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Urban Paiute reservation soon to have time in sun

It’s been called “a town within a town,” this century-old reservation of the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe.

It’s a small, relatively obscure reservation that sits a few blocks north of the Fremont district — directly behind the smoke shop with the drive-through window and the mini-mart that offers all sorts of Native American commodities.

Many Las Vegas Valley residents may be well aware of the Moapa River Reservation, with its coal-fired smoke-spewing power plant north of Las Vegas just off Interstate 15. And they may have had lunch or played golf at the Snow Mountain Reservation, with its Paiute Golf Resort along U.S. Highway 95 on the northern side of the Las Vegas Valley.

But few people know about this sliver of an urban reservation — even though it was the first to be established by the Southern Nevada Paiutes — in December 1911.

That’s about to change.

The reservation’s history and its residents will be featured in a documentary that’s being shot by well-known local filmmaker Stan Armstrong, who’s calling it “City Within a City.” It’s scheduled to be released early next year, possibly making its debut on PBS before it hits the film festival circuit in the Southwest.

ON THE RESERVATION

Armstrong’s documentary looks into an obscure reservation in the middle of the nation’s gambling mecca. The Native American community is more than 100 years old. It has a police department, an administrative building, a health and human services building, a cemetery and more than a dozen houses. Right now it’s also filled with scary skeletons and mock graveyards, in a nod to Halloween.

On this Columbus Day, though, one only need look at the white piece of paper that’s taped to the front doors of the reservation’s administration building to see that these Paiutes have different outlooks and live in a different world: “We will be closed on Monday in honor of Indigenous Peoples Day.” Not Columbus Day.

Then there’s another sign, one that’s permanently screwed into the wall as you drive into this sovereign nation, which sits directly across from the Palms Mortuary and not too far from the Best Western: “No Trespassing.” Violators will be prosecuted, the sign reads.

The sign is there not because the Paiutes are a secretive or unwelcoming people. Instead, it is to keep out all the homeless people who live nearby. They have a tendency to either get lost or deliberately drift in from the nearby Shade Tree shelter and the Salvation Army on Owens Avenue.

“Growing up there, we used to play on the streets. Nobody will dare do that these days,” said Deanna Domingo, 50, a Paiute and former resident. She now lives and works on the Moapa River Reservation north of Las Vegas.

“Growing up, I also used to live in a house that had no electricity. None of the houses had power. If we saw anything at night, it was by the light of a kerosene lamp. And believe it or not, I thought this was just the way that everybody lived,” she said.

“I thought we were rich. Then when I went to school, I discovered we weren’t.”

Armstrong, who spent much of his childhood in San Francisco and now lives in Las Vegas, has spent a lot of time in West Las Vegas, often traveling between the two.

FILMMAKER HAS LOCAL ROOTS

Armstrong is a 1972 graduate of Rancho High School in Las Vegas and his mixed-race experience as an African-American and Choctaw has served to inspire several historical documentaries that focus on the sort of history that should be exposed.

He has earned accolades from film critics, who have compared him to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, who relies on archival footage to tell his stories.

A Civil War buff and a UNLV professor, Armstrong’s first big hit was “The Battle of Fort Pillow,” about a Confederate general who ordered the slaughter of retreating African-American soldiers who fought for the Union; that general later became the first wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Armstrong dug deep.

Then there’s “The Misunderstood Legend of the Las Vegas Moulin Rouge,” released in 2011. It lays bare the history behind the hotel-casino, which served as a refuge for many black greats such as Louis Armstrong during segregation in the mid-1950s, and what happened to that hotel during the days of integration.

Armstrong has even drawn on his own personal experiences, reconstructing the riots at his alma mater, Rancho High, in the early 1970s in West Las Vegas.

His latest production, which is an hour long, features downtown Las Vegas but also the Las Vegas Paiute Tribe’s Snow Mountain Reservation near Mount Charleston, and the Moapa River Reservation, where the Moapa Band of Paiutes lives.

The Commission for the Las Vegas Centennial is funding the documentary.

Armstrong said the cultural contrasts found in Las Vegas are so stark they scream for footage.

“Tourists who come to this town look at the glitz and glamour of gambling, but don’t know a thing about the history or the culture,” said Armstrong, who hopes to hand over his finished product to PBS for airing early next year.

“The bottom line, the often overlooked fact is this: The Paiutes were the first to ever live in the Las Vegas Valley. They walked this land long before the Mormons established a fort here in the 1850s.”

For that matter, they were here long before Columbus “discovered” America.

A little bit about the Paiute tribe: Its people come from the Tudinu, or Desert People. Their territory has always been rimmed by the Colorado River Valley and the the mountains of the Mojave Desert in Nevada, California and Utah, notes Leon Yazzie, a Navajo who has appeared in Armstrong’s documentaries and knows his Native American history well.

BRIGHT FUTURE SEEN

The only thing that’s holding the Paiute people back from becoming a greater and more financially successful sovereign nation is the lack of downtown land, according to Yazzie.

But the fact that the reservation is inside city limits could have advantages.

“Their future looks bright,” says Yazzie, who will play the role of a Paiute in Armstrong’s documentary, re-creating the scene in which the tribe eventually receives its land deed in the early 1900s. “They just need a decent partner to help them and work with them and develop them. And when that happens, watch out. They’re going to be a force to reckon with.”

As for the documentary, the hope is that after the PBS airing it, it will enter the film festival circuit starting in 2014.

“The thing I found most fascinating about this tribe was their loyalty to country,” Armstrong said. “You’ll see many of them in the parades here. They fought for the Army, the Navy, the armed forces. I’m very impressed by their service.”

Armstrong remembers his childhood and his days at Rancho High School, when the African-American kids like himself would mix it up with the Native Americans. Because he claims both bloodlines, he can’t help but feel there’s something mystical about it all, and he’s a part of it.

“The black kids would ride the freight trains back then. I remember that,” Armstrong said. “And the Paiute kids, being the kids that they were there, would throw rocks at the freight train. Those were crazy times, they were fun times, they’re etched in my head, and I can’t wait to make them come alive on the screen.”

Contact reporter Tom Ragan at tragan@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5512.

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