 39 percent were proficient in English Language Arts. Statewide, 37 percent of students hit proficiency benchmarks for math, while 48 percent did the same for English Language Arts. 

At Schurz Elementary School, the achievement gap is even more visible. When 20 students in grades three through sixth took statewide standardized tests in 2019, none of them met proficiency benchmarks for math, and only 10 percent did for English Language Arts.

Nevada mountains are visible from the Schurz Elementary School kindergarten classroom, including Thanksgiving decorations made by students, on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Of the more than 500 students in the Mineral County School District, 76 are American Indian or Alaskan Native. 

Nationally, 19 percent of American Indian and 25 percent of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students tested at or above proficiency levels in reading compared to 57 percent of Asian students and 45 percent of white students, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress

The achievement gap is also reflected in disparities in graduation and dropout rates. 

Nevada’s overall graduation rate saw a dip this year, and American Indian students consistently have lower graduation rates than most other racial groups besides Black students. In 2018, nearly 80 percent of American Indian students in Nevada graduated, followed by a drop in 2019 and 2020, when 74 percent of American Indian students graduated both years. That mirrors national graduation rate trends in recent years.

Native students are underrepresented in graduation rates, and overrepresented in dropout rates. In 2018, among students ages 16 to 24, American Indian students had the highest national dropout rate: 10 percent of students, compared to 4.8 percent of white students. 

The situation creates a natural ripple effect for post-secondary education. Of the more than 600 people over the age of 25 living on the Walker River reservation, an estimated 86 percent have completed high school, but only 5.7 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The academic disparities contribute to cycles of poverty on reservations, where unemployment rates are high and rates of home ownership are low. 

Prior to the pandemic, the unemployment rate on the Walker River reservation stood at 22 percent, while the statewide unemployment rate was 3.7 percent in December 2019. 

Additionally, the median household income for the reservation from 2015 to 2019 was a little more than $30,000, while the median household income in Nevada was double that, at more than $60,000 during the same time period. Of all families living on the reservation, an estimated 39 percent live below the poverty level, including nearly 57 percent of families with school-age children. 

Entering Schurz, Nevada, U.S. 95"Entering Schurz, Nevada, U.S. 95" by Ken Lund is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Other troubling disparities linked to low graduation and high dropout rates include higher than average incarceration and suicide rates among Native youth. 

The academic, economic and mental health disparities among the Native population are historical and decades-long. Native leaders acknowledge the reality of these disparities, but to pave a way forward, they want to shift the focus from the disparities, which some say have created harmful stereotypes, to solutions, visibility and empowerment. 

In 2018, principal West created the Indigenous Educators Empowerment group to boost conversations about and support for Native teachers.  Since then, West has focused on reaching out to other Native educators across the state to join him and build a strong foundation, which includes compiling the research and data necessary to make progress. 

Last year, the group also released a report analyzing factors that contribute to low academic achievement among Native students. Among the challenges: opportunity gaps, systemic racism, low teacher expectations and qualifications, and a lack of culturally relevant curriculum addressing Native history and generational trauma.

“Society’s narrative of us revolves around the Deficit Ideology,” the report states. “... This ideology generalizes disparities such as poverty, alcoholism, at-risk students. We have intentionally left out those reasons for low academic achievement of our students out. They play a role, but to emphasize them would propagate stereotypes and labeling.”

The fence surrounding Schurz Elementary School features the school's mascot as seen on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

***

The pandemic, of course, added a new wrinkle in Native leaders’ quest to dramatically improve education. But it wasn’t all bad.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has generally intensified existing disparities, both West and Schurz Elementary School teacher Kellie Harry said the school’s response to the pandemic helped bridge the technology gap, making the learning material more accessible for students and their families. 

“Nobody’s missing anything,” said Harry, who teaches fifth- and sixth-graders. 

Prior to the pandemic, 80 percent of households on the Walker River reservation had a computer, but only 60 percent had access to broadband internet service. Now, every single family with a student has a computer or a Chromebook and internet access. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe received more than $20 million from the CARES Act and put some of those funds toward ensuring students would have what they needed to distance learn from home. Tribal members can also apply to receive $1,000 monthly stipends to help cushion the economic blow caused by the pandemic and help pay for the internet service. 

