| FirstNationsFocus.com

Washoe Natives among Vietnam War vets honored in Alpine County

ALPINE COUNTY, Calif. — Washoes were among the first men called in the Douglas County draft for World War I.

When the draft began on June 5, 1917, Washoes Joe Mack and George Dutchy were at the top of the list, despite the fact they weren’t considered United States citizens.

Two of Dutchy’s relatives are among the 90 Alpine County veterans listed who’d served in the United States’ armed forces.

On Oct. 15, Hung A Lel Ti Chairman Irvin Jim Jr. spoke at the dedication of a five-mile stretch of Highway 88 from the California state line to veterans of the Vietnam War.

“One of every four Native people served compared with one in 12 in the general population,” he said. “American Indians served in every war over the past 200 years, and have enlisted in greater numbers per capita than any ethnic group.”

He said 90 percent of the Indians who served in the Vietnam War were volunteers.

“Throughout Indian Country, the men and women who served in the armed forces are among the most honored members of our community,” he said. “We honor our Vietnam veterans on this stretch of highway that runs through the southern portion of our Washoe homeland.”

California Department of Transportation District 10 Director Dan McElhinney credited Alpine County resident Arnold Rakow for motivating the effort to rename the highway.

Rakow was in the Army from 1968 to 1971 and served with the Corps of Engineers in Vietnam.

He was escorted by Katherine Rakow, who serves on the Alpine County Board of Supervisors.

Alpine County Supervisors passed a resolution in 2017 that was taken up by the California Legislature.

The resolution was introduced “as a way to honor residents who served during the Vietnam War and their families.”

The resolution recognized Alpine Washoe and other veterans who served in the war.

“A large number of Alpine County citizens who served in Vietnam were members of the Washoe Tribe and grew up and attended school in Woodfords in the 1960s,” the Alpine resolution read.

Marine and Alpine County Supervisor Don Jardine grew up in Alpine County and said he signed up with four of his classmates, who were all Washoe.

“Some lived in the most basic conditions,” he said. “Living in homes without running water or electricity, and yet they stepped forward in the highest traditions. Where ever they were sent they did their best, along with all the veterans.”

A sign listed 90 Alpine County residents who’d served in four wars that occurred in the 20th Century, including World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.

Recovering the Sacred: Breast cancer awareness paramount among Native women

One in eight women in the U.S. will get breast cancer during their lifetime. And while incidents of breast cancer is lower in Native women compared to non-Native women, breast cancer is the most frequently diagnosed form of cancer among Native women and the second leading cause of death.

What’s more alarming is that Native women are being diagnosed at a younger age than other women. On average, a Native woman will be diagnosed around 57 years of age versus 63 years of age among white women.

Native women are less likely to be screened for breast cancer compared to other women and thus, more likely to die of breast cancer than other women. Only 60% of Native women 40 or older have had a mammogram done in the past two years versus 69% of black women and 65% of white women.

Studies have shown that when a diagnosis of cancer is made, the cancer is already in a later stage among Native women; and in fact are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with stage 4 triple-negative breast cancer than women of other ethnicities.

The fact that Native women are not receiving breast cancer screening, getting breast cancer at a younger age, and are likely to be at a more advanced stage when diagnosed makes routine screening and understanding of the risks all the more important for early diagnosis, treatment and survival.

Screening

Mammogram screening is important for all women. Along with follow-up testing and treatment if diagnosed, mammography can reduce the chance of dying from breast cancer.

Among Native women, barriers to breast cancer screening include: low income, lack of access to care, different health care provider at every visit, lack of recommendation from the provider to get mammogram screening, lack of knowledge of breast cancer risks and fear of bad news or fear of pain with the procedure due to lack of understanding of the screening procedure.

Average risk screening guidelines

• Women ages 40-44 have the option to start annual breast cancer screening.

• Women ages 45-54 annual mammogram recommended.

• Women age 55 and older may switch to mammograms every 2 years.

Screening should continue as long as a woman is in good health and is expected to live at least 10 more years.

High risk screening Guidelines

A woman is considered to be high risk for breast cancer if:

• She has a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations.

• Is a first-degree relative of a BRCA carrier, but untested herself.

• Has had radiation to the chest between the ages of 10 and 30 years.

