WALKER RIVER PAIUTE RESERVATION, Nev.—Members of the Walker River Paiute Tribe in Nevada say they wish Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders would come here themselves, not just send representatives. They want the candidates to see their problems and fears.
They worry that nearby mining and testing at military bases are contaminating their water. They want more jobs and more money for their schools. They want help addressing the number of young people who end up in prison.
They want to stop the suicides that keep stealing young lives from this community of fewer than 700 people.
Nevada will hold Democratic caucuses across the state Saturday. Because of the rules that govern how delegates are allocated for the state convention, the members of the tribe have more power proportionally than voters in more urban areas. But their numbers are still small.
Members of the Walker River Paiute tribe will caucus at their community town hall. We asked them what they would tell Clinton and Sanders if they visited the reservation, about 100 miles away from Reno.
Nicole Castillo, 32
In the photograph above, Nicole Castillo stands in front of Mount Grant, an important site in the Walker River Paiute people’s origin story. Tribe members say their people have been living near Mount Grant for tens of thousands of years.
“To me, Mount Grant is empowering,” Castillo says.
But today the Army stores ammunition near the mountain, and the tribe is forced to ask the military for permission to access the land. Castillo says her job requires her to deal with boundaries—she works in the tribe’s economic development office—and she wishes the U.S. government would treat her people like an equal sovereign government.
Castillo says the first time she voted in an election was because a teacher offered extra credit. She takes it more seriously since learning the history of the Native American vote. Some states barred Native Americans from voting as late as 1957.
“Sometimes we forget the lengths people went through to have a voice,” Castillo says.
Candice Birchum, 33
Candice Birchum says her concerns center on access to quality education and economic development. The Walker River Paiute Reservation has one gas station, the only source of revenue for the tribe.
“When companies do come in with business proposals, even if the tribe is interested, we’re held up by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. It takes a lot of steps to get anything done here,” Birchum says.
She says that, as education director on the reservation, she is especially concerned about money for schools.
Esha Hoferer, 27
Esha Hoferer says tribal sovereignty is what he cares about most because it can affect so much else. Hoferer says it can be frustrating to hear from candidates only around election time.
“They just want [the Native vote as] that little extra step to get ahead of everyone else,” he says. “It’s not genuine. They should have been coming here two years ago.”
“I’m trying to find way to have actual support from politicians so they can help us rather then getting a letter or a meeting once a year,” Hoferer adds.
He says he worries that the debate over gun restrictions could one day lead to the restriction of hunting rights on reservations across the country.
Sara Twiss, 27
Sara Twiss says it’s hard for her to follow the presidential election because the campaigns aren’t doing much outreach on the reservation.
“It can be very hard to get Natives to vote, and I’m sort of new to the process,” she says, noting that “sometimes people don’t know what the steps are or where to register to vote.”
“Some people are really strong about voting and getting their opinion heard, but it’s all about the individual and if they’re willing to take the next steps,” Twiss says.
Joseph Frank, 25
Joseph Frank, 25, says access to better health care is a real concern for him. Medical care at the clinic on the reservation is supposed to be covered through federal programs, but that doesn’t always happen, he says.
“We end up with bills that were supposed to be paid for, and when we can’t pay them, it affects our credit scores,” he says.
Another member of the tribe says their medical bills are only covered if they’re “bleeding, broken, and dying.”
Marlene Begay and her husband were Democratic delegates at the 2008 Nevada state convention. She says she saw very few Native Americans there and heard of only one Nevada tribal leader making it to the Democratic National Convention.
“If I was selected I wouldn’t be able to pay for it,” says Begay, who is also a councilwoman for the tribal government. “I’d have to have an Indian taco sale to raise money to be able to pay for that.”
Bobby Sanchez, 28
Bobby Sanchez, the chairman of the tribe, says he hopes the next president will work with tribal leaders.
He says tribal sovereignty is an issue he follows closely. He also says he wants the president to ensure that federal and state money for reservation schools is allocated fairly.
“What I envision in a leader is someone who is humble and down to earth and will do things with you, not just promise things,” Sanchez says.