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

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
LegislatureTribal nations
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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. 

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