• Has Li-Fraumeni , Cowden, or Bannayan-Ruvalcaba syndromes or is a 1st degree relative.

• Has breast tissue with high density.

For women at higher risk:

• Screening may begin before age 40

• It may be recommended that women at higher risk have an annual MRI screening done as well.

Understanding risk

There is no sure way to prevent breast cancer, but there are things women can do that might lower their risk:

• Maintain a healthy weight. Both increased body weight and weight gain as an adult are linked to a higher risk of breast cancer after menopause. The American Cancer society recommends that women avoid excessive weight gain by balancing food intake with physical activity.

• Eat a healthy diet. While the studies are not clear on how a healthy diet can lower the risk of breast cancer; a diet low in fat, low in processed and red meat and high in vegetables and fresh fruit clearly has proven benefits on weight and lowering the risk of other diseases.

• Be physically active. Moderate to vigorous physical activity is linked to lower breast cancer risk, so it is important to get regular exercise. The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get at least 2 ½ hours of moderate physical activity or 1 ¼ hour of vigorous activity a week.

• Limit or avoid alcohol. Alcohol has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends that women who drink have no more than 1 alcoholic drink a day.

• Breastfeeding. Women who choose to breastfeed for at least 3-6 months get the added benefit of lowering their risk of breast cancer.

• Birth Control and Hormone Replacement Therapy. Most studies have shown that the use of birth control pills place a woman at higher risk of breast cancer. Hormone replacements containing estrogen also place women at higher risk of breast cancer, especially if used after menopause.

The decision to have breast cancer screening done, when to start screening and how often to have screening should be determined by the woman with help from her provider. Her provider can help the woman to make an informed, values-based decision. It is helpful if the woman asks her provider about the procedure itself to reduce any concerns or fears she may have.

We can all can help raise awareness of Native breast cancer by celebrating Indigenous Pink Day in October and encouraging loved ones to get their screening done and by spreading the word that mammograms along with early detection and treatment can save lives.

“Recovering the Sacred” is a monthly women’s health-focused column from Rebecca Chavez (Western Shoshone), who is a certified nurse-midwife, women’s healthcare provider and a mother of two. If you have any questions or ideas for future topics, email her at rchavez@renown.org.

RSIC Education Column: Bringing our ancestors to school (part two)

“If our children are culturally centered, then when they face an obstacle in their life, they can use their culture as a source of strength to find the best answer.”

To illustrate the lesson provided by this RSIC parent, let’s imagine a Venn Diagram wherein we have two intersecting “spheres of influence.” These two worldviews always co-exist and more often overlap.

Sometimes we have to exercise “code switching” and act in a way that we wouldn’t behave if we were on the Rez — for instance, in the classroom or on the school bus. And vice versa, we community members fully understand the rez-etiquette, and our visitors quickly learn that there exists an unwritten code that everyone abides by, either in ceremony or on the basketball court.

In last month’s article, “Bringing our ancestors to school,” we primarily explored the first sphere of our Venn Diagram as we discussed different avenues we can take to make space within our public and/or community classrooms.

As a result, the centerpiece of the Venn Diagram, where the two worlds overlap, is that space that is created in which our students could feel comfortable being their cultural-authentic selves on their school campus.

The prime objective of RSIC Education Goal 5 is to build out this intersection as much as possible. As the overlapping/middle piece grows more and more, we will see our schools becoming responsive to the cultural needs of our Native communities.

Now, with “…Because our ancestors are always standing with us,” let’s explore the second sphere of our Venn Diagram. Technically, our Venn Diagram is in reverse order of operation, for the second sphere is the primary sphere because it is of greater magnitude.

This is our Native Universe. This sphere serves as our subjective lens for our individual identity and frames our behaviors as we navigate both worlds.

To the Mother who told me, “If my child is culturally-centered, then when they face an obstacle in their life, they can use their culture as a source of strength to find the best answer,” I want to ask her “How?”

How do we instill this strong sense of self-worth? The unwritten code of rez-etiquette is learned and it needs modeled by adults. Adults who know how to act right! We need all aunties and uncles, all our gramps and grannies, to diligently demonstrate the proper behaviors for the next generation.

We need to show our children how we take care of each other as Tribal people … how to doctor one another and how we doctor ourselves.

