Preserving Native American heritage on Nellis land

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Oleksandra G. Manko
  • Nellis AFB Public Affairs
The Nellis Native American Program annual meeting took place June 15 at the enlisted club. It was highlighted by the showing of the premiere video "Gathering Devah: An Ancient Pine Nut Harvest Tradition." It is a 30 minute documentary of a rare Native American cultural event that took place on the Nevada Test and Training Range in October 2005. 

Keith Myhrer, 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Management Flight Cultural Resources Program senior archeologist, has managed the Native American and cultural resources programs at Nellis for more than a decade. 

"My job is to ensure that when targets and roads on Nellis-managed lands are built, no archeological sites are adversely impacted," said Mr. Myhrer. Federal laws require that Native Americans are consulted concerning effects to their historic, cultural and spiritual properties. However, the way the process had been handled in federal entities in the past left tribes feeling their views were neglected. When Mr. Myhrer, an overachiever by nature, came to work at Nellis in 1996, he brought with him the determination to transform the Native American program from a routine notification of tribes prior to mission-related actions into a partnership that would benefit both the Native American community and the Air Force. 

With Mr. Myhrer's initiative and generous support from the Air Combat Command and Nellis leadership, a group of Native Americans were invited to visit their sacred sites on the three-million-acre Nellis Test and Training Range. Due to restricted access, they hadn't been able to set foot on those sites for 45 years, ever since the land was assigned to the then Army Air Corps base in 1941 for fighter pilot training. 

From that day on the relationship of Native American community and Nellis has been steadily improving. Mr. Myhrer said that the first couple of years were rough, as the tribal representatives were skeptical about the plans the Nellis staff offered for the future program. 

"Our challenge was to show them that we needed their presence on the NTTR land and desired their participation and advice," said Mr. Myhrer. "When they saw that for 50 years their sites had been protected through restricted access, we began to gain their confidence. Before our many field trips they mistakenly thought the Air Force had been bombing everything. Today they speak in positive terms and are proud to be part of the Nellis mission." 

Tribal representatives have participated on archaeological projects since 1996. Two years ago they began designing and implementing their own archeological research on the range as well. Their concerns and recommendations are carefully taken into account. However, the Nellis' Native American program doesn't end there. Mr. Myhrer and his team are constantly working on new projects that would help the local Native Americans reunite with their land and preserve their heritage. 

One such project was the devah gathering, an ancient Native American tradition. Seventeen Native Americans were escorted to Kawich Mountain, where they collected their first pine nut harvest in 65 years. Nellis sponsored the production of a comprehensive documentary of the two-and-a-half-day event. Officials from 98th Range Wing were crucial in making the reunion a safe and smooth event. Native Americans, including a family with three generations, arrived with traditional collection tools and baskets and picked up where they left off in 1940. 

"The Air Force, in my opinion, is the best at preserving cultural resources. They made it so easy for me to build this program. Our Native American program is possibly the most complex in the nation, and I couldn't have done it by myself," said Mr. Myhrer, who had spent 15 years working with other agencies. 

In 2006, Nellis also produced a documentary about the life of miners on the cactus range, which is also currently a part of its testing range. The video is available to public free of charge. The devah gathering video will become available in August. Orders must be submitted to Nellis Public Affairs office at 99abw.pa@nellis.af.mil or 

99th ABW/PA
4430 Grissom, STE 107
Nellis AFB, NV 89115 

Please provide your address and indicate which video you would like to obtain.