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

Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez
LegislatureTribal nations
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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. 

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