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Walker River Paiute Tribe chairman discusses new Department of Interior role

A head and shoulders portrait of Amber Torres, Walker River Paiute Tribe chairman, shows Torres smiling, wearing a black blazer and leaning against a tree.
Gustavo Sagrero
KUNR Public Radio
Amber Torres, Walker River Paiute Tribe chairman, is an inaugural member on the Department of Interior’s historic Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee (STAC).

Tribes will now have a voice at the table when it comes to decisions made by the Department of Interior and other federal agencies.

The Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee (STAC) has 12 members from across Indian Country. One is Chairman Amber Torres of the Walker River Paiute Reservation in Northern Nevada. She spoke with KUNR’s Gustavo Sagrero about her new role.

Gustavo Sagrero: Amber Torres has been the chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe since 2016. When we recently sat down together, she said her appointment to the Department of Interior Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee is historic.

Chairman Amber Torres: Indian Country has not been at the table with the previous administration. Indian Country was not even a thought at that point. So the fact that we can be at the table, have consultation, have meaningful dialogue, and be able to really look at good, positive changes for Indian Country is very significant.

Once Secretary Deb Haaland got in there, I think she understands the importance of meaningful consultation with Indian Country and the federal government. Due to all the historical traumas that Indian Country has faced over the years, she knew the importance of making sure that she had a tribal advisory committee at the table to make that meaningful change for the future and our next seven generations.

Sagrero: What kind of leverage does the committee have in effecting change for the over 540 tribes across the nation?

Torres: If you're not at the table, you're on the menu. And so having that feedback, that dialog, and then also having the power as a tribal leader to speak with our congressional leaders, with our senators, and really advocating for the changes that we need. We have the power to put those changes in resolution form, not only at that committee level but at our own respective nations.

Sagrero: What kind of changes are important for you?

Torres: We're really focused on conveyances, making sure that people get the titles to their homes. You know, that's been a bottleneck and a challenge for us. Having probate is very, very important.

Sagrero: Can you explain that issue a little more and how the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, also called the BIA, plays a role?

For people that don’t know, the BIA is an office within the Department of Interior that manages a portion of the federal government's relationship with the many tribes within the U.S.

Torres: Probate is where, if an individual expires, their home could be left in limbo because it hasn't been given to the next of kin. They go in through the BIA and they decipher where these valuables or these properties will go.

Probate needs to happen! Land leases; the BIA actually signs off on all of our land leases that are on the reservation. A holdup could mean a deal breaker for economic development and what kind of revenue comes into the tribe. We also have been severely underfunded for a number of years through BIA in some of these very, very important programs that we run, such as the land department, the enrollment, [and] our social services.

A lot of these programs are underneath the Department of Interior, and a lot of our tribal nations run these very, very pertinent programs within our reservation. We need to make sure that the policies and procedures fit with our own respective nation, but at the same time, also have the proper funding to administer it in a way where our people are actually receiving a service.

Sagrero: Let’s shift the conversation to Northern Nevada’s mining or extractive industries. Do you think this will be a topic for the committee?

Torres: First and foremost, we’ve seen over the years and with the previous administration that we as tribal nations were not brought to the table to have any kind of perspective on, whether it be mining or these different ventures the federal government is signing off on. [They're] saying "Yes, please go on the land and do what you need to do because it’s best for us or you, but not Indian Country."

I think that’s what this committee will bring, making sure that we’ve got policies and procedures that enact that we have to be at the table and give consent. When you talk about mining and bringing in 'man camps' that’s where MMIP [missing and murdered Indigenous people] comes into play.

Sagrero: So, you’re saying these man camps present a public safety issue, especially when it comes to missing and murdered Indigenous women?

Torres: Especially when we don’t know that these projects are coming onto our homelands until they've started the exploration process. Not saying that all of them are bad, but make sure we’re at the table giving our consent.

Sagrero: You mentioned the concept of seven generations. Can you explain what that means?

Torres: Everything that we do in today's day is preparing the next seven generations to come and take over. We really need to be thoughtful of perspective, policy changes, and how we set them up for a successful future.

Sagrero: That was Amber Torres, chairman of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. Her appointment to the Department of Interior Secretary’s Tribal Advisory Committee will last two years.

Produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Follow Gustavo on social media, IG: @gus.chavo TW: @goose_chavo

Gustavo Sagrero is a former bilingual reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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