Chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe Amber Torres (Photo: Governor’s office)
Tribal leaders from Nevada and across the country will have direct access to advising the U.S. Department of the Interior for the first time in history with the creation of a tribal advisory panel.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland last week launched the first-ever Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee, finally joining other federal agencies with similar advisory panels.
“Tribes deserve a seat at the decision-making table before policies are made that impact their communities,” Haaland said as she announced the committee during her remarks at the National Congress of American Indians 2022 Mid-Year Conference.
Chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, Amber Torres, was the sole Nevada tribal leader appointed to the committee. She will serve as the main representative for the Western region, which includes Nevada and most of Utah and Arizona, excluding the portions of those states that are part of the Navajo Nation.
“I threw my name in the hat,” Torres said. “This is very important to me. Not only because it’s historic and long overdue, but because the meaningful change we can make is going to be critical to how Indian Country moves forward.”
The Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee will provide tribal leaders with direct, consistent contact and communication with department officials, according to the Interior Department.
They’ll also get the chance to exchange views, share information and provide advice and recommendations regarding Departmental programs and funding that impact tribal nations, the department stated in a press release.
The Department of the Interior is the parent agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), an agency of critical importance to Native American tribes yet has lacked a tribal advisory council till now.
From approving land leases to funding law enforcement on reservations, the BIA has a significant impact on the economic health of tribal nations.
A high number of staff vacancies and inadequate funding have long plagued the agency and have hampered the effective delivery of many federal programs managed by BIA, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Lack of capacity and expertise at the agency has negatively impacted the Walker River Paiute Tribe and other tribes across the state, said Torres. Torres said she will use her role on the committee to push for a much needed budget increase to the agency.
“The biggest issue is funding. They run a whole gambit of programs that are crucial to Indian Country and there hasn’t been an increase in 13 years,” Torres said. “If we can get to the table we can work to justify and advocate for those unmet needs.”
A specific example Torres pointed to is the slow processing times that delay when next of kin can claim inherited property. When a tribal member who owns property on a reservation dies, the BIA is responsible for submitting information about the person’s family history and property holdings to a judge in a probate hearing. Until the process is finalized, property is held by the agency.
“We haven’t been completing probate on our reservation for a number of years,” Torres said. “That leaves a lot of things in limbo. There needs to be a smooth streamlined process and a set timeline for when it needs to be completed.”
The BIA is also responsible for approving home loans and leases for tribal members who want to place homes on their tribe’s reservation, under the Section 184 Indian Housing Loan Guarantee Program. But slow processing time has locked many Native American families in Nevada out of housing.
“Things take so long to get processed, there’s a huge delay in a tribal member’s ability to acquire a home and place it on their tribal lands,” Torres said.
Torres said she would also use her role on the committee to advocate for stronger government-to-government consultation between federal and state agencies and tribal nations.
When it comes to the use of public lands, several tribes in Nevada have criticized the Bureau of Land Management for approving a number of energy and mining projects without meaningful consultation with tribes.
Last year the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and a conservation group filed a lawsuit against BLM for approving a geothermal energy project half a mile away from a spring considered sacred to the tribe.
Several tribes, including Nevada’s own Winnemucca Indian Colony and the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, have also sued the BLM for approving a lithium mine on a site considered sacred to tribes, without consulting all affected tribes.
“Sacred sites are huge to tribes, not only in Nevada but across Indian Country,” Torres said. “There has to be a process to address those issues as well. As tribal nations we’re not brought into these discussions until people have already made up their minds and are already exploring the sites.”
“If we were brought to the table at the very beginning of the planning stage we would be able to say if there’s a compromise or if it’s a deal breaker. Remedying that process will be a win-win for everyone involved,” Torres continued.
Gov. Steve Sisolak and Democratic Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen advocated for Torres’s appointment to the committee. Cortez Masto praised the Interior for appointing a tribal representative from the state of Nevada.
“There are so many Tribal communities in Nevada, and they deserve to be at the table when decisions are being made that affect them,” said Cortez Masto in a statement. “No one understands this more” than Torres, “which is why I strongly recommended her to this position,” Cortez Masto said.
The advisory committee will consist of two tribal representatives from each of the 12 Bureau of Indian Affairs Regions across the U.S..
Committee members are appointed on a staggered term for up to two years, according to the department, and the chairperson will be designated by Haaland.
“We’re going to be making significant impacts for the next seven generations, and if we’re going to do it, we better do it right,” Torres said.
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