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Arlan D. Melendez retires after 32 years as Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony

A portrait of a man. He is looking toward the camera and smiling.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Arlan D. Melendez, Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

Chairman Arlan D. Melendez is retiring after more than three decades leading the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

About 200 people gathered to celebrate Chairman Arlan D. Melendez’s retirement at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s gym on Nov. 18.

Drums and dancers anticipated Melendez's entrance amid decorations of balloons and flowers.

Melendez entered the room at a slow pace, with the calmness that distinguishes him. He waved at his people with an accomplished but nostalgic smile.

At 76, Melendez takes pride in a lifetime of service. Melendez, a Paiute Indian, was elected Tribal Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in 1991. A position he held for 32 years. Melendez will officially retire Dec. 13.

“It’s been a tremendous journey. I’ve been really blessed by the Creator. If I had another chance to do it again, I would,” Melendez said.

He previously served in the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War and worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Pyramid Lake Fisheries.

But his journey as leader began in 1987, when he was elected treasurer of the Tribal Council. Three years later, Melendez was elected Vice Chairman. His brother Randy encouraged him to run for chairman, he said.

“I was actually just going to run for the Tribal Council again for the third term, but then he [Randy] said, ‘Why don’t you run for the chairmanship?’ He says, ‘You could probably do as well as anybody else.’ I thought ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ Chairman don’t really serve that long. Usually in Nevada, there’s a lot of changes all the time,” he said.

Verna J. Nuno, Vice Chairman of the Tribal Council, served with Melendez since he became chairman.

His leadership style is one of commitment to serving the people, she said. And if there was an issue he’d travel to Washington D.C. to make sure those issues were taken care of.

“He’s a very strong leader. And whenever he has a project or whatever that he wants to accomplish, he will work very hard to get that taken care of, even with meeting with the mayors, our congressional people,” she said. “I think that one of the things I would like to see him do is just spend some more time being him, being the dad, being the grandpa, being the companion and husband for Joyce.”

A group of six people standing together and looking toward the camera.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
RSIC Tribal Council Members Toby Stump (from left), Nida Harjo, Chairman Arlan D. Melendez, Treasurer Robin M. Eagle, Vice Chairman Verna J. Nuno and Anthony Abbie on Nov. 18, 2023, in Reno, Nev.

Melendez is known as a calm, busy and very spiritual person, said his grandson Michael Costa, who’s excited to have more time with his grandfather and the rest of the family.

“I feel a little bit of sadness, but also some excitement. Growing up, I always saw how busy he was. He was always flying to Washington, D.C. and the National Congress of American Indians. I’m definitely going to be excited that he’s going to finally have some time to just enjoy himself, hanging out with the family,” Costa said.

Melendez now looks forward to a new chapter in his life.

“It’s probably time [to retire] because it’s really a demanding job,” he said. “So if I ran another term, I’d be 80. And I was thinking, ‘Wow, 80. But would you rather be walking from meeting to meeting? Or would you rather be having your own time to go fishing or whatever, hiking or something you never did?’ ”

Two men standing on a stage. One is standing behind a podium while speaking toward a microphone.
Maria Palma
KUNR Public Radio
Chairman Arlan D. Melendez and his grandson, Michael Acosta, on Nov. 18, 2023, in Reno, Nev.

Under Chairman Melendez’s leadership, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony has maintained a strong and stable government. Economic development, tribal sovereignty and health care have been his biggest priorities.

“Every tribe is different. Every tribe has strengths, weaknesses. Every tribe has certain threats and opportunities. For example, our strengths in Reno are location, but the problem we had, we didn’t have any land for economic development downtown here,” Melendez said.

In recent decades, the tribe has taken advantage of its location within an urban area to create a viable economic tax base.

The Colony funds its tribal government with revenues generated from smoke shops and other commercial enterprises. In an effort to diversify the Colony’s general fund, Melendez was able to attract business development to the reservation.

“The easiest way for us was to just bring business to the reservation, not tribal business, and then tax them. And then they would pay you the lease, and they would pay the tax. So I thought, ‘well, that’s a pretty good way,’ ” he said.

Today, car dealerships and a Walmart on tribal lands are the biggest tax generators, he said.

Land acquisition was also one of Melendez’s top priorities. In 2016, Congress passed the Nevada Native Nations Land Act, transferring nearly 71,000 acres to the Native American communities in Nevada. The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony received 13,434 acres from the Bureau of Land Management.

“That was really a major accomplishment. Hungry Valley is a beautiful, pristine area, with juniper trees, eagles and antelopes,” Melendez said.

Also under his leadership, the tribe developed a $20 million tribal health center that provides health care services to its members and Washoe County’s urban Indians.

But there is one thing that Melendez said was the most difficult and controversial.

“When I first came on board, there was this issue in our Constitution called dual enrollment and what it meant was that you could be a member of our tribe and a member of another tribe at the same time. And so that created a lot of problems,” he said.

Eventually, the tribe voted to amend the Constitution and end dual enrollment, which meant that anyone not enrolled as a member of Reno-Sparks Indian Colony would have to leave.

“A lot of people were not happy with that. By having dual enrollment, it really waters down sovereignty; that was my position, still is. We’re now fully sovereign,” he said.

That was probably the only time he felt he was going to lose votes, Melendez said. In more than 30 years, he always felt confident about his vision and leadership.

“My mind was so into ‘this needs to be done, whether I’m here or whether I’m not here.’ That's how passionate I felt about it. I think if I were worried about getting elected, I think I probably wouldn’t have got elected. I never really worried about it. So I just tried to do my job, treat everybody respectfully. And I never thought about it really, just time flies so fast, too,” Melendez said.

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is seen as one of the most progressive tribes in Nevada. And that’s because of community efforts and partnerships at a local, state and national level, he said.

“Our progress has to do with building relationships; that’s probably a key component of economic development. I have relationships with the mayor of Reno, Sparks, the county commissioners and city planners,” he said.

For what’s next, Melendez plans to travel, go fishing and finish house projects. He’d also like to write a book about the history of the Colony.

“I think I’m gonna rest a little bit for the winter. Probably in the spring, I’ll probably think about doing some other things,” Melendez said. “I was thinking, ‘what would it be like if you wake up and you don’t have anything, any meetings? You know what I mean?’ ”

Maria joined KUNR Public Radio in December 2022 as a staff reporter. She is interested in stories about underserved communities, immigration, arts and culture, entertainment, education and health.