Nevada Native American tribes wait for federal aid, a “second thought”

An abandoned fishing boat far from the water line on the east shore of Walker Lake. Lake level has dropped roughly 150 feet since agricultural diversions of water from the Walker River began in the early 20th century - photo: CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Bob Tregilus Photography

For Native American tribes in Nevada, the novel coronavirus pandemic has made a typically difficult situation worse. Some $8 billion in federal relief for the nation’s 574 recognized tribal nations has been delayed. A coalition of tribes has sued the US Treasury Department over the move to distribute $5 billion of allocated relief funds to several for-profit corporations in Alaska. Further undermining tribal confidence, on March 27, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs disestablished the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe of Massachusetts, and since then, amid the coronavirus pandemic, fear and uncertainty affect tribes across Nevada and the nation.

The 325,000 acre Walker River Paiute reservation is adjacent to Walker Lake and some 100 miles southeast of Reno. According to US Census data, a third of the roughly 1,200 tribal residents live below the federal poverty line of $12,760 a year for an individual and $21,720 for a family of three. Unemployment on the reservation was around 25 percent before the pandemic.

When the coronavirus hit the US, Walker River Paiute chairman Amber Torres said the tribal government asked its members to abide by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for limiting the spread of the coronavirus.

Many tribes, including the Walker River tribe, have closed their reservations to outsiders for the time being to stop contact infection. The pandemic has been especially hard on tribes already on the economic and social support margins. Access to basic utilities is a huge issue.

Explore the remote Walker Lake area with this interactive map. Click the green dot for a bit more information. Text continues below. 

Challenges for rural Nevada tribes are unique and unlike those of most Nevadans:

“Our nearest Walmart is 40 miles away [by car]. And if we needed to go somewhere big enough, like Costco to get major items, it’s a good two hours away, and that’s just one way,” Torres said.  “Some of our people are still having to walk through the reservation for essential needs in a grocery store. Many people don’t have a car or gas money, most times they have to bum a ride with someone they’re friends with. And when we get there, grocery stores are wiped out. There’s no flour. There’s no staples. There’s no bread.”

A pre-coronavirus unemployment rate of 26 percent is another barrier to being able to fulfill essential needs on the reservation. According to Torres, people who do have jobs are forced to work without protective gear at the Hawthorne Army Depot, 30 miles away.

“There’s major exposure there. And that’s where the first case of COVID in Mineral County came to play just this last week,” Torres said by phone.

Confirmed COVID-19 positive cases have frightened Torres and other tribal leaders. The Indian Health Service (IHS) does not have a facility in Nevada.

“We are underneath the Phoenix area [when it comes to accessing IHS], so we have to rely on the regional hospitals, Carson City, Reno, Nevada. And so we are then considered a burden on their healthcare systems,” Torres said.

The Tribal Health Clinic on the Walker River Paiute reservation – photo: Amber Torres

Many people at the reservation have underlying health conditions such as obesity and diabetes, which make them highly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus. Mental health and addiction issues also plague Nevada tribes.

Access to high-speed internet is another issue. While the rest of America has been trying to keep up with online education, many reservations have struggled to put an infrastructure in place. High speed internet is not a default on reservations.

“We have just got high speed internet and we are getting used to the changed pace of technology,” said Torres. “We’ve been working really hard to get fiber here on our reservation so that our kids continue to have distance learning availability; we’ve set up some Wi-Fi up in the tribal hall parking lot so that students can do their homework.” 

2019 gathering of the Walker River Paiute tribe – photo: Amber Torres

Federal decisions and indifference magnify struggle for tribes:

On top of existing challenges, controversial decisions by the federal government have made the tribes wary as they are having to spend their time and resources to not just fight the pandemic, but also to overcome indifference and convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Trump Administration to help them.

Delayed federal relief equals poor access to resources. According to the Associated Press, the US Treasury decided to channelize $5 of $8 billion in relief funding to a group of for-profit companies, Alaska Native Corporations (ANCs).

Involving a corporate entity in the process “was never a part of the consultation we had had,” said Torres, “Until the very last day when they [Federal Government] made the decision to include the Alaskan Native Corporations, a lot of tribes feel that it’s because of Tara Sweeny, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, who used to be CEO of one of the corporations.”

Tara Sweeney is an ex-employee of Arctic Slope Regional Corporations. In her corporate role, she advocated for opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, before she joined the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

An investigation by Politico found that this decision may divert about half of the aid, which was meant for the tribes, into the hands of the corporations.

The decision to involve a for-profit company has prompted a coalition of tribes to sue the federal government. Torres has realistic fears that this would delay funds reaching the tribes already strapped for resources.  “My biggest thing is if everybody is going in the litigation regarding this, this can hold up that $8 billion dollar funding that could possibly be coming down to us.” 

Also, the Mashpee tribe has filed an emergency injunction with District Court for the District of Columbia to delay the loss of their land.

Apart from the legal conflicts, the communications between the tribal nations and federal government have been tense and lacking in clarity. Speaking of access to medical supplies, Torres said, “We had a meeting with the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada back in March, and we were told that the state had been distributed the tribal tests and they were never handed out to anybody.

“We were very disheartened at that point, because we always have to go through the state. And it’s a huge barrier to us because we should have that government to government relationship where they’re sending everything directly down to us because we are the First Nations and long before, our ancestors paid for this. That promise was to provide Indian health services for people and, when it comes to pandemics or shutdowns, we’re a second thought.”

Working with the State slows things down: 

While Torres thanked the Nevada government for the test kits and some Personal Protective Equipment, she recognizes that coordination with the state comes with its own challenges. Things get delayed. The FDA gave permission to the state laboratories for supplying Rapid test kits as early as February 4, 2020, the Paiute tribe “finally, just received the Rapid test on April 10.” The only PPE that we’ve received from Indian Health Service has been some 95 masks, you know, maybe some gloves if we’re lucky,” said Torres. “I want to say that it’s not enough.”

Torres said the tribal nations do not like the fact that they have to “beg” the state to get help. The Paiute people “put in several requests on March 16 and 17 [to the state of Nevada] for ‘any kind of donation that they could give us,’” informed Torres. “We put in request for food supplies. There’s been a ton of requests, and to this date, we haven’t received anything.” And when the state fails to respond in a timely manner, “There’s nobody who can be held accountable,” she added.

Rising up to the challenges with help from neighbors:

Regardless of the challenges, some tribes in Nevada received support from people from Reno and neighboring areas. A significant amount of support came from Patricia Ackerman, a retired high altitude mountaineer turned politician who lives in Minden. Ackerman delivered truck loads of food, tissue paper, and paper towels to the Walker River Paiute Tribe and the Duckwater tribe. The Ally attempted to contact the Duckwater tribe but has not gotten a response.

Torres also said that the tribes have stepped up efforts to keep their people safe with whatever resources are internally available to them. Elders in tribal communities are considered one of their most precious assets. So, the tribes are taking every measure they can to help people maintain safe social distancing.

The Walker River people have momentarily stopped cultural and religious practices such as prayers, sweat, and smudge ceremonies in public. The tribal housing department at the reservation put on a coloring contest during Easter and handed out Easter bags to the kids at the school lunches to help maintain “a sense of community.”

“At tribal council, we’re still continuing to meet by Zoom, which is something completely new to us. Also, as of today, some funding from Family First and Care Pack has started “trickling in.” “We have a bunch of broken promises. Our people have been through so much already. Every time we turn around we are fighting for things that we rightfully deserve.” Torres added, “But we’re resilient. We will rise to the occasion.”    


Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The wall street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. Support her work in The Ally here.