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Tribal Chairman Arlan Melendez Awarded President’s Medal

President's Medal recipient Arlan Melendez.
Rebecca A. Eckland

Arlan D. Melendez, Tribal Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, has been awarded the President’s Medal, which honors an outstanding community leader. For over thirty years, Melendez has served as Chairman of the RSIC, a role that enables him to act as spokesperson and advocate for the 1,200 tribal members which include members of the Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone tribes. As Chairman, Melendez faces challenges to the RSIC locations (both in Reno city limits and to the north in Hungry Valley) that range the gamut of environmental, political and economic domains. 

Becoming Chairman wasn’t something that Melendez had had on his radar. However, thanks to the encouragement of his younger brother and the mentorship of tribal elders who had been longtime members of the Tribal Council, in 1991 Melendez decided to run for the leadership position. 

“You may not feel confident at first in a [leadership] position, but you’ll get better every time you speak or make decisions, gaining more confidence and experience. I have learned anyone can do jobs that maybe they don’t think they can just by trying and doing them,” he said. 

Stepping into roles and learning by doing is paramount to Melendez’s journey that includes a tour of Vietnam as a U.S. Marine Corps, veteran and taking classes from TMCC. 

Coming to TMCC

Melendez is a lifelong resident of Northern Nevada; like many Native Americans of Nevada in the 1940s, he was born in the Indian Hospital in nearby Schurz, Nevada. His father worked for the Southern Pacific Railroad, so many of Melendez’s early years were spent in Railroad Section Housing in Sutcliffe; a small town on the western shore of Pyramid Lake. In 1965, he would graduate from Wooster High School, excelling as a distance runner, who was looking for the next step in his life’s journey.

Melendez followed many other Native Americans in joining the efforts of the Vietnam War. He and his brother joined the Marine Corps and Melendez served one year in Vietnam. After receiving an honorable discharge from the USMC, Melendez moved to Denver, Colorado. While there, he began taking classes at a local community college in the hopes that gaining an education would lead him to a better job. 

When he returned to his hometown of Reno, he enrolled in business, accounting and economics classes at TMCC—classes that prepared him for the challenges he would face as a part of the RSIC Tribal Council, and later as its Chairman. “I was a business major, and so I took some accounting and business classes, and I learned a number of things that helped me with the management of the RSIC,” he said. 

One example is the stewardship of the land, which includes advocating for the protection of its resources, such as clean well water and coordinating with other industries to keep the air safe for its residents. “I took a class called ‘Business and Society’, which had to do with how businesses are basically just looking at the bottom line, and often neglect the issues that are important to ‘society,’” he said, offering an example that the RSIC has faced with the mining industry’s interests, which historically, have created difficulties for the tribe. 

“The mines came, but they never cleaned up. They were there for the profitability, but the society part of it... that’s when we have to mobilize with local Sierra Clubs and different environmental groups to build a coalition of people who were against that industry being too close to our homes. We have been through a lot of challenges—encroachments—from those who just see profitability, even if it’s near our residential neighborhoods, and we have to defend against that.” 

He has also worked with the Nevada State Legislature to introduce new laws which improve how artifacts from cultural sites are handled. “We would like them to return some of the artifacts that have been unearthed,” he said, noting that the RSIC works closely with legislators to monitor and improve legislation to support their cultural legacy. After all, there are at least 8,000 Native Americans who live in Washoe County, over half of which live in the cities and not on reservations. Regardless of where they live, as a leader of the RSIC, Melendez serves as central support for this wide and varied community; most recently, including the legislation of the Nevada Native American Tuition Fee Waiver, Bill AB262. 

In addition to serving as a longtime Chairman of the RSIC, Melendez has held numerous leadership roles in which he advocates for Native Americans in Northern Nevada. He currently serves on the Taxation Subcommittee for the National Congress of American Indians. In 2005, he was appointed to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission by former Nevada Senator Harry Reid. He would be only the second Native American to serve on the commission since its incorporation by President Eisenhower in 1957.

Melendez is also the Treasurer of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, which represents the twenty-seven tribes in the state; served as the Western Regional Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians and served as a Board Member of the Secretary of the Health’s Advisory Committee. 

Innovative Ideas Come From Education

As Chairman of the RSIC, Melendez certainly encounters many issues, but he has been an especially strong advocate both locally and nationally for improved health care for Native people. Of his many accomplishments is the establishment of a new 60,000 square-foot Health Center, which serves thousands of Native Americans in Washoe County. 

The inspiration for this and much of his work comes from Melendez’s memories and knowledge he gained from his education. “By going to school, it really gives you a foundation for innovative ideas,” he said. “Knowledge is everything, and it gives us vision for the future. Without knowledge, there is no hope. In these challenging times we’ve been through, the world needs educated people, and it brings a lot of peace... not only to the world, but within yourself.” 

About the President’s Medal

Each year, Truckee Meadows Community College confers its highest honor, the TMCC President’s Medal, to an outstanding community leader. The president’s medal is bestowed on a recipient in recognition of his or her contributions toward the enhancement and achievement of TMCC’s mission of providing educational and public services to its students and to its community.

President’s Medal Recipients

  • 2022 – Arlan D. Melendez
  • 2010 – Dr. Joel Glover (posthumously)
  • 2008 – Dr. Robert and Jean Myles
  • 2007 – Lynn Atcheson
  • 2006 – The Nell J. Redfield Foundation
  • 2005 – Senator Bernice Mathews
  • 2004 – Governor Kenny Guinn
  • 2003 – Senator Bill Raggio
  • 2002 – Dr. Jeane Jones 
  • 2001 – International Game Technology
  • 2000 – Moya Olsen Lear
  • 1999 – V. James Eardley, Ph.D.
  • 1998 – James Jeffers, Ph.D.

Follow TMCC’s Commencement Celebration online for the Class of 2022. For more information about the 2022 ceremony, contact Admissions and Records at 775-673-7042.