Las Vegas Sun

November 28, 2021

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Downtown Paiute reservation struggles against urban squeeze

Tonia Means has detained Lila Carter in her office. As the acting chief of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribal Police, Means knows the tricks of interrogation, how to coax answers from a hesitant subject. Sitting across from Carter, she tilts her chair back and peers into her eyes. Then her mouth curls into a smile.

"Oh, c'mon, mom," Means says. "Just say what you think."

Mother and daughter share a laugh. Proud of and outspoken about her people, Means has brought her mom to the station to talk about the Paiutes' centuries-long presence in the Las Vegas Valley. Yet it's awkward for Carter, who reflects the pensive nature of an earlier generation, a generation steadfast in its belief that what outsiders don't know about the Paiutes can't hurt the tribe.

"The less they hear about us, the better off we are. We don't even think about the people out there," Carter said.

But with enough prodding from her daughter, Carter opens up. She recounts her childhood, the struggles of Native Americans in Nevada, and how the Paiute reservation has evolved during her 68 years.

The police station is an apt setting for the history lesson. Behind the mustard-yellow building, only a few steps from where Carter now sits, a piece of her lies buried. In Paiute tradition, parents plant the last bit of umbilical cord to fall from a newborn's belly button. That spot of earth becomes an eternal grounding point.

"It's where you took your first breath. That's where you belong -- where you were born," Carter said. "I don't think your spirit rests unless you're buried where you're born."

In those simple words, Carter reveals why the Las Vegas Paiute tribe so reveres its 18-acre reservation within the country's fastest-growing metropolis. Wedged among the unsightly environs of homeless shelters, trailer parks, traffic-plugged streets and railroad tracks, the patch of land has persevered as the one constant for generations of Paiutes.

Indeed, attitudes may differ between the tribe's young members and its elders. And the community around them has metamorphosed unchecked. Yet as the lone reservation located inside the borders of a major American city, the Paiutes' home remains untouched -- in spirit, if not appearance -- by time.

"It's never been that this land belongs to us. We belong to it," said Means, whose own umbilical cord rests in reservation soil. "You're born here, you live here, you die here, you're buried here. It is a sense of security."

Searching for home

The sign reads, "Las Vegas Paiute Tribal Burial Site -- Please Respect! No Trespassing."

Thirty feet away, the chain-link fence that encloses the reservation has a hole cut into it big enough for a man to squeeze through. Discarded beer bottles, cigarette packs, milk cartons and other detritus speckle a dirt berm inside the fence. The sign lies on its back, defaced by a blue swash of graffiti.

"It's like a slap in the face to have someone do that," said tribal member Theo Tso, 23, a maintenance worker on the reservation who may have to clean up the mess. "It's like me walking into a church and taking something of theirs. This land is sacred to us."

Over the years, however, the city has treated the land surrounding the Paiutes as somewhat less than sacred. In the crook of Interstate 15 and U.S. 95, bordered by Owens Avenue to the north, Washington Avenue to the south, North Main Street to the east and A Street to the west, the reservation is stranded in a tract that charitably could be called hardscrabble. Or more accurately described as urban blight.

Within a stone's throw of the Paiutes' land lurks the St. Vincent Shelter, MASH Village and Salvation Army. Every day disheveled men and women mill outside the buildings. Push grocery carts pregnant with aluminum cans to the Lakewood Recycling center. Sleep in the shadows of a factory next to the Union Pacific railroad.

A pair of downtrodden trailer parks sandwich the reservation. Auto repair shops and an ice plant to the east, hulking cranes and warehouses to the west cloak the area in drabness. Its soundtrack could be the unrelenting siren whine of ambulances throttling up and down North Main.

Where the Paiutes live in Las Vegas scarcely resembles the typical Indian reservation: a chunk of land far away from the grasp of industry. The whole tribe owns 4,000 acres north of Las Vegas, where it's built two golf courses and a handful of homes. The Paiutes live on reservations throughout the Southwest, but a majority of its roughly 50 members in Las Vegas reside downtown, bound by their roots.

The history of the Paiutes stretches back more than 500 years. Through the centuries these migratory hunters traveled during milder seasons to what is today the Las Vegas Valley, later suffering at the hands of European settlers. By the latter half of the 19th century, much of their land had been claimed by ranchers. Clinging to survival, the Paiutes went to work for the newcomers, serving as maids, cowboys and anything else needed.

