Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Tribe work flinty soil – sustainable economic development elusive in remote region of Nevada

by Brian Bahouth

A pair of unidentified men repairing a fence on the Fort McDermitt Reservation in March 1940 - image - Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress

The drive on US Route 95 north of Winnemucca, Nevada is visually spectacular. To the right, rugged stone peaks with seasonal tufts of green or white or brown mark the miles … Paradise Peak … Santa Rosa Peak … Minerva Peak … roughly 80 miles into the drive, there is a small agglomeration of buildings and trees at the Nevada/Oregon border, the census designated place of McDermitt, Nevada, and nearby, the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone Reservation.

Looked at from space, the reservation and surrounding area is marked with an asymmetrical lattice work of dirt roads and trails that crisscross the high, brown desert north of the Quinn River, a tiny sovereign nation that spans the Nevada/Oregon border. Most tribal residents live along the Quinn River, a twisting  corridor of green that emanates from the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Use the zoom tool on the map above for greater detail. You can change the base map to include satellite and other base imagery.

North Road is an innocuous turn off of route 95 that follows the Quinn River. Tribal offices are in the largest building on the road where modest houses, barns, corrals, and small plots of crops are tucked into green bends of the river.

Not a lot of people live on the reservation. Data is sparse. The US Census Bureau estimates a median annual income of near $17,000 for 341 tribal members, but the income estimate amounts to little more than a guess because it comes with a 90 percent margin of error. The population estimate is, according to the Census Bureau, far more accurate.

For a clearer understanding of life on the Fort McDermitt reservation, we spoke with tribal chairman Tildon Smart. Smart said the estimate of nearly $17,000 a year is way too high.

“I personally, from what I see within our community, it is probably less than $10,000,” Smart said in a phone interview.

Hear Tildon Smart on the Wild Hare podcast.

Based on Humboldt County documents, there are nine business licenses issued in McDermitt.

“Very, very few people have the opportunity to work,” Smart said. “We have ranching, farming. Some mines in the area are looking at opening up. The only other place you can work is at the casino restaurant. They have three gas stations to choose from, 2 very small mini marts along with the tribal government in the health clinic, as well as the local county school, are really about the only places that people can acquire jobs in the area.”

When the county seat is 80 miles away, the tribal government is the only local form of official administrative presence, and that comes with a price.

“Yes we are. We’re the only thing within 75 miles in our area that has a government. With Human Services and things along those lines, it makes it very difficult. You know, a lot of the studies show that people that come from poverty like a lot of tribal members do, there’s a lot of domestic violence. There’s a lot of child abuse and stuff like that.

“There’s just nothing to occupy people’s minds or keep them busy a majority of the time. Individuals that don’t have work and can’t find the work usually end up falling into drugs and get into meth and heroin and stuff like that.”

Illegal drug use and other addictions become manifest in legal problems. For Humboldt County Sheriffs to respond to a domestic violence call in McDermitt or Fort McDermitt, it can take an hour or more, so the tribe relies on the US Bureau of Indian Affairs for their police, which is a problem in itself.

“Our law enforcement currently is through the Bureau of Indian Affairs,” Smart said. “The majority of officers are nonnatives. They stay for a short time and then they leave. There’s just nothing out here. Their wives generally don’t like it. There’s no shopping malls. There’s nothing like that unless they want to drive to Boise, Idaho or to Reno.”

Title: Indian Woodcutter, Fort McDermitt, Nevada, March 1940 – image – Arthur Rothstein, US Library of Congress

There are more than 200 tribal police departments working in Indian Country across the US that range widely in size and capabilities. Perhaps the most pressing challenge for small police forces in remote areas is being able to hire the requisite number of officers to provide 24-7 coverage with adequate backup for officers in the field.

“Right now the tribal council is looking at what we call contracting or the 638 police program, which means we would receive startup money from the federal government to begin building our own police force. That is something that we’ve been looking at, as far as response times, stuff like that.

“If the officers have to come from Winnemucca, there’s about 45 minutes to an hour response time, so we’re looking at having our own police force, just for the fact that we need to have better response times, better control of the officers. With the BIA we don’t really have a say on what the officers are doing, where they’re going, where they’re being detailed.”

The tribe hires a judge who visits from Portland once a month to hear cases. Considering the role addiction plays in legal problems on the reservation, we asked Smart if the judge has the option to assign offenders to drug and alcohol rehab. Smart said tribal members with substance abuse problems do have a lifeline.

“It depends on their situation and what they’re in trouble for. Our health clinic does have mental health evaluators that can do an evaluation and tell the judge whether or not that person is a candidate for a treatment center and whatnot. If they do need a treatment center, we will send them off to get help.

“And like I said, it’s just based on the crime. Sometimes if it’s just the drug violations, then we’ll work with them and send them to a rehab facility. The judge will give them community service and stuff like that. A lot of times their crime is bad enough that they’ll be sent to jail time.”

Severe Poverty

For Smart and the tribal council, a lack of adequate law enforcement and substance abuse are symptoms of a larger and more pressing problem, a lack of sustainable economic development and poverty, severe poverty.

US Census data comes with a wide margin of error in Indian Country, but in 2017 the Census Bureau estimated the percentage of Native Americans living at or below the poverty line for their circumstance to be 26.8 percent. For the same period, the US national average was 14.6 percent.

How does the Census Bureau draw the poverty line?

