Nevada tribal emergency coordinator named amid pandemic
LAS VEGAS (AP) — A member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe has been named as the state’s new tribal emergency response coordinator, amid a report that coronavirus testing and assistance has been slow to reach Native American tribes.
Cassandra Darrough, an elected tribal council member who traces her ancestry to the Walker River Paiute Tribe, began work last month with the state Division of Emergency Management. She joined tribal health coordinator Crystal Harjo providing emergency management support to Nevada’s 27 tribal nations.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported recently that tribes in Nevada scrambled for weeks to acquire coronavirus testing materials and protective equipment after most other Nevada residents — including self-identified urban Native Americans — were able to obtain limited testing as early as mid-March.
Testing finally began in late April for an estimated 20,000 enrolled tribal members on throughout Nevada, even as case counts grew in communities near reservations.
Tribal leaders shut borders, sent employees home and focused on protecting tribal elders and securing food for members in what Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, characterized as a fight for lives.
“Our leadership takes sovereignty seriously — we are going to exercise our rights as tribal nations to the fullest extent of the law,” Montooth told the newspaper. “At the same time, we are not islands. We want to be good neighbors. And we know that what’s good for Indian Country is good for Nevada.”
Closures drew some backlash. On the Walker River Indian Reservation, bullets struck a barricade preventing people from entering the tribe’s jewel of a reservoir, a huge draw for outdoor recreation.
Montooth blamed the Nevada Tribal Emergency Coordinating Council, a new arm of Nevada’s emergency management department, for poor communication between state and tribal leaders at the start of the pandemic.
The council began operating in July 2019, shortly after it was approved by the Legislature.
It replaced the Inter-Tribal Emergency Response Council, which previously coordinated with the state’s emergency managers to respond to isolated emergencies, like floods in 2017 floods and wildfires in northern Nevada.
The new council was meant to streamline communication amid crisis, allowing two grant-funded state outreach coordinators to assess needs and aid with up to 27 tribal leaders.
But the broad pandemic affected the entire state at once, prompting Darrough’s predecessor, a tribal member, to leave to help her tribe.
The vacancy was filled with Darrough’s appointment.
Montooth, who began her own state liaison position last September, said having one person trying for about a month to coordinate widely varying needs with tribal nations across a geographically diverse region complicated the process.
“We’re dealing with 27 different governments — 27 different sets of leaders who have different ideas, and who are tailoring their responses to the needs of their communities,” she said. “There’s not just one size fits all.”
One-third of Indian Country households within Nevada also do not have stable or reliable internet access, Montooth said.
In mid-April, Harjo began weekly calls involving tribes, the Nevada Indian Commission and a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services representative to support tribal efforts in testing and contact tracing.
Meghin Delaney, spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Sisolak, said state and local health authorities can’t require tribes to report coronavirus cases to the state, but she said it was strongly encouraged.
As weeks passed, communication got better, Montooth said. But tribal nations did not receive independent, rapid-results testing machines until late April, when the federal government provided 12 to share through its Indian Health Service.
Tribal Chairwoman Amber Torres was thankful for the machine the Walker River Paiute Tribe received by early May. The reservation is about two hours outside of Reno and, as she described, “very rural and very desolate.”
“Initially, we didn’t have anything at the local level,” she said. “We were lucky that we were one of the tribes to receive one.”
Caleb Cage, Nevada’s COVID-19 response director, told the Review-Journal the state has about 15 Abbot machines, but they are not being used. Instead, the state relies on public health labs for analysis, which Cage said yield more reliable test results.
At the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Tribal Chairman Arlan Melendez said about 200 of the tribe’s 1,180 members were tested June 12, when the Nevada National Guard set up a temporary testing center on the colony’s Hungry Valley Reservation.
Melendez called it difficult for reservations to remain closed while surrounding malls, stores and salons are opening.
Torres, said pushback from outsiders who want to use the Walker River Paiute Tribe’s closed-off reservoir has been difficult to bear.
“That was one disheartening thing — that people didn’t respect us as a sovereign nation and wanted to get in here as if it was their right, when ultimately it is a privilege,” she said.
And though the tribe has taken a huge economic hit amid the lockdown, Torres said, “As long as our people are safe — money comes and goes, but the people do not.”