As the white invasion persisted, bringing both colonialism and disease to the region, the Paiutes withered in strength and numbers. Sensing their culture was in peril, Helen J. Stewart, proprietor of vast swaths of land in the valley, deeded 10 acres to the Las Vegas Paiutes through the federal government in 1912. A year ago the tribe added another eight acres to their downtown reservation, land that includes their burial grounds.

Born in 1929, Carter recalled the reservation she grew up on as "the poorest I ever saw." Homes were built by flattening five-gallon tin drums and lashing the scraps of metal together. While other tribes raised their own cattle, Las Vegas Paiutes would scavenge for food at a nearby stockyard.

"We'd dig up cows, pigs, sheep -- they'd bury the sick ones or the ones with broken legs -- to get meat. Everybody used to do it. All people, all nationalities would be over there digging," Carter said.

Starting at age 6, Carter was required to attend a so-called Indian school in Stewart, where Native American children spent most of the year learning the white way, which meant only English was spoken.

Frustrated and restless, Carter ran away at 16 to California with three classmates. During the next 15 years she roamed throughout the West, going as far north as Oregon before returning to the Las Vegas reservation for good in her early 30s.

By then, Carter was a mother of three, and the reservation's population stood at 100. Like fellow tribe members, wandering the region still left her searching for peace. For despite the relative comforts found at larger Paiute reservations in Nevada and California, none could offer Carter her soul.

"To an Indian, their land is everything. I didn't feel like I belonged anywhere else. I felt like I belonged here. Home."

The res

Today, there is no mistaking the Paiutes' downtown reservation for Summerlin. Most families live in double-wide trailer homes, humble dwellings with neatly groomed yards. A cry house for funerals and the recreation center appear to sag, their wooden frames worn by the desert sun. A train rumbles along within a few feet of the cemetery, a windswept swatch of sand.

It is not the common image of a sovereign nation. And if the Paiutes, as well as the neighboring community, languish on the short end of Las Vegas' stratification, some tribal members feel that it's the city's handlers who have allowed the area to slip through their fingers.

"We have no political clout, no economic clout to speak of, really. And societies in general -- not just Las Vegas -- have a tendency to pick on the weakest," said Tribal Chairwoman Alfreda Mitre.

Means voices a blunter view. When city officials decide where to zone homeless shelters or factories, rather than look at another part of town, she figures their logic runs something like this: "Put it over there by them dirty-ass Indians. Let it be their eyesore.

"I wouldn't say the city has mistreated us," said Means, adding that tribal police and other law enforcement agencies sporadically butt heads over jurisdiction. "I just think it's time for them to stop overlooking us."

Similar criticism resonates throughout a city stricken by convulsive growth. No one wants anything in their back yard. Yet even as they could be portrayed as casualties of Las Vegas' boom, their sense of space devoured, the Paiutes have self-resuscitated, thanks in part to the reservation's urban locale.

Their tribal smoke shop on North Main does brisk business. A health-equity center provides cradle-to-the-grave care for tribal members. A maintenance crew tends to the infrastructure. And the 10-member police force has handcuffed crime on the reservation, with most offenses committed by vagrants loping onto Paiute property.

Including its golf courses, the tribe employs 250 people, 98 percent of them non-Indian. Beyond providing those jobs and services, Paiutes work and spend money off the reservation, deflating "the stereotype of the lazy Indian," Means said.

"There isn't welfare because people don't have to drive 200 miles to look for a job," said Means, noting that contrary to popular perception, Native Americans pay federal taxes. "In the majority of households here, people work for the city, the state, the school district. The situation would probably be different if we didn't live here. It might be one of those Third World reservations. Fortunately, we're not one of them."

Then there are the modern conveniences that come with the big city. Tso has spent almost his entire life on "the res," as he calls it, and samples the same diversions as any 20-something in Las Vegas: movie theaters, book stores, coffee shops. Yet while his ancestors plied the land, Tso has other reasons for staying downtown.

Following the death of their father, he and his younger brother lived and went to school for a year on an isolated Navajo reservation in Arizona. Taunted for wearing Levis, Nikes and other "white" clothes, the teenaged brothers were tarred "bad Indians" because they could not speak Navajo.

