‘We all have different cultures, but we are all connected’: An interview with the Nevada Indian Commission’s Stacey Montooth

Stewart Indian School
Left Stacey Montooth, Right Aletha Tom speak at Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum opening. (Photo courtesy Nevada Indian Commission)

Stacey Montooth, the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission for the last five months, puts a packet of Native medicines in a small blue gift bag. It contains tea collected by an elder of the Moapa Band of Paiutes from their traditional lands, and will be passed on to another tribe. 

The Nevada Indian Commission serves as a communication link between the governor’s office and the 27 federally recognized tribes, colonies and bands within the Great Basin in what is now the state of Nevada. The five-member commission was created by statute and is charged with making recommendations and researching solutions to improve the quality of life for Native Americans in the state of Nevada. All of the commissioners are from federally recognized tribes. 

Montooth describes the commission as a “clearinghouse,” a mechanism to share all the opportunities tribal nations have to work with the state of Nevada.

Montooth is a citizen of the Walker River Paiute Nation, born in an Indian Health Service facility in Schurz, Nevada. Her grandmother was a product of the Native American boarding school experience. Boarding schools for Native Americans were established by the federal government in the 1870s to force assimilation on Indigenous people. Native children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to the boarding schools where they were stripped of their culture in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

For the last few months, the Nevada Indian Commission has focused on the opening of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum in Carson City. In mid-December, they had a soft opening before their grand opening last week. The work of the cultural center is to capture authentic first-hand stories and share them in installations, including special programming for traditional arts, and a lecture series.  There’s a classroom and an art gallery for Native American art. The Nevada Indian Commission supervised the project working with several other Nevada agencies including the State Historic Preservation Office, Nevada Lands Division, and the Buildings and Grounds section of the state Public Works Division.

The center opened to the public on January 13, and welcomed more than 70 visitors.

In a wide-ranging interview, Montooth discussed the boarding schools, the role of the state Indian Commission in bridging communications between the state and tribes, native peoples’ ongoing efforts to protect their lands and culture from environmentally damaging encroachments.

Stewart Indian School
Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, celebrates the “First Look” of the new Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Nevada Indian Commission)

What is the importance of focusing on preserving the history of boarding schools in Nevada?

It’s not just to tell the history of the boarding schools. It still impacts our people today. It wasn’t that long ago when this happened. My grandmother attended boarding schools. When she had her 10 children and they went to school her experience was that the federal government feeds you, they clothe you, they teach you. When her children went to school she was completely befuddled by this idea of parent-teacher conferences. I have contemporaries whose experiences with public schools were so difficult that they feel reluctant when sending their children to public school. 

There isn’t a Shoshone or Paiute in the area that doesn’t have direct descendants that didn’t go through the boarding schools. It completely affects every aspect of our existence in 2020 and the opening of this cultural center is such a huge milestone because any civic-minded individual can come and learn an authentic story— the truth — told by our people. There’s nowhere else in the state you can do that and that shows the empowerment of our people. It’s an accurate history, it’s a comprehensive history and without knowing about the history of boarding schools you can’t truly be a student of history because your view is incomplete. We have to have all the decision-makers who are determining the quality of life of Native Nations and Nevada citizens not misremember what has happened in the past.

What are the most common issues you deal with as the communication link between the governor’s office and tribes?

One of the ways my office operates is that we listen. I ask what is your greatest concern for your specific community? What I heard and what the thousands of people who were connected to the Nevada Presidential Forum at UNLV is that there is a lot of commonalities in Indian Country. It’s not necessarily specific to Nevada, but just like any American, healthcare jobs, education, all of those issues are what keep our tribal leaders up at night. In my capacity as executive director I can connect the tribal leadership to the resources that the state already offers. Sometimes, like with the Department of Health and Human Services, they already have some solid partnerships with several of our respective tribes. In other cases, the Nevada Legislature is trying to create solutions to some of the ills that plague Indian Country.  

Stewart Indian School
Stewart Alumna Josie Becerra stands in story room at the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum. (Photo courtesy: Nevada Indian Commission.)

What is your biggest priority at the moment?

I started in September and the biggest priority I have ahead of me is to implement new legislation. July 1st of 2019, Gov. Steve Sisolak passed a consultation law. What that entails is multifaceted but in a nutshell, there’s now a law in the state of Nevada that every Nevada agency, department, division, committee, and any group that represents the state is now required to engage in meaningful consultation with all 27 Nevada tribes.