The fiscal cliff — a Dec. 31 deadline for using CARES Act funding — had worried Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. If that money suddenly went away, she wondered how families would be able to maintain internet service during distance learning.

“We don’t have that kind of money lying around to continue to pay for these homes,” she said.

But the news that Congress approved a $900 billion relief bill on Dec. 21 brought some welcome mental relief to Torres and other tribal leaders. Torres described the legislation, which was signed by the president and includes money for expanding broadband services, as “an absolute win for not only Nevada but Indian Country as a whole.”

From a day-to-day learning standpoint, though, Harry said the most challenging part of the pandemic was familiarizing the students and parents to the new technology.

“The hardest transition was just getting everybody on board with the online and feeling comfortable. I think there was a lot of hesitancy and a lot of fear on the home front, like, ‘Wait, how do we get on the internet? How do we use the computer or the online platforms? Or what's the login and what's this?’ I think that was the most difficult part, and then just streamlining that.” 

Several months later, after acclimating to the new learning model, Harry has seen greater academic equity in her classroom.

“Now our students are at an equal playing field. This brought equity to our school, distance learning did — getting everybody on the internet, getting everybody on a Chromebook and having them be required to do the work that other five-star schools or other schools are doing,” she said. 

Schurz Elementary School teacher Kellie Harry instructs fifth and sixth grade students. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

The new technology skills, she said, will pay dividends down the road as students enter junior high and beyond. Harry added that she’s not worried about a lag in academic performance among her distance-learning students. 

“The performance is the same. I have a lot of distance learners who are outpacing and keeping up and have made a lot of growth on their math scores and keeping up with all the coursework just as easily as if they were right here,” she said. 

Older students appear to have struggled more with online learning. When students graduate from Schurz Elementary School, which goes through sixth grade, they can choose what neighboring school district to attend for upper grades. For students on the Walker River reservation, that’s typically schools in Hawthorne or Yerington, although some go farther north to Pyramid Lake. 

Yerington High School, which is in the Lyon County School District, employs a college career coach — with the help of a federal grant — who works exclusively with Native students, said Wayne Workman, the district’s superintendent. When the Lyon County School District began the 2020-2021 academic year, only select student groups received in-person instruction five days a week. Those groups included children in kindergarten through second grade as well as students in special-education programs, learning English as a second language or experiencing homelessness. 

The decision boiled down to space constraints while operating under COVID-19 safety guidelines, Workman said. All other students were split into cohorts that rotate between a week of in-person learning followed by a week of online learning. 

But more than a quarter of Lyon County students opted to remain in distance-education mode, giving schools more flexibility to expand in-person instruction, Workman said. So by early October, Yerington High School started welcoming back Native students full time after noticing the hybrid model wasn’t working well for them.

“If they’re here, I can motivate them to continue on a successful path,” said Gerald Hunter, college and career coach at Yerington High School. “If they’re home, I’m competing with TV, food, babysitting duties, other things.”

Yerington High School has 398 students, including 74 who are Native American, in ninth- through 12th-grade. Hunter, who’s in his fourth year serving as the college and career coach, has watched discipline and truancy problems fall among Native students, while seeing their academic achievement improve. Last year, 70 percent of the school’s Native students maintained at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

The majority of Native students chose to return to in-person instruction five days a week, Hunter said, and their grades have improved as a result. Some Native students remain in distance education, though, because of health concerns amid the pandemic.

While Hunter’s presence has helped boost academic achievement levels among Native students, Workman said, it hasn’t been a cure-all. Providing extra supports simply doesn’t reverse history and longstanding inequities that have led to Native students trailing their peers academically.

“We could talk for hours as to reasons why that might be the case,” he said. “For goodness sakes — how we treated our Native populations forever in our history has led to a lot of distrust.”

Back on the reservation, Harry is hoping Schurz Elementary School can preserve its pandemic-triggered 1-to-1 technology ratio for students that’s proven to help ensure the quality of education for her students. The great unknown, though, is how the school, like others across the state, will fare during the upcoming 2021 legislative session. 

