Native American issues are getting more attention in the Nevada Legislature than ever before.
That’s partially due to the number of bills representing tribal interests, which is higher than in the past. They’re also receiving more attention from legislators, thanks in part to a rise in Native political organizing.
Marla McDade Williams has been involved with the Legislature for years, including nearly a decade working as a legislative staffer. Now, she’s a lobbyist for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, advocating on behalf of the tribal government. She says the attention being paid to tribal concerns in the statehouse represents a shift over the last few sessions.
“Native representation before the Legislature has been building for a while now,” she said. “I think this is the third session where we’ve had some significant legislation.”
One of those proposed laws would ban the use of racist names for schools, universities and geographic features.
For Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the Nevada Indian Commission, the appropriation of Indigenous names and symbols is a critical issue.
“When we see a stadium full of fans wearing face paint or even headdresses, that hurts,” she said. “Those are sacred routines, sacred items to us.”
Montooth has been working to end the use of such names in Nevada for three decades. She says when non-Native people push back, they ignore the history of Nevada’s original inhabitants, who have called the Great Basin home for more than 12,000 years.
“A high school being named the Indians for 150 years compared to our entire existence, that’s just a flash in the pan,” she said.
Another bill would waive tuition costs at state colleges and universities for students who can prove they’re descended from a federally-recognized tribe.
Teresa Melendez with the Nevada Native Vote Project says providing services to tribal communities is part of the government’s obligation to the original inhabitants of the state, because Nevada has long benefitted from stolen Indigenous land.
“One of the primary arguments is that Nevada owes it to the Indigenous people of this state who were displaced from their homes and who have never been compensated for these lands,” she told KNPR’s State of Nevada.
She also says that while a tuition waiver would be new in Nevada, it’s an approach that other states have been following for decades. Michigan, for example, approved its college tuition waiver for Native American students in 1976.
A separate bill would extend in-state tuition rates to students who are members of one of Nevada’s 27 federally-recognized tribes and Indian colonies, whether or not they’re state residents.
For Delaine Spilsbury, an elder with the Ely Shoshone Tribe, support for Native issues at the statehouse comes as a welcome surprise.
“When we presented the bill the other day I was totally knocked off my chair by having no objection to it,” she said.
Spilsbury recently testified in support of a bill that would help protect a sacred site called Bahsahwahbee — also known as the Swamp Cedars — which is located near the Utah border.
Tribal members and advocates want the state to declare the Swamp Cedars a “fully protected species,” which would make it illegal for anyone to cut down or damage the trees. The change would be a reinterpretation of existing law, because the trees are actually a population of Rocky Mountain Junipers, which occur across the Western United States.
But supporters argue the cultural significance of the site merits stronger protections, because for Spilsbury and her relatives in the Western Shoshone and Goshute tribes, the Swamp Cedars represent the spirits of ancestors who were slaughtered by U.S. government troops and mercenaries.
“Because it was such an open place, it became a place for them to be attacked and they were massacred in that location,” she said. “So it’s become very sacred to us, because when our people died in these massacres, what was once them and their hearts and souls, we believe it fed the trees. And so we now protect those trees.”
A companion piece of legislation would create a nonbinding resolution requesting federal protections for Bahsahwahbee, either by declaring it a National Monument or by extending the boundaries of Great Basin National Park to include the site.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is also working to secure better protections for Nevada’s Native heritage. The tribal government helped write a bill that would clarify the regulations around prehistoric Indian burial sites located on private land.
McDade Williams explained that issues related to the preservation of ancestral remains and funerary objects often emerge when a landowner wants to develop part of their property.
“As properties move forward, sometimes they forget that they have these sites on their land,” she said.
The state maintains a database of burial sites, so under the proposed law, those property owners would be required to obtain new permits every time they wanted to begin a new project.
But Melendez believes even though these issues are getting more attention than before, Nevada is still behind the curve.
“I listen to the testimonies to these bills and I feel a lot of pride for my community. But then I also feel frustration that sometimes people know so little of us,” she said. “Nevada has an exceptionally large Native population, but our laws don’t reflect the power and the influence of the tribes here in the state.”
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