I want to offer another image. Imagine you are standing alone, just going through this world by yourself, feeling all the pressure and demands, you become disconnected from yourself, disconnected with your Native ways, maybe begin to self-identify more with the Western worldview.

Nonetheless, when you close your eyes and quiet your mind/heart, you can sense that your ancestors are standing with you. When we close our eyes, sit in the sweat lodge, or if go sit on the hill because we are seeking a lesson, we can see our ancestors are all around us.

They visit us and commune with us throughout the day; they dance with us, they visit with us, they teach us, and they hold us. If we listen closely, we can hear them telling us how to be good relatives to one another.

I want to end this article with a call to action. Here is a call to change your current mode of existence and recalibrate to become more culturally centered. I want you find that space, if you don’t already have it, find a place where you can go get in touch with yourself, your ancestors and with Spirit.

Find someone who runs sweat, or find a place in Nature where you like to sit and meditate, or check out a Sundance or House Ceremony, or spend time with your elders. Make time to sit in this place and commune with your ancestors, reconnect yourself and balance your energy.

Make time to doctor yourself in this way. Because in this way, we are stronger in everything we do, if we have faith that our ancestors are always standing with us.

Justin Zuniga works as an RSIC Education Advisor at the Hungry Valley Center in Sparks. Email him at jzuniga@rsic.org with questions.

NCAI President Jefferson Keel to Native youth: ‘Be yourself’

RENO, Nev. — Earlier this year, First Nation’s Focus Innovator Bethany Sam (Sioux, Paiute, Washoe) sat down with Jefferson Keel, president of the National Congress of American Indians, to discuss issues germane to the Native American community in Nevada and across the country as a whole.

Keel (Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma) answered several questions during the Q-and-A session from the Nugget Casino & Resort in Sparks, during NCAI’s mid-year conference. The conference also served as the first-ever meeting of the recently formed NCAI Climate Action Task Force. Below is a sampling of some of his answers.

Question: What do you see as major economic development opportunities in Native communities in Nevada and across the greater West as a whole?

Keel: I’ll be honest, I’m not as familiar with Nevada as I should be. But, any time we talk about cultural resources or economic development activities, tribes that have resources, that have lands … they need to be included in the discussions with the state and other authorities on how to develop those lands — whether it be anything from oil, water or any other type or resources that could be used as an economic development tool.

But there’s other businesses. Indian gaming is now a $30-billion-a-year … industry across the country, and I know that Nevada is a gaming state, there are a lot of casinos here … the tribes need to be involved in them, the tribes ought to have an opportunity to have their own casinos and have the economic gain from that. They can then reinvest those dollars back in their own community. The economic development from tribal communities, those dollars stay in the communities and are reinvested in their people. … Gaming is one way that will allow you to develop a cash flow to develop other types of diversification efforts.

Question: Climate change is a very important topic impacting the entire world. What does (the Climate Action Task Force) hope to accomplish and how can Nevada and Western tribes help take part in the overall discussion to save our planet?

Keel: The task for itself is designed to be able to engage with all of the other efforts that are going on across the country. In Alaska for instance, we have villages that are simply sinking because of climate change. We now have at least an acknowledgment by federal leaders that climate change is real, is happening, and we want to be able to facilitate those discussions, and then we can become a mechanism whereby we get Indian nations across the country to engage in these efforts.

The efforts to stave off the effects of climate change are sometimes really expensive. You look at tribes where waterways are being affected, in some part of the country the waterways are dying up, we have drought, we have all of these things that are happening, and tribal leaders need to be engaged and find some type of solution where we can work together to come up with some ways that can beneficial to all.

Question: This year’s NCAI mid-year conference theme was “Tribes Taking Action.” How can tribes take action to help NCAI?

Keel: We want the country to know, everyone to know, that we don’t simply come and talk and then do nothing. We pass resolutions that sometimes it seems like they go nowhere. We want to make sure that tribes across the country, tribal leaders understand that the efforts that we’re doing today, we’re going to move those to the administration, to Congress and take action on those to make sure they continue their journey. We want to take action on the things that we can. There are things that we can effect change with, and that’s what we really want to do.

Question: Lastly, any advice to give to Native youth?