“It’s just keeping what we have,” Principal West said, "especially with the budget cuts coming.”

***

Schurz Elementary School fifth-grade student Suiti Sanchez watches a video during class on Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

Despite the grim circumstances caused by the pandemic and an already slashed state education budget, West isn’t limiting his goals and vision for the future of Native education. 

When he created the Indigenous Educators Empowerment group, West had four goals — to boost education awareness among the community, advocate for Indigenous education professionals, enhance recruitment and mentorship for Indigenous educators and revitalize and preserve Native language.

The 2020 Indigenous Educators Empowerment report offers recommendations for how to get there, such as advocating for more funding, bolster tribal and state leader involvement in efforts to improve education and establish scholarships for tribal members interested in becoming teachers.

But West said everything hinges on more data and recordkeeping.  

Native students belong to what Native leaders call the “Asterisk Nation,” because of the population’s small sample size, American Indians are commonly left out of research and data collection. 

“The data is lacking,” said West. “How do you expect us to address education and seek that improvement that has never ever really been a focus if we don’t have accurate information?” 

Armed with more reliable data, Native leaders such as West can provide benchmarks and guidance for state and federal agencies in regards to allocating funding and other resources for Native students. Increased data will also make Native students, their communities and the issues they face more visible.

Long-term goals also include efforts to exercise educational sovereignty, specifically, by establishing a tribal charter school on the reservation, beginning with younger children and eventually expanding to serve students through high school. With a charter school, the tribe and educational leaders could take full ownership and control of what their students learn and how they learn it — sovereignty. 

The other goal is to establish “Indian Education for All” as state law, meaning the state would require Native history and culture to be included in the curriculum for all grades in public schools. 

A poster featuring a Native woman and a list of verbs translated from English to Paiute hang on the cabinets of a classroom in Schurz Elementary School. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

West has already started down that path at Schurz Elementary School, where the curriculum includes more Nevada Native history, to ensure the students learn about their identity in a positive and empowering way. He’s also made it a point to recruit more Native educators to build the representation for the Native students. 

“Our Indian kids here need to see more of themselves reflected in the classroom and they need to see Native teachers,” West said. 

West recruited Harry, who was previously teaching in the Washoe County School District at Depoali Middle School in South Reno, two years ago. Harry is an enrolled member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe as well, but half of her family grew up on the Walker River reservation. Now, a majority of the school’s teachers are Native. 

“If there's a chance to get back and contribute, that's what I think our life's journey is about,” Harry said. “Our purpose, mine anyways, as teachers, we want to give back and contribute. So that's what brought me here to Schurz.” 

Less than 1 percent of educators nationwide and in Nevada are American Indian or Alaskan Native. Harry said the representation she provides for her students helps create a sense of safety in the classroom. 

“I think that it's beyond words and beyond impactful for the students to have a Native teacher. And that's why I did not hesitate to come out here. It was really hard to leave where I was, I had to move my family and my kids, but I would not have ever second-guessed coming here because of the unique situation and what I'm able to provide and contribute.” 

Kellie Harry and her two students, Suiti Sanchez and Kameron Gonzales, stand outside their classroom on Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2020. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

In the last two quarters, Harry has incorporated lessons about the history of voting rights for Native people, Columbus Day and Indigenous Peoples Day and what it means to her students to be Native American. Her curriculum is more timely and relevant than the Native American history and imagery in textbooks, which usually focus on events prior to 1900, according to a 2015 study, thus contributing to the erasure of the modern presence of Native communities. 

Harry recently asked her students to complete a written exercise exploring their Native identity. Their responses, submitted in late November, highlighted Native language, traditional dress, ceremonial events, such as pine-nut gathering, hunting and basket-weaving. 

But the students didn’t just write about these things in the past tense — and, as far as tribal leaders are concerned, that’s evidence of educational progress.

“We are proud people by showing respect to family and friends,” wrote one student, Suiti Sanchez, 10. “We honor our ancestors by keeping our traditions alive. We respect elders by learning our language and by passing our traditions to others.”

This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

Updated on Jan. 11, 2021 at 9:07 p.m. to correct the amount Walker River Paiute tribal members could apply to receive monthly.