What’s the importance of this new law and consultation with tribal nations?

I can give you some examples of the importance of consultation. As sovereign nations, our 27 tribal nations have a government-to-government relationship with the federal government that being said our tribal leaders recognize that we still have neighbors. We still have counties that we share jurisdiction with when it comes to emergency services, when it comes to fighting fire and ambulance services. We have issues statewide that definitely involve our respective tribes, and so it’s critical that we exercise our sovereignty to the greatest extent, but we have to work with our partners to truly optimize all our resources. 

We take our tribal sovereignty seriously but we understand that we are not on an island. Our tribal leaders are committed not just to their respective citizens, but they want to enhance the life of all Nevadans, and so I can tell you that at the Ely Shoshone nation they move forward with a project where the federal government is providing land and the city of Ely and the county of White Pine are addressing the issue with the lack of homes. This is a three agency collaboration that is not just going to benefit tribal nations but all of the folks that live in Wte Pine county. 

With the large wildfires we’ve seen in Nevada and beyond, is climate change and the damage they cause a concern for tribes in Nevada?

It’s absolutely a concern. Around 500 nations, and we all have different cultures, but we are all connected by our focus on our environment. Our ancestors were the first stewards of this land and in the Great Basin we take that very seriously. And when you couple that core aspect of our being with climate change and with urban sprawl, it has really offered some huge challenges. 

This last summer there was a fire near the McDermitt Tribal nation and they had their actual elected officials on the frontlines fighting the fire. Just after I joined the Nevada Indian Commission there was already a project in motion through the Nevada State Forestry Department, and the project involved a shared stewardship program, and what this program is about is not just focusing on fire prevention in terms of logistics, but by bringing together all the stakeholders that can work together and collaborate not just when we are having an emergency but to plan ahead. Not just a little bit of prevention, but everything from proactive treatment of the soil to the sagebrush and the trees, but focusing on how to introduce more traditional plants and other traditional ecological facets that will keep fires from starting in the first place.

Our ancestors the Shoshone, the Paiute, and the Washoe were the first stewards of the land. We had systems in place that we would now consider best practices on how to remove undergrowth and how to carefully plan out our hunting and our fishing to ensure that we always had plenty of supply left.

Stewart Indian School
Stewart Cultural Center and Museum research room. (Photo: courtesy Nevada Indian Commission.)

How does the Nevada Indian Commission work on solving some of these issues?

In my capacity as the executive director and because of this new law regarding consultation, we can form new partnerships to ensure that everyone not only is at the table but that the Native American people are decision-makers. I’m really proud that the current administration, Governor Sisolak, has already visited several tribal nations in his first 18 months of his administration. He’s had two meetings in which he’s called all the tribal leaders to talk about emergency situations and how the state can help. I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be a Great Basin Native since 1863.

Urban sprawl is a topic that has been brought up lately with the expansion of the Nellis Air Force Base and the Clark County lands bill. Both have been an issue with tribes in Nevada. Why is that?

The closest native tribe in Nevada, the Las Vegas Paiute Nation, put together this resolution to oppose the Nellis Air Base expansion. All of the sister tribes signed on. There are multiple aspects of the expansion that impact the quality of life, which again is part of the role of the Nevada Indian Commission to advise on. Unlike our relatives in the Eastern part of the country, because Nevada didn’t become a territory until the mid-1800’s, our ancestors held on to their traditional ways much longer than other Native Americans in this country. 

In the Great Basin our ancestors followed the food, we didn’t stay in one place. We were so in tune with the seasons that we moved based on when the chokecherries were ripe, when the pine nuts could be harvested, when the trout spawned at Walker Lake. The native people followed these specific well-thought-out patterns. We were not nomads. We had very thoughtful reasons behind our mobility. When non-Natives came to this area they had a completely different approach to land and so it lent itself to physical conflict. 

Eventually, the federal government isolated the Shoshone and Washoe people to reservations to try to intentionally isolate them. With the expansion of Nellis, it is encroaching on where our ancestors and our people go for ceremonies, where our churches are, where our religious gatherings are held. We still hunt for our medicines and gather our food. Our people are still practicing our traditional values, and if there’s a bombing range that can’t happen.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.