Keel: Be yourself. Understand who you are, and never forget who you are and where you come from. Your cultural beliefs are so important. Always understand that there was someone who made a sacrifice for you somewhere along the line in some way. Just remember that you can make a difference. You will be the difference.

Go to www.ncai.org to learn more about the National Congress of American Indians, the mission of which to educate the general public about Native American and tribal governments, and to protect tribal sovereignty in the U.S.

Paiute trout reintroduced into native Sierra habitat

ALPINE COUNTY, Calif. — California’s native Paiute cutthroat trout, the rarest trout in North America, swims once again in its high Sierra home waters for the first time in more than 100 years.

California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot, California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) Director Charlton H. Bonham and representatives from the USDA Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Golden Gate Chapter of Trout Unlimited and Little Antelope Pack Station joined biologists to release 30 Paiute cutthroat trout of varying sizes into Silver King Creek in Alpine County, Calif., Sept. 18.

“You’ve got to celebrate good times. That’s what we’re doing here today,” said CDFW’s Bonham from the banks of Silver King Creek within the remote Carson-Iceberg Wilderness area of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. “If you forget to celebrate, you’re overlooking a remarkable success story – bringing these fish back home and celebrating a better California.”

Not since the early 1900s have genetically pure Paiute cutthroat trout occupied the 11-mile stretch of Silver King Creek between Llewellyn Falls and Snodgrass Creek that represents almost the entirety of the fish’s historic range.

“This is a lifetime achievement for those working to recover the rarest trout in North America,” said Lee Ann Carranza, acting field supervisor for the USFWS Reno office. “This remarkable partnership has allowed Paiute cutthroat trout to be returned to their entire native range without threat from non-natives.”

The Paiute cutthroat trout was one of the first animals in the nation listed as endangered in 1967 under the federal Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966, now known as the Endangered Species Act.

In 1975, the species was downlisted to federally threatened to allow for a special rule that would facilitate management of the species by the State of California.

A small native range, habitat degraded by historic sheep and cattle grazing, and competition from and hybridization with non-native trout introduced into Silver King Creek threatened the species with extinction.

Only a fortuitous turn of events saved the species from disappearing altogether. In the early 1900s, Basque sheepherders moved some of the fish outside of their native range, upstream of Llewellyn Falls. The waterfalls served as a barrier to the non-native trout below and safeguarded a genetically pure population of Paiute cutthroat trout above the falls, providing government agencies and advocates the chance to recover the species in the future.

Efforts to save and restore the species have spanned several decades and involved removing non-native fish and restocking Paiute cutthroat trout from source populations. Recreational fishing was closed within the Silver King Creek drainage in 1934. Later, grazing allotments were administratively closed so habitat could be restored.

At one time, only two small tributaries above Llewellyn Falls held genetically pure Paiute cutthroat trout. CDFW, the Forest Service and USFWS transferred some of these fish to other fishless, protected streams within the Silver King Creek watershed as well as four watersheds outside of the basin to create additional refuge populations to stave off extinction.

The effort to reintroduce Paiute cutthroat trout back into their historic home – the 11-mile main reach of Silver King Creek – began in 1994 when CDFW biologists explored Silver King Canyon and identified a series of waterfalls that served as historic barriers to upstream fish migration, isolating the Paiute cutthroat trout. The barriers could once again insulate Paiute cutthroat trout from encroachment from non-native trout if the non-native trout in Silver King Creek could be removed.

Wildlife officials prevailed over a decade of legal challenges to treat Silver King Creek and its tributaries with rotenone, a natural fish poison, to eliminate non-native trout and prepare Silver King Creek for the eventual return of Paiute cutthroats.

Silver King Creek and its tributaries were chemically treated from 2013 to 2015. State and federal partners monitored the creek for three years following the treatment to make sure all non-native fish were removed. Wildfires, floods and drought over the decades further complicated recovery efforts.

“The commitment of Forest Service, CDFW, USFWS, Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, Trout Unlimited Golden Gate Chapter and Little Antelope Pack Station to move this project forward in the face of numerous challenges has been incredible,” said Bill Dunkelberger, Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest supervisor. “A project of this magnitude that took over several decades could not have been completed without state, federal and other partners working tirelessly together.”