The Census Bureau uses a set of money income thresholds that vary by family size and composition to determine who is in poverty. Poverty thresholds are the dollar amounts used to determine poverty status, a measure of need. If a family’s total income is less than the family’s threshold, then that family and every individual in it is considered in poverty. The official 48 poverty thresholds do not vary geographically, but they are updated for inflation using the Consumer Price Index. The official poverty definition uses money income before taxes and does not include capital gains or non-cash benefits such as public housing, Medicaid, and food stamps.

For instance, a family with a mother, father, 2 children and one extended relative, a grandmother or aunt, the 2018 poverty threshold was $30,718.

According to the American Indians on Reservations: a databook of socioeconomic challenge between 1990 and 2000 censuses, Native American income levels have made relative gains in recent decades, but because Native American wages lagged so far behind the national average in 1990, the gains were statistically significant but did not lift many people out of poverty.

The same report finds that from 1990 to 2000, Native American family poverty rates dropped by more than 7 percentage points in non-gaming tribal areas. Poverty rates dropped by roughly 10 percentage points on tribal lands where gaming is legal. The overall U.S. family poverty rate dropped eight-tenths of a percentage point over the same decade.

On reservations, tribal and federal governments and casinos are typically the largest employers, but tribal households are often supported exclusively on social security, disability or veteran’s retirement income. The Census Bureau estimates nearly half of Fort McDermitt tribal members live at or below the poverty line.

Tildon Smart said economic development is the council’s most important issue. To that end the tribe runs a gas station and mini-mart. The tribe also operates Quinn River Farms, a cannabis cultivation facility with both outdoor and indoor grow operations.

Quinn River Farms Cannabis

The Fort McDermitt tribe is one of seven Nevada tribes to enter into a compact with the state to participate in the legal cannabis industry, both medical and adult use. The compact is a 10-year agreement. As part of the compact, the state does not impose any tax on the operation, but the tribe must collect a tax that is 100 percent of what the state tax would be. Tribes are further mandated to use any profit for “Essential Government Services.”

Essential Government Services are defined as administration, public facilities, fire, police, health, education, elder care, social services, sewer, water, environmental and land use, transportation, utility services, community development, and economic development.

The agreement is also clear in that the tribe does not cede any rights of sovereignty by signing or participating in the compact.

But cannabis is not an economic silver bullet. The licenses and up-front facility construction costs are significant, and marijuana cultivation, like any other business, has a strict bottom line. Cannabis grow operations do indeed make money in Nevada but are not necessarily large-scale employers.

Typically a few people tend plants and trim harvested buds year around in an indoor grow facility, and sometimes bud trimming is automated. Quinn River Farms has a good sized outdoor grow operation that leads to the need for seasonal bud trimmers, but that work is temporary.

“It has opened up jobs for some tribal members, which is great,” Smart said. “We’ve had some issues with turnover and stuff like that, but this year it seems like we’re doing really well. It does have the potential to do great things for the tribe, but as everyone knows that starting a businesses is quite hard. All of your infrastructure, everything like that has to be paid off before anybody really starts seeing any type of gain on funding.”

When the farm begins to show a greater profit, Smart said the community will use the surplus to fill in gaps in federal support. Smart used a domestic violence prevention event as an example.

“The way that it’s set up is that any profits that come off of that project for the tribe is going to go back into the tribe to help supplement some of the programs with items that they need to purchase, like human services, for example. Through the BIA there’s certain things through the federal government that you can purchase and there’s certain things that you can’t.  A lot of times for the programs we have to find other money elsewhere to be able to hold a function, purchase the food for the function, for just prizes for the function, stuff like that.”

Other cannabis profits will be directed at youth programs. Money from cannabis sales is already helping kids look over the horizon.

“The funding from the cannabis project will be will be put into a special pot by the Cannabis Commission where these departments can then go to the Commission to request money or for the commission to purchase some t-shirts for an event. Just stuff like that is what we’re really looking at.

“The majority of it has been geared towards our youth. We’ve taken kids all over the nation this year, to different camps and conferences and just doing different things to get them out there to explore the world so that they have a bigger view of what their options are, where they can go and what they can do after they graduate high school.”

Lithium Nevada

Mercury mining helped develop and sustain the hamlet of McDermitt, but the quicksilver mines closed decades ago. Since then, McDermitt has been economically flat, but a lithium mine is in the permitting process some 25 miles to the southwest. Lithium Nevada could conceivably begin construction on the Thacker Pass mine by the first quarter of 2021, barring prohibitive findings during the environmental impact statement process, to include public hearings.

According to Lithium Nevada, the mine will provide some 600 jobs a year during the two-year construction phase and 300 jobs a year for the next 45 years. The average annual salary is expected to be around $84,000.

“They’ve been working very closely with our tribe right from the very beginning,” Smart said of Lithium Nevada. “There’s still some details that need to be worked out, so I really can’t comment on what agreements or what details the tribe will end up having with Lithium Nevada, but yes, jobs are are going to be opening up hopefully within the next couple of years, and sounds like the tribal members will have a hiring preference.”

In July of this year, Barrick Gold Corporation and Newmont Goldcorp Corporation merged to form Nevada Gold Mines LLC or Nevada Gold. Smart said the new company is more welcoming than its parents.

“Right now we’re working on a new program with Nevada Gold. Before it was just the Western Shoshone, but now they’re including all the other tribes in the area. Newmont and Barrick merged, and now they’re Nevada Gold. Nevada Gold has a different outlook on how they want to run things, so they’ve included our tribe on this, and it allows kids to sign up for courses, mining courses with Great Basin College. They offer scholarships, stuff like that,” Smart said. “So we’re hoping that Lithium Nevada rolls out a similar program for tribal members and tribal youth in our area, and hopefully over the next 30 years, we have a change and we can bring this community out of poverty and get going on the right track.”