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‘Servant of the people’: Longtime Reno-Sparks Indian Colony chair retires after 31 years

Arlan Melendez is recognized for his spirituality and roles in expanding the colony’s land and economic development.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
GovernmentTribal Nations
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Arlan Melendez has a difficult time leaving work. Being the chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony for over three decades means when he leaves the office — located near the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino and the Three Nations Walmart in Reno — someone always wants to talk to him.

Residents could be asking if Melendez saw their child make a  3-point shot at a recent basketball game or ask him why a water bill is so high, said Stacey Montooth, the executive director for the Nevada Indian Commission.

“He takes everyone's concerns so seriously,” said Montooth, who was previously the spokeswoman for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. “He worked for not just the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, but he worked for Native Americans.”

For Melendez, 76, service is just what the job is. 

“That's the way I kind of see [being chairman] — as a servant of people,” Melendez said. 

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony can refer to the 1,296 enrolled members of the colony, or a patchwork of land owned by the colony within and around Reno. Administrative buildings and some residential development are located in the urban core of Reno, but bits of land in South Reno and Spanish Springs are also colony land. The largest plot of land is more than 15,000 acres in Hungry Valley north of Sparks.

After 31 years as chairman and 36 years on the tribal council, Melendez retired Dec. 13.

During his time in office, Melendez and the tribal council significantly expanded the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s land, made strides in tribal health care and created a unique tax system that is known across Indian Country as the “Nevada system.” He was also appointed by the late Sen. Harry Reid to a seat on the United State Commission on Civil Rights and has received two lifetime achievement awards — from the Native American Finance Officers Association and the National Indian Health Service.

However, Melendez’s leadership was not without controversy. 

His effort to bar dual enrollment, meaning an individual could only be part of one tribe, to establish more sovereignty for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, was criticized by not only the public but also Melendez’s parents. Many people across the state have family roots in multiple tribes. Melendez himself, though enrolled with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, had a brother who recently died and lived at the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribes’ Reservation, where their mother was born. 

Though he is retiring, Melendez and those who know him know he won’t be gone for good. 

He will still be leading a men's group at the colony’s church and supporting his grandson, Michael Costa, while he makes his own way through local politics.

“Arlan said, ‘I'm here. I'll be here,’” Verna Nuno, a fellow member of the council, said during Melendez’s retirement party. “He'll still be involved. I can see that. [He’s] not going to just walk away.” 

Arlan Melendez is surrounded by members of the Reno-Spark Indian Colony, family and friends at his retirement party on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Northern Nevada beginnings

Melendez is as connected to Northern Nevada as any person can be, his roots linking his family to the area for generations. 

His father, Don Melendez, was born in a house in the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. His mother, Sally Melendez, grew up near Pyramid Lake. 

Despite both his parents attending Stewart Indian School near Carson City, Don Melendez insisted that Arlan Melendez and his two brothers, Randy Melendez and Steven Melendez, attend public school in Reno.

The three brothers were bussed to Orvis Ring Elementary, then Vaughn Middle School before they completed their public school education at Earl Wooster High School. Melendez, who graduated high school in 1965, was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War after high school and was stationed in San Diego for training until he went to Vietnam in 1969. 

Using his G.I. Bill to fund his studies, he attended Truckee Meadows Community College (TMCC) — then called Western Nevada Community College — to study business. 

He later studied at UNR; his children described him as a lifelong student.

Melendez was recognized in November for service in the Marine Corps, being named the grand marshal in the Veterans Day Parade in Reno, and was awarded the President’s Medal in May 2022 by TMCC.

In 1973, Melendez was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps but continued to volunteer on the Selective Service Board for about 20 years. His role was mainly listening to people who had been drafted but wanted to avoid serving, such as conscientious objectors. Melendez returned to Reno in the early ’70s, working various jobs including at the fishery at Nixon, near Pyramid Lake. 

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony Chairman Arlan Melendez rides in the Nevada Day Parade in Carson City on Oct. 28, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Hot dogs, rez ball and local government

Melendez’s political career started with rez ball — short for reservation basketball — and a hot dog stand.

He had always been athletic, running track and field in high school and maintaining an active lifestyle after he graduated.

“My mom told me she’d drop him off and he’d run out to Stead,” Melendez’s daughter, Adrianna Gutierrez, told The Nevada Independent, describing her dad taking on what is about a 14-mile run with an elevation change of more than 700 feet. 

“He’d spend his whole morning just running,” Gutierrez said.