The fish reintroduced into Silver King Creek on the afternoon of Sept. 18 were collected that morning from a source population in Coyote Valley Creek about 2 miles away and transported by mules to the banks of Silver King Creek. The fish were deposited into buckets filled with water from Silver King Creek to acclimate for several minutes before being released among cheers and applause – and a few tears – by biologists and others, some of whom have spent decades working toward the historic homecoming.

Restoring Paiute cutthroat trout to their native Silver King Creek nearly doubles the amount of habitat available to the fish and is considered key to their long-term survival and potential delisting.

Monitoring of the reintroduced fish and additional restocking of Paiute cutthroat trout into Silver King Creek from other refuge populations is planned in future years to aid genetic diversity and introduce different age classes into the creek to help natural reproduction.

PHOTOS: 2019 Bishop Pabanamanina Pow Wow

The 2019 Pabanamanina Pow Wow took place Sept. 27-29 at the Paiute Palace Casino Pow Wow Grounds in Bishop, California.

Head Drums this year were Red Hoop and Whitetail Singers; Ruben LittleHead was MC; Hank Johnson was Arena Director; and Jerry Bear was Soundman.

To learn more about the annual event, go to Facebook and search “Bishop Pabanamanina Pow Wow.”

Mike Chacanaca attended this year’s powwow; see some of his photos above.

Ancestral remains to be returned to Navajo, Hopi nations

The Hopi and Navajo are among 26 tribes that will see the return of ancestral remains from Finland, where the items have been held in a museum after being taken from Colorado almost 130 years ago.

The repatriation, announced Oct. 2 during Finnish President Sauli Niinistö’s visit to the White House, follows years of cooperation between the tribes and the National Museum of Finland to identify the objects and link them to specific tribes.

They include more than 600 items of ancestral remains and objects taken from an area that is now part of Mesa Verde National Park. They include the remains of 20 individuals, as well as 28 funerary objects, or items buried with the individuals.

Tribal leaders welcomed the return of these items, but lamented that much work remains to be done to recover items from other countries.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that the agreement “is a step in the right direction,” but he added that it’s not the first time tribes have had to fight for the return of tribal artifacts and it likely will not be the last.

“A few years ago, the Navajo Nation was successful in recovering a number of sacred artifacts from an auction house in Paris,” Nez said. “If it has happened to the Navajo Nation, then I’m certain it is happening all across Indian Country.”

Hopi Tribal Council Chairman Timothy Nuvangyaoma said his tribe, too, has been fighting to recover items from Paris and elsewhere.

“This is still happening out there today, there are still some unresolved matters out there,” Nuvangyaoma said.

In a news release announcing the repatriation, the Interior Department said the remains were originally excavated in 1891 by a Swedish researcher. They eventually found their way to the National Museum of Finland where they were put on display as part of its “ethnographic collection.”

No date was given for the return of the items. The Interior release said only that the department “will be working diligently on arrangements to transfer the remains and items to identified recipient Pueblos and/or tribes.”

Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., also welcomed the announcement, but echoed comments of tribal leaders that more work needs to be done.

“For too long, sacred Native American sites and items have been damaged and stolen by those who faced little to no consequences,” O’Halleran said in a statement Oct. 3. Sinema pledged in a statement to “continue partnering with Navajo and Hopi leaders, and working to ensure tribal sovereignty and cultural history are respected.”

O’Halleran – whose district includes both Navajo and Hopi lands – is a co-sponsor on the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony Act, or STOP Act, aimed at returning tribal items. Sinema and Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., are both co-sponsors of a companion bill in the Senate.

If passed, the STOP Act would double existing penalties on those who steal or traffic in stolen items of Native American tribal heritage. It would also confirm the president’s authority to enter into agreements with foreign leaders to return stolen items to their appropriate tribes.

The act builds on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 law that made it illegal to traffic Native American cultural items, funerary objects and objects of patrimony. It also required the return of such objects and created a system where museums, tribes and the federal government could identify tribal cultural items, and work to get them back to the appropriate tribe.

NAGPRA has a grant program to help tribes with the costs of repatriating stolen items, and a seven-member commission oversees the law’s implementation, and settles disputes between individuals and/or tribes over items.

The STOP Act was first introduced in 2017 by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, and passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee before failing to get a vote on the Senate floor. Heinrich reintroduced the bill this July and it was sent to the Indian Affairs Committee, where it is currently waiting for a hearing.

