Tribes face theft, vandalism, and a rising number of COVID-19 cases

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A "No Visitors" sign was erected at the entrance to the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation last spring. The sign was shot and vandalized in May. (Photo courtesy of the Walker River Paiute Tribe)

Bright red signs reading “NO VISITORS” displayed on roads entering the Walker River Paiute Tribe reservation were pelted with buckshot on Sunday.

“It’s so disheartening,” said Amber Torres, the chairwoman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “People can’t get through there so I guess the only other alternative is to shoot it up and show that disrespect.”

The tribe had professional signs made, warning the general public that due to COVID-19, the tribe would only allow permanent residents and essential service providers onto the reservation for the safety of the tribe. But despite the signs and border fencing, trespassers have been an issue, especially near their reservoir. 

“We are a sovereign nation and we make our own decisions. It’s sad that people can’t respect that,” Torres said. “They feel it’s a right and not a privilege to come onto our reservation to enjoy our natural resources.”

Local law enforcement for the Walker River Paiute Tribe is now patrolling the borders and road entrances of the reservation, including the Weber Reservoir.

“We’re probably going to take the next precaution and put up cam trails so that we can catch these offenders,” Torres said. 

The Walker River Paiute Tribe is not the only tribe subjected to criminal acts in the midst of the coronavirus. In March, the Yerington Paiute Tribe had its biweekly delivery of bottled water stolen.

“Non-tribal members were coming onto our tribal land and stealing our water,” said Ginny Hatch, chairwoman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe. “Overnight, our water was gone.”

About four pallets, each holding about 30 cases of bottled water, were stolen from outside a community center on the reservation where it is dropped off every other week. The tribe has since had to limit the availability of drinking water to residents of the reservation to prevent further theft, even assigning staff to patrol water storage and delivery to ensure it reaches tribal members. 

“It was a lot of water that was taken from us. There was nothing for our reservation, for our residents to go and get,” Hatch said.

The Yerington Paiute Tribe has relied on bottled drinking water since tests confirmed a poisonous plume of groundwater containing a toxic stew of uranium, arsenic and other toxins had contaminated dozens of rural wells near the border of the reservation.

Atlantic Richfield Co., owner of the former Anaconda Copper Mine which is responsible for contaminating the surrounding soil and groundwater, provides safe bottled water for the tribe, which is about two miles north of the mine.

“We didn’t have that available for our residents right away, which put us in a tough spot,” Hatch said.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe has issued a stay-at-home order, and on April 2 took a step further, setting up a curfew from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., while the Yerington Paiute Tribal Council banned gatherings of groups of more than five people and closed off public spaces. 

Positive cases and states of emergency

Precautions to cut off tribal residents from the outside world are not without reason. There are 30 positive COVID-19 cases within the state’s tribal nations, according to the Nevada Division of Emergency Management and Tribal Health Coordinator on Wednesday.

As sovereign nations, tribal governments are under no obligation to share data with state health districts. However, because the virus is life-threatening, the Nevada Indian Commission is working with the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services to collect information on positive COVID-19 cases in Indian Country.

“Again, this is voluntary with the intent of ensuring not only the Governor’s awareness of this pandemic throughout our communities, but to determine where state resources can be focused,” wrote Stacey Montooth, the Executive Director of the Nevada Indian Commission, in an email.

The Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has reported 20 positive cases of COVID-19 on its reservation, while the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and The Fort Mojave Indian Tribe each reported five cases among their members.

On Monday, the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe announced the number of confirmed positive cases on their reservation of about 1,300 residents had grown from 14 to 20 over the weekend.

In a video update on the spread of the novel coronavirus on the reservation, Dawna Brown, the director of the Pyramid Lake Tribal Health Clinic, said testing was now a big concern.

“Our numbers have gone up really quickly in a short amount of time which means that the virus is moving,” Brown said.

Anthony Samson, the chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, urged tribal members to stay home and respect quarantine orders set by tribal council.

“We need to self contain and self isolate. This is real,” Samson said, adding that he himself had been tested after potentially being exposed to the virus.

Tribal nations across the United States face disproportionate risk from coronavirus. On Wednesday the Navajo Nation, the largest Indigenous reservation in the country with a population of about 160,000 living on the reservation, reported over 2,600 confirmed cases and at least 85 deaths — more than in all of Utah, where about 60 people have died.

A total of 26 out of 27 tribal nations have declared states of emergency in Nevada, with only the Moapa Band of Paiutes opting out.

Protests across Nevada demanding the economy reopen are a worrying sign that tribes will be pressured to open before they are ready, Torres said.

“Despite the fact that the governor of Nevada is already looking to open back up certain areas, we are not ready to open,” Torres said, adding that the tribe is not looking to open till at least June 1.

“Our lives are not expendable,” she said. “We will take every precaution to keep closed for as long as we need to protect our people.”

Federal aid ‘agonizingly bureaucratic

Tribes provide a range of services to its members including health care, food distribution and public health and safety regulation, educational programs, and water treatment in the case of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, which runs a water treatment plant that treats for arsenic and uranium in the tribe’s tap water, keeping it safe enough for hand washing and bathing. 

Those services, as well as tribal employees who provide them, are funded mostly by grants, but the grant application and tending process can be difficult due to a lack of personnel during the coronavirus, said Hatch.

“It’s an unfortunate situation but kind of fortunate in the way that we are all working on this together because we are all in the same boat,” Hatch said.

“But if this goes on a lot longer I can’t say for certain that we wouldn’t be facing hardships moving forward,” Hatch said. “We are doing our best, but as for the future, however long this extends is really going to determine things.”

Tribal government is eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program which helps small businesses stay open and continue to pay employees for up to eight weeks, but the first round of the $349 billion dollar program was completely depleted in just under two weeks of operation, leaving out countless businesses and tribes.

The Yerington Paiute Tribe did not make the cut for the first round of funding and is now waiting on its application for the next, which is already more than half gone.

The CARES Act, the largest economic stimulus package in U.S. history, allocated more than $8 billion for tribal communities and health institutions, but leaders of some Nevada tribes have decried bureaucratic requirements which they say are making it hard for the communities in need to access funding quickly.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes, which runs a small casino and travel plaza, has yet to receive any information on whether its application for the Paycheck Protection Program has been processed or approved for the first or second rounds of funding. 

“Native tribes are not a high priority for the banks in general,” said Laura Parry, chairwoman of the Moapa Band of Paiutes in an email.

Some funding sources for tribes provided by the CARES Act are still being processed, but tribal leadership has not been told how much the tribe will receive or when it could be expected, Parry said.

“The entire process is agonizingly bureaucratic,” she added.

With casino games closed and gasoline sales down, tribal coffers will be badly depleted by the loss of local business and tourism revenue, Parry said, but diesel sales to truckers on the Interstate 15 corridor from the tribe’s Travel Plaza has provided the tribe with a steady revenue stream.

“We are providing a critical commodity to the trucking industry, but at the same time they are helping to support the Tribe,” Parry said.

The tribe is now working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency or “FEMA” to recover part of their losses.

Torres said the process of recovering losses through the CARES Act is more difficult for smaller tribes like the Walker River Paiute Tribe, which do not have full-time grant writers. That can be a “huge barrier and challenge for Nevada tribes,” Torres said. The tribe has yet to receive any money specifically set aside for tribes from the CARES act, said Torres.

The Walker River Paiute Tribe started a community store during the coronavirus to sell staples like rice and beans in a safe location on the reservation using their own general fund to meet needs.

“In the interim we will continue using our dollars to get what our people need and hoping we can recover that from some program,” Torres said. 

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.