At 19, Melendez was playing rez ball with a league that travels to different reservations within and outside the state. To raise money for his league, Melendez started selling hot dogs during the team’s weekend tournaments.

The tribe had a snack shack nearby at the time that Melendez asked to be closed down on the weekends so the team could make a profit — the hot dog market was too tight for the basketball team to compete with the tribe’s stand. 

When the tribal council refused Melendez’s request, he decided to run for tribal council the next year and won.

“I always tell one of my competitors, ‘See, if you would’ve let me have the hot dog stand I never would have been in politics. You could have been chairman,” Melendez recalled between laughs.

However, it wasn’t until he had spent five years on the council that his younger brother Randy Melendez — a beloved coach and principal at Pyramid Lake High School who recently died — encouraged him to run for chairman.

Melendez said his spirituality is what has kept him in politics.

“I wouldn't even take this job if I didn’t have a relationship with the Creator,” Melendez said. “I mean, it's so stressful.”

Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, tours the Stewart Indian School Museum in Carson City following a bill signing ceremony with the Governor for AB88, 262 and 270 on Friday, June 4, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Melendez’s children told The Nevada Independent that with the rare exception of the Righteous Brothers and other classic rock, their dad is always listening to Christian music. 

“He always inspires me, just to be a better person, a better man,” said Neko Melendez, Arlan Melendez’s son. “He inspires me spiritually because I see how connected he is with the Creator and God.”

Neko Melendez said that though Arlan Melendez is religious, he accepts people for who they are. 

“I'm two-spirited and I am from the LGBT community,” Neko Melendez said. “Coming out to him, it was very scary and awkward. But to my surprise, my dad was like, ‘I love you anyways, because I accept you whoever you are. Just be a good person, and I love you.’ … I was really shocked by that.”

“He’s going to show you love no matter what,” Gutierrez added.

Arlan Melendez said he credits the passage of the Nevada Native Lands Act — a federal measure that returned 71,000 acres of land to six Nevada tribes in 2016 — in part to prayer.

“Mom says, ‘Always pray about it when it looks impossible,’” Melendez said. “After I got home, it changed and next thing I know they’re calling me going, ‘It passed! It passed!’ My mom goes, ‘See, you prayed about it. Look what happened.’”

Nevada Native Lands Act

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony referred to the Nevada Native Lands Act as “the greatest development for today’s generation.” 

The act began when Rep. Mark Amodei (R-NV) and Indian Affairs Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK) met tribal leaders for lunch at the Nugget Casino Resort in Sparks to ask what they’d like to get done.

Melendez replied that they had tried to expand tribal land in Hungry Valley and had asked for the federal Democrats’ help to no avail.

Because of Amodei’s action, Republicans beat the Democrats in bringing the bill to Congress. As a result, it became a bipartisan bill. 

The bill passed and resulted in not only the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s land in Hungry Valley expanding by more than 13,000 acres but land for tribes across the northwest corner of Nevada as well.

Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe received more than 19,000 acres, Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute Tribes received more than 80 acres, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe received more than 900 acres, Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe received more than 6,000 acres and more than 31,000 acres went to the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe.

Amodei was the only congressional leader who attended Melendez’s retirement gala in person, with Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen attending virtually.

“Arlan was a guy who was easy to work with. His style … just tended to lower the blood pressure in the room,” Amodei said during a phone interview with The Nevada Independent on Nov. 30. 

Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony presents to the Assembly Committee of Government Affairs on Feb. 14 during the 82nd legislative session in Carson City. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Economic development

Unlike Western government models, tribal governments in Nevada do not have a tax base and have to raise their own revenue to fund projects. Though smoke shops brought in some revenue for the tribe, deals with Walmart and a Mercedes dealership are what set the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony apart.

“We're not managing those stores, we just run them to the reservation,” Melendez said about the Three Nations Walmart that was built in the early 2010s and the Mercedes dealership that was built in 2002.

Not only does the colony get lease income from these businesses operating on tribal land, it receives the sales tax revenue that would be reserved for the state if the businesses were operating on nontribal land.

“You get the double income stream without a headache,” Melendez said. 

Despite the income from major businesses, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s Economic Development Director Joel Korotkin said the COVID-19 shutdowns of nonessential businesses was a “wake-up call” to diversify the colony’s economy even more.

Drive-thrus at smoke shops, Walmart remaining open and a bump in car sales because of people receiving federal benefits checks helped the colony rebound during the pandemic, Korotkin said.

“But isn’t that lucky?” Korotkin said. “So we need to be ready for the next unforeseen situation.”