The House version was referred to the Judiciary, Foreign Affairs and Natural Resources committees. It had a hearing Sept. 19 before the Indigenous Peoples of the United States subcommittee of Natural Resources, but no action since, and is still awaiting a hearing in the other two committees.

Nuvangyaoma thanked the government and the tribes who worked for the Oct. 2 agreement with the Finns. But he said it’s past time to act, and he called on the public to help tribes like his bring their ancestors home.

“If you can be of some help in helping us come up with some of these individuals, to help us spread the message that, again, these are living, breathing people out there and they need to come home,” he said.

Harrison Mantas is the Indian Country reporter for Cronkite News in Washington, D.C. Cronkite News reporter Frankie McLister contributed to this report from Phoenix. For more stories from Cronkite News, visit cronkitenews.azpbs.org.

IGT in Reno honors Nevada tribal culture, gaming leaders

RENO, Nev. — Honorary guests and employees of gaming manufacturer International Game Technology (IGT) gathered Oct. 4 at the company’s main Reno campus to participate in a special event honoring tribal cultures and IGT’s many customers that represent tribal gaming enterprises.

The event kicked off with welcoming comments by Nevada Congressman Mark Amodei (R-Carson City), followed by cultural performances, and then more formal comments and presentations from IGT CEO North America Renato Ascoli.

A variety of leaders from the tribal gaming sector, including National Indian Gaming Association Chairman Ernest Stevens Jr., also spoke at the event.

Tribal gaming is a $33 billion-plus per-year industry and represents the largest segment of the U.S. gaming industry. IGT’s Reno manufacturing facility employees many create products and services that generate economic growth opportunities for tribes in all geographies of the U.S.

Firefighter Lester McDonald (Washoe) hopes to mentor Native youth

“This is going to be the last time I’m going to apply,” Lester McDonald told his wife, Lindy, in July 2018.

McDonald, a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, was applying for a firefighter position with the East Fork Fire Protection District, which serves the greater Douglas County area. Raised in Carson City and on the Dresslerville reservation in Gardnerville, McDonald had been trying for years to land a job as a structure firefighter, applying to fire districts dotted across Nevada, California, Oregon and Washington.

Lester McDonald, a member of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, poses at the academy graduation for the East Fork Fire Protection District in Minden on Dec. 21, 2018.
Photo: Cathleen Allison / Nevada Momentum

“I’ve always been disappointed — I wasn’t getting further than the chief’s interviews,” McDonald told First Nation’s Focus.

Still, McDonald figured it was worth a shot. He applied to East Fork Fire on the final day of its application window.

‘I’M A THRILL-SEEKER’

McDonald said his interest in firefighting was sparked at a young age when his brother-in-law, who works for the Reno Fire Department, “put a bug in my ear.”

Added McDonald: “Just listening to him speak about his experiences motivated me. I’m kind of a thrill-seeker.”

A graduate of Carson High School in 2000, McDonald wasted no time starting his firefighting career. After high school, he cut his teeth as a wildland firefighter with the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ “Morning Star Hotshots” crew. For the uninitiated, hotshot crews work on the hottest part of wildfires, fighting them for extended periods of time with little logistical support.

“I really enjoy the adrenaline,” said McDonald, who then joined the Bureau of Land Management’s “Silver State Hotshots” crew in 2006. A year prior, he earned his fire science degree from Truckee Meadows Community College.

McDonald and his crew worked large, high-priority wildland fires sparked everywhere in the western U.S., from the neighboring mountains of California and Utah to far-flung patches of land in remote Alaska.

Lester McDonald shares a laugh with his crew during a break while serving as a wildland firefighter.
Courtesy photo

“It’s pretty dynamic,” he said. “Being out there with 20 guys, you have one goal in mind, and that’s to put out the fire.”

Pausing, he tacked on: “And to support your family.”

SEEKING STABILITY

With the birth of a daughter, Kellsee, in 2006, McDonald decided the life of a wildland firefighter was too much time away from home; too many missed moments — family vacations, birthday parties, and sporting events, to name a few. McDonald and his wife, Lindy, later had another daughter, Kamrynn.