"It was kind of weird. It's like I couldn't adapt, I couldn't comprehend what was going on. It was like being a stranger," said Tso, who does not know the Paiute language.

Before and after his Arizona stint, Tso, like anyone who has ever grown up, endured insults while attending elementary and high school. But with his friends and most of his family here, he "felt like just another kid." And for a city boy used to Big Macs and Big Gulps, the time in the country helped Tso appreciate the Paiute reservation in new -- if not quite spiritual -- ways.

"Take the simple things: there's a McDonald's about a mile away. The nearest convenience store is a hop, skip and a jump from here. You can't find that on a desolate reservation," he said.

At the same time, Tso conceded that life on the city reservation, where he now owns a home, has a certain fish-bowl quality to it. "It's so small, everybody knows your business," he said, a rationale offered by Mitre and Means for why they live elsewhere in the valley with their families. Tso hopes to do likewise eventually.

"That's not an insult (to Paiute culture)," he explained. "It's to expand personally and move on and see other things. To have a white neighbor instead of an Indian neighbor."

The New Land

Choosing to live off the reservation is one thing. Watching as rabid urban sprawl edges ever closer to Indian country is something else, a sort of white-man flashback for Paiutes.

The tribe sees it happening again. When the Paiutes acquired their 4,000-acre expanse north of Las Vegas 15 years ago, the city seemed a candle in the distance. Now it's a grass fire, with subdivisions and condos flaring up just two to three miles from the reservation's border along U.S. 95.

The advance isn't lost on Mitre, who wants a buffer zone around the tribe's land. Driving along the highway toward the Paiutes' Snow Mountain golf resort, she waves her hand toward the horizon.

"Other people look across this and see desert. I look across this and see history. I know children ran here, people prayed here, got married here, died here. This is our history," she said.

As a child growing up on the downtown reservation, Mitre remembers picking spinach and hunting rabbits with her grandma, a steel-willed woman who refused to speak English after she was forced to attend a white boarding school. While gathering vegetables she would stop, dig her hands into the ground and come up with fistfuls of soil.

"Smell the earth. Taste it," she would say, thrusting the dirt at her granddaughter. "That's all you're ever going to have."

Memories like those imbue Paiutes with a "profound, nagging need to protect what our grandparents couldn't," said Mitre, 47. "To protect the New Land."

In that respect, opening the golf courses has helped preserve Paiute history while cultivating the future. Inviting visitors to Indian land -- on the Paiutes' terms -- pulls in revenue both to nourish the reservations and, perhaps as crucial, to pump up the tribe's legal and political muscle for new projects.

Historically, local and state entities have pushed the Paiutes around, whether over water and sewer connections in 1964, electricity hookups four years later or the blatant neglect of neighboring land through the decades.

No more. At the moment, the tribe's in-house attorney is working with city officials to bang out an intergovernmental agreement to allow the sale of liquor at the smoke shop. And after winning a lengthy stare down with Clark County and state officials regarding water use to build its golf courses, the Paiutes are girding for another battle in their effort to open two more.

The economic benefits sparked by golfers hitting the tribal links also has kindled development on Paiute land. The tribe intends to construct an expanded wellness center on a portion of the eight acres it acquired downtown, and will open a chin-dropping, 50,000-square-foot clubhouse at Snow Mountain this spring.

Still, doubts smolder within the Paiute community about the city reservation's prospects.

Some members wonder if the emergence of Snow Mountain will siphon the tribe's identity to the north, leaving those downtown to live in just another housing tract. Save for an annual powwow around Memorial Day -- held on the new reservation -- they worry that the only place to glimpse their ancient customs and culture is inside residents' homes. It doesn't help that no full-blooded Paiutes live downtown.

"People in my generation don't understand Paiute," said Means, 33, who cannot speak the language. "There are customs that should've been taught here and kept here. But they weren't. And they're lost."

Yet Means takes heart in her 6-year-old son, who loves nothing more than to smear on face paint, dress up in traditional garb and perform Paiute dances. As long as that passion burns within the young, and considering the tribe's heritage of survival, Means has hope for her kind.

"Paiute people in Las Vegas -- are we just a thorn in people's side? If we are, we're going to stay there because this is the land we've occupied for many a year."

In body and soul.

"The spirit," her mother said quietly, "never leaves."

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