After 30 years with state, Sherry Rupert leaving Nevada
Outgoing Nevada Indian Commission executive director Sherry Rupert isn’t saying goodbye.
There’s no word for it in her native Paiute.
Instead, she’s saying “punidua,” or “see you later,” which might be more fitting.
Rupert’s contributions to the state of Nevada were celebrated Wednesday at a surprise going-away party hosted by local officials, friends and representatives from many of Nevada’s tribes. Gov. Steve Sisolak also made an appearance.
Rupert, a lifelong Northern Nevadan with Paiute and Washoe heritage, has worked the past 30 years with the state of Nevada — including the last 15 with the Nevada Indian Commission.
She’s leaving to become executive director of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
AIANTA, which announced Rupert’s appointment April 23, works with all of the nation’s 567 federally recognized tribes, assisting each with tourism development, an area of passion for Rupert.
She’s served on AIANTA’s board of directors for the past 10 years, the past six as board president. Already she has developed relationships in Washington, D.C., where she looks ahead to using her cultural and institutional knowledge of Indian affairs through tourism.
“A lot of our history’s not written because we were a verbal culture, an oral culture, and much of the history that’s been written about us is incorrect and written by non-native people,” Rupert said in an interview prior to the May 8 party. “I think one of the things I love about tourism is that we as Native people are able to articulate those stories and our history as we know and as has been passed down to us.”
Delegates for Reps. Mark Amodei, Dina Titus and Steven Horsford and Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez-Masto attended Wednesday’s party and provided Rupert certificates in appreciation for her efforts to promote the tribes and share their stories across the state.
Sisolak said Rupert spent much of her time initially as he came into office assisting him and updating him on Indian affairs and credited her as an invaluable resource as he presented her with a proclamation.
“I wish I’d been here 30 years ago to do more with your knowledge … but we’re counting on who you are to reach more of these communities and help reach everyone here in the state of Nevada,” Sisolak said.
Rupert has served Nevada and its tribal communities under four governors since she was first appointed to the Nevada Indian Commission by former Gov. Kenny Guinn in September 2005.
She was also the first American Indian female to be appointed to the governor’s cabinet under former Gov. Brian Sandoval.
‘We’re welcoming visitors’
Rupert said as she’s recently reflected on many successes throughout the years, several events and programs that have become mainstays for the Native community immediately come to mind.
For example, NIC partners with Nevada’s Indian Territory and the Nevada Division of Tourism annually to host a state Tribal Tourism Conference in April.
This year’s 11th event was held in Elko, Rupert said, and it took root with her relationship with AIANTA, because she and the conference’s partners have worked tirelessly to eliminate negative perceptions on what tourism actually means.
“People think of tourism as, you know, these people coming to these places and your communities with cameras around their necks and viewing through your windows,” she said. “I look at it as we’re welcoming visitors. We’re welcoming new faces to our communities to teach them about us, to teach them about awareness and to appreciate our culture.”
Further, each fall, the American Indian Achievement Awards banquet and silent auction recognizes much of the work taking place locally among tribal governments, Rupert said.
The NIC also now offers training for tribal members as each legislative session approaches, which has been key with each biennium, she said.
“We hold a tribal forum just before each session and we go over the legislative process and the bills that are going to be coming up in the current Legislature that might affect the tribes,” she said.
The Stewart Father’s Day Powwow every June always draws large numbers, and while that began before she became executive director, Rupert has been pleased to see it become one of the premiere powwows in the state.
Focusing on the past — and the future
As she prepares to replace AIANTA’s Camille Ferguson — who stepped down to return to her hometown in Sitka, Alaska, to focus on tourism and economic development — Rupert said she hopes to see the Nevada Indian Commission’s momentum continue, especially in encouraging the public to stay forward-thinking on Stewart Indian School.
Last July, more than 250 people, including then-Gov. Brian Sandoval, Rupert and leaders from several Nevada tribes, attended a blessing ceremony for the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum — part of a $4.5 million appropriation approved during the 2017 Nevada legislative session.
The 7,100-square-foot museum is scheduled to open this year.
“One of the things we’ve talked about extensively in establishing this cultural center is to not just talk about the history of this school, but to talk about the future of this place and this people, that we’re not a historical people,” Rupert said, upon reflecting on the work leading up to the museum’s opening. “We’re here — we’re still here. This place was meant to take our culture, our dignity and smash it, essentially, so what we want to do now is create a space that is empowering, that brings back the language and the culture and the cultural traditions to this campus.”
In one of her most recent legislative efforts in the 2019 session, Rupert brought Assembly Bill 44 to the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs in February.
Among other things, the bill would officially create the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum and establish the museum director as a state employee. The bill was forwarded to the Assembly Ways and Means Committee in March and still awaits approval.
Looking back, Rupert said working with the Nevada government as a whole has been a privilege, remarking she often wishes she were starting over in her career with an administration like the one Sisolak is establishing.
“We could get so much done and I think that’s what the tribes want,” she said. “They want a voice at the table, and they want to be treated as an equal partner. It’s refreshing to see that sort of attitude from the administration toward the tribes in the state.”
Plenty of praise
Laurie Thom, chairwoman of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, was among many who attended Wednesday’s going-away party. She said it will be difficult to find a replacement for Rupert.
“Sherry’s going to leave some big shoes to fill,” Thom said. “Indian Country’s feeling the loss with her and her new journey. I think she showed us a way to come together, but hopefully she keeps an eye on us.
“We are going to feel an emptiness. … There’s nobody like Sherry Rupert.”
Thom said Rupert’s legacy is defined by how she helped secure funding for the Stewart museum project, and how she constantly encouraged the tribes to keep sharing their stories through their legislative efforts.
Hopefully, Thom said, when a new NIC executive director is chosen, they will continue what Rupert began — both for the Stewart Indian School site, and for Nevada tribes as a whole.
“I would like to see them finish this project with passion,” Thom said. “I would like to see them come through and keep the tribes united. The new bill for tribal consultation coordination, that’s going to be key, and it’s going to work through the Nevada Indian Commission, and I hope the new director understands the needs of the tribes and understands how we have our own consultation process within the 27 tribes.”
Michon Eben (Paiute/Shoshone) of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony also praised Rupert’s advocacy for the Stewart Indian School, as well as what she contributed to the University of Nevada, Reno, where Rupert has for years provided training and led conferences.
Eben said the NIC’s next director should be able to demonstrate some zeal for listening to the state’s 27 tribes.
“There’s been a great foundation set by Sherry, and all they have to do is sit and listen and know Indian Country,” Eben said. “And they’ll get it and be personable and to advocate on behalf of the native tribes throughout the state of Nevada. … But they have to dedicated and motivated and energetic, and I think it’ll be good.”