“You’re always gone,” McDonald said. “You’re gone all summer — you have no summer. That’s time you can’t get back. I needed something more stable to take care of my family. And I didn’t want to miss any more time.”

This, McDonald said, is why he left wildland firefighting at the end of the 2007 season. He got a job with a beer distributor, driving truck and delivering beer for the next seven and a half years.

However, “I knew during that time that delivering beer wasn’t necessarily for me,” he said. “I couldn’t see myself for 30 years going up and down a ramp.”

FOLLOWING HIS DREAM

But he could see himself fighting fires again. And so, in 2015, he returned to wildland firefighting for the BLM.

Lester McDonald helps work a wildland fire during the middle of the night.
Courtesy photo

However, the long hours, days and weeks away from home remained.

McDonald truly wanted to work as a structure firefighter, where the hours would be stable and the days off would be consistent. He went back to school and earned an advanced EMT certification and took a job doing road maintenance for the California Department of Transportation. All the while, he applied to fire departments in Northern Nevada and beyond, but no job offer came about.  

“I’m always amazed by his determination,” Lindy McDonald said in an email to FNF. “He always had hope and never let fear get the best of him. I prayed a lot and was often reminded that all the sacrifices and commitment would eventually pay off.”

In July 2018, when he came upon openings with the East Fork Fire Protection District, McDonald decided it would be his last application, at least for a while.

“I thought nothing was going to come of it,” he admitted.

He was wrong. In August 2018, East Fork Fire Chief Tod Carlini called and offered McDonald a firefighter/EMT position.

“I was actually speechless, I didn’t know what to say,” McDonald said, laughing. “(Chief Carlini) was like, ‘Are you still there?’”

Added Lindy McDonald: “I still remember the call. There was kind of an awkward silence and several tears. The first thing I said was, ‘Your dad would be so proud of you.'”

Not only was McDonald being offered the chance to be a structure firefighter, but he’d also be serving the communities he grew up in. Simply put, it was McDonald’s dream job.

“I was so overcome with emotion because I’ve tried so hard,” said McDonald, who after 12 weeks in the fire academy officially started with his East Fork Fire crew in January 2019. “Helping the community in which I grew up is amazing to me.”

“And I’m passionate about firefighting. It’s every boy’s dream in a sense to become a firefighter.”

Lester McDonald poses with his daughters, Kamrynn, left, and Kellsee, right, at an East Fork Fire station.
Courtesy photo

In fact, McDonald, who recently passed his probationary period in September, said he hopes to be a mentor to native youths of the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California.

“I know it’s hard growing up out there (on the reservation),” McDonald said. “I’m a true testament that you can persevere and be what you want to be as long as you stick your mind to specific goals.

“I like to go out there and see familiar faces. And hopefully, they see me and know ‘he’s one of us’ and are proud. And maybe one day their kids will look to me as a role model and become a firefighter, too.”

Stacey Montooth (Walker River Paiute) excited to lead Nevada Indian Commission

CARSON CITY, Nev. — When Stacey Montooth walks amongst the striking stone buildings dotting the Stewart Indian School grounds, she’s filled with a swirl of emotions.

“It’s such a beautiful setting and it’s so serene at times, it’s hard to believe that there were such atrocities that took place out here,” Montooth, a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, told First Nation’s Focus. “Babies were stolen from their families (and put in the school), kids were beaten … the history is so dark.”

Montooth’s relatives attended the Carson City-based boarding school, which operated from 1890 through 1980, with the initial intention of eliminating Indian language and culture from Native children and teach them trade skills. In other words, forced assimilation. 

“On one hand, it hurts my heart to think about the bleakness and how terrified it must’ve been for my relatives to be here and not have any family,” said Montooth, tears forming in her eyes. “On the other hand, I can stand here proud with the sunshine on my face thinking … it didn’t break us. We still have that beautiful culture.”

It’s a sun-soaked Wednesday afternoon in late September and Montooth is in her first month as the new executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission (NIC). With the NIC’s offices located on the Stewart Indian School campus, Montooth is reminded every day of the culture and lands she is working to preserve and the welfare of her people she is striving to improve.

Most recently, Montooth served as the Public Relations and Community Information Officer for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. During her six-year tenure, Montooth served as a crucial liaison for press inquiries as well as legislation involving key tribal issues, including healthcare and taxation, according to previous reports.