Health care and COVID

Melendez’s time on tribal council was also marked by strides in health care. In 2008, the Reno Sparks Tribal Health Center opened a new location valued at $20 million near Renown Regional Medical Center that had more than 50,000 patient encounters per year by 2016. The facility includes podiatry, ophthalmology, physical therapy, diabetes treatment, women’s health services, psychiatry and substance abuse counseling.

Melendez said the health center’s location allows more room for expansion in the future. 

The investment into health care comes at a time when the average lifespan for Native Americans is decreasing. The lifespan for Native Americans was almost 72 years in 2019 and dropped to little more than 65 in 2021, according to The Conversation

Though COVID-19 was a factor, other forces are at work, including high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as the gaps in the health care system serving Native American populations.

Suicide rates among Native American populations are also about 43 percent higher compared with non-Native Americans.

Melendez said he wants to see more assistance for those experiencing problems with substance abuse, an issue he and his son, Neko Melendez, told The Nevada Independent they struggled with earlier in life.

Drug poisoning death rates for Native Americans are higher than for the population overall.

“They call it generational trauma,” Melendez said, referencing practices such as boarding schools that assimilated Native American children to Western culture, sometimes through abusive tactics. “A lot of the issues that we're facing today has to do with trauma.” 

One of the ways to overcome that trauma is to bring people back to their culture, Melendez said. 

Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony speaks to protestors from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, People of Red Mountain, the Burns Paiute Tribe and other groups outside of the Reno-Sparks Indian Smoke Shop on Golden Lane before marching to the Bruce R. Thompson Courthouse and Federal Building in Reno during a protest of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine on Jan. 5, 2023. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Dual enrollment

Melendez said his most controversial effort was ending dual enrollment, meaning an individual could only be recognized as part of one tribe. 

He said the effort was to give the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony more sovereignty, specifically over facilities. The dual enrollment was unlikely to affect any assets shared by tribal members, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ policy states that those who meet the membership requirements of more than one tribe “share in the assets of only one of them.”

Tribes across the state and beyond are connected through history, family and traditions that existed long before the people were forced to settle in one area. The chairman’s own heritage is Cui Yui Ticutta — or the cui-ui eaters named after the sucker fish that inhabit Pyramid Lake — and Agai Ticutta — or trout eaters near the Walker River.

As a result, Melendez’s parents questioned why he was pushing for discontinuing dual enrollment. Melendez insisted it was essential for the sovereignty of the tribe.

Before the action was taken, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony facilities could be used by any tribal member. 

“We're like one big aircraft carrier for every carrier. Everybody's just flying in and flying off to their own tribe,” Melendez said. “Washoe Tribe’s having a council meeting on sovereign land of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony just by checking out the building as a birthday party without even asking us.”

Melendez pushed the issue knowing it would be a close vote and amid warnings that it could cost him his chairmanship.

“I said, ‘So? I’ll go back to fishery work,’” Melendez said. He lists chairman as his sole job for the last three decades on LinkedIn.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony tribal council eventually amended its constitution to end dual enrollment, and Melendez went on to be chairman for another 23 years. 

Arlan Melendez watches his grandson, Michael Costa, the master of ceremonies at Melendez’s retirement party on Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

Future plans for tribe and Melendez

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s new chairman, Daryl “Doug” Gardipe, was sworn in Dec. 13 along with other tribal council members.

A few, including Gardipe, have been on the council before, which tribal staff said should aid in a smooth transition out of Melendez’s 36-year tenure.

At the swearing-in ceremony, Gardipe said he looks forward to learning more about issues but wants to continue the projects started by the outgoing council members, particularly those dealing with economic development and housing in the Hungry Valley. 

“I'd like to thank them for their dedication and service to the tribe,” Gardipe said about the outgoing members. “You know, I've been on [the council] before and it’s not easy work.”

Looking back on the past 36 years, Melendez said he has mellowed and takes his time to be more diplomatic. He also said he thinks more about his mortality. Melendez’s mother and brother have died within the past two years, and he recently learned the average lifespan of a Native American man is 61.

“I'm 76. If I went around one more time, I'd have been 80 by the time I finished. I don't think so,” Melendez said. 

He said he looks forward to resting this winter and spending time working around the house with his wife, Joyce. His children and grandchildren plan to go fishing with him. Gutierrez and Neko Melendez have already bought an off-road vehicle with plans to explore the canyons around Pyramid Lake with their dad. 

Melendez describes his time on the council as a blessing.

“They call them the golden years,” Melendez said. “You just take it one day at a time really in tribal government. Rise with the sun and give thanks at the end of the day when the sun sets. But it's been good.”

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