Stacey Montooth excited for challenge of leading Nevada Indian Commission
When Stacey Montooth walks among 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, said in a recent interview. “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 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 terrifying 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.”
Never a better time to be a Great Basin Native
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, education and taxation.
“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 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 about 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.”