“It’s my calling to always help my communities, my ancestors, my relatives,” said Montooth, who in her new role serves as the liaison between Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office and the 27 tribes and colonies in Nevada. “I told the governor in my interview with him, there’s never been a better time to be a Great Basin Native since 1863.”

Indeed, on the heels of a historic 2019 Nevada Legislative session, which resulted in the adoption of eight different bills impacting tribal affairs, Nevada’s Native community has more potential than ever, Montooth said.

In fact, Montooth is confident the success of the 2019 session will enable the Nevada Indian Commission to help foster even greater success for the state’s Native tribes in 2021.

“I think what’s most notable is that we have now become visible enough and we have enough political capital, if you will, that elected officials are thinking about us before we even come to them,” Montooth said. “And that’s massive. That is huge.”

CARING FOR MOTHER EARTH

Montooth pointed to the game-changing Assembly Bill 264 — the Collaboration Act — which requires state agencies to include tribal nations in their decision-making process after a history of leaving Nevada’s 27 tribes out of the loop.

For Montooth, AB264 — “which is really going to be my focus” — will help the Nevada Indian Commission guide the discussion on preserving Native lands and combating climate change in the state.

After all, Montooth said, all Indigenous peoples are connected, because “at the core of our existence” is the environment.

“Mother Earth is what gives us life,” she continued. “So that one specific new legislation is going to mandate that every department in Nevada has a process that so that there’s always meaningful consultation and consideration is given to Native Americans — in the communities, the reservations, the colonies, the bands — that it impacts before a project is too far gone.”

With this law now in place, Montooth feels “this is the very best start we could have,” adding: “To me, there isn’t much that’s more important than the environment.” 

BOLSTERING VOTER TURNOUT

Montooth also stressed the importance of making sure that all Native tribes are engaged in the voting process. She pointed to the fact that many Native Americans live in far-flung rural areas that are not reflected in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey. The census estimates that Native Americans make up around 1.7 percent (roughly 5.3 million) of the U.S. population, with more than 3.7 million Natives of voting age.

“Traditionally, Native Americans have one of the lowest voter turnouts of any subpopulation,” said Montooth, noting that her 92-year-old grandmother who lives on the Walker River Paiute reservation has to drive 70 miles to cast her votes on election day.

Montooth said there are efforts at the tribal, state and federal level to make it more accessible for tribal communities to participate in the census and get counted. What’s more, a bill that was passed in the recent Legislative session, AB137, puts a system in place where tribes do not have to re-request reservation polling stations.

“We’re hopeful that we’re going in the right direction,” she said. “We’re hoping that all 27 tribes, bands and colonies are going to take advantage of that. It is the way to exercise our most fundamental right of this democracy.”

‘MY TIMING IS JUST GOOD’

Along with focusing on the ongoing collaboration between tribes and state agencies, Montooth has an immediate goal of opening the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum “with the blessings and good tidings of the alumni and of the families” in December.

“There’s not a Native American in the state of Nevada who doesn’t have a direct connection to Stewart (Indian School),” Montooth said. “This is going to be the most authentic Native American experience and critical history of not just the federal government, but our people. The only place you’ll be able to experience and get that information is here.”

Montooth was quick to point out that her predecessor, Sherry Rupert (Washoe/Paiute), spearheaded the establishment of the cultural center and museum. A longtime leader of the Nevada Indian Commission, Rupert resigned earlier this year to become director of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association.

“Sherry had all these great programs and systems in place, hitting on all cylinders,” said Montooth, noting she just had a two-hour conversation with Rupert three days earlier. “In a way, my timing is just good. I’m coming in and we’ll be cutting ribbons and smiling for pictures when, really, she did all the heavy lifting.”

And Montooth is excited for the challenge of carrying that momentum for all Natives of the Great Basin — from Las Vegas to Reno-Sparks to Owyhee and everywhere in-between.

“I’m using our traditional knowledge, what my grandma and great uncle taught me, to get us a seat at the table in one of the most progressive legislatures and governor’s administration that is operating nationwide,” Montooth said. “I come to work every day excited. It’s not going to be easy, but on my way home all I think about is the next day and what we’re going to do to make it better.”