By Daniel Rothberg
The Nevada Independent
Amber Torres, the chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, has been vocal in her criticism of how the state handled the cleanup of the Anaconda Copper Mine, a polluted operation outside of Yerrington that ran until 1978.
“The way it played out and the way it went down was disheartening,” she said.
Torres said the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not adequately consult her tribe or the Yerington Paiute Tribe when they signed a deal in February 2018 to clean up the mine. That deal transferred the responsibility of remediating contaminated groundwater from the EPA to the state.
“It was a blatant slap in the face,” Torres added.
Now the tribes want the Legislature to help prevent it from happening again. Both tribes are pushing for the passage of Assembly Bill 264. The legislation, offered by environmental engineer and Reno Assemblywoman Sarah Peters, would formalize consultation between the governor, state agencies and tribes any time a state decision might affect tribal interests.
Tribes are often focused on untangling the complicated bureaucracy that exists in the federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But from regulating health care to water, what the state government does is inextricably linked with the state’s 27 federally recognized tribes.
Several bills pending in the Legislature directly affect tribes, and many of them have to do with the relationship of tribes to state government. AB 264 would require state agencies to develop policies for more collaborative consultation with tribes. Another bill would allow tribal police, working with a local sheriff, to receive authority outside of their jurisdiction. Other bills would tweak language around grants or define terms so they are more inclusive of tribes.
AB 264 would require state agencies to develop policies to support “effective communication,” and “positive government-to-government relations.” It would also require the governor to meet with tribes at a summit at least once a year. Finally, the bill asks that state employees receive cultural competency training if they work with tribes, what Torres called “Indian 101.”
The Walker River Paiute Tribe, with about 325,000 acres of land with a membership of roughly 3,600 in Western Nevada, does not hire a lobbyist. Torres said that’s all the more reason why consultation with the state is important. And she said a notice in the newspaper or a letter to the tribe is often insufficient. Tribes want a seat at the table before decisions are made. Talks over the Anaconda Copper Mine have improved under the Sisolak administration, she said (both tribes have asked Sisolak to undo the cleanup deal, the Reno Gazette Journal reported).
“It’s tough here,” Torres said. “My biggest thing is, we don’t have lobbyists in D.C. or anything of that nature. When we advocate, we write letters, we pass resolutions and we go up to [Capitol Hill] ourself. When we have issues at the local level, we meet with the governor. We have face-to-face consultation and press our issues that way. Or we meet with our legislators.”
Peters, a freshman assemblywoman who has worked in state government, said it’s not always the fault of state officials when consultation doesn’t happen. There are few formal mechanisms in place to facilitate a formal dialogue. That’s what Peters said she is trying to change.
“What are some boilerplate ways the state can train and engage with tribal governments,” she said. “We’re just missing this coordinated tool to help us understand each other, to help us understand each other’s function and communicate in effective ways.”
Stacy Montooth, a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, also serves as a spokesperson for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, an urban tribe. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is one of a handful of tribes that sets aside funds to hire lobbyists during the session. The goal, she said, was not just to lobby on bills that directly mention tribes, but on a slew of issues that affect tribes.
“All of the tribes have a little different approach when it comes to Carson City,” she said.
Access to medical care is a big priority, Montooth said. On Friday, several tribes testified at a hearing for Senate Bill 366, a bill to fix the shortage of dental care providers. The bill, introduced by Sen. Julia Ratti, would allow for mid-level dental therapists to practice in the state, potentially expanding the pool of practitioners available to offer dental services. Nevada would follow six states that have passed similar provisions, Ratti said at the hearing.
Anthony Sampson, the chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said elders and children often suffer from poor dental hygiene because of barriers from shortages to affordability. On Friday, Sampson joined other tribes and rural interests, testifying in favor of the legislation, saying it would allow them to address many hygiene issues before they become life-threatening.
“Most tribal communities in Nevada lack either dentists or dental clinics that provide regular services,” Sampson said. “Due to the lack of dental hygiene practitioners and due to the lack of dental hygiene education, our American Indian children, our elders, our veterans and others often suffer from poor hygiene.”
The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe is also joining other tribes in advocating for an amendment to a tribal ID bill that passed during the last session, oppositing water legislation and focusing on Senate Bill 182, which could allow tribal police to have authority outside of their jurisdictions.
Introduced by Sen. David Parks, the tribal police bill would allow tribal officers to “exercise the powers of a peace officer” if they receive a certification from the “Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Commission,” known as POST training. Through a written agreement with a county sheriff, tribal police could also work outside of their reservation when their job required it.
For a tribe like the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony — nestled in an urban area — that ability could be important for inter-agency work and to avoid jurisdictional questions, Montooth said.
Montooth and others said tribes are also monitoring water legislation. Although their water rights are typically protected as federal-reserved rights, their groundwater and surface water often falls under the regulation of the state. In addition, state actions could affect groundwater and surface water supplies. That’s why many tribes opposed a legislative package proposed by the state last month that they said could dry springs and affect the historic landscapes that they rely on.
“Water is always huge,” Montooth said.
But for tribes, much of the action on water is taking place outside of the Legislature. Tribes are closely watching a 9th Circuit Decision that extended the Winter’s Doctrine, a Supreme Court precedent that established tribal surface water rights to groundwater. The case, depending on how courts interpret it, could allow some tribes in Nevada to assert new claims to water rights.
At the 2019 Tribal Summit in Reno last week, Marla McDade Williams, who represents several tribes as a lobbyist for Strategies 360, urged tribal members to testify in Carson City. She said that tribal officials and tribal chairs should work to forge relationships with legislators.
“All legislation really is driven by constituents, by people,” McDade Williams said. “Any time we get comfortable and we want to let somebody else represent our issues, I’d say we’re losing.”
This article was reprinted with permission by The Nevada Independent. Visit them online at thenevadaindependent.com.