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What Nevada Stole from Its Indigenous People

Senator Pat McCarran’s vision for the desert carried a tradition of dispossession into the mid-20th century.

Today, tourists from all over the world flock to Nevada to experience selective amnesia. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” the slogan goes. But Las Vegas’ culture of forgetting is more than drunken hijinks. The city’s existence depends on forgetting the colonial violence that made the Desert Southwest. Since becoming a state in 1864, Nevada’s basic political and economic infrastructure is a product of the expropriation of Native American lands.

If any one Nevadan represents this history, it’s Patrick “Pat” Anthony McCarran, the Democratic U.S. senator who served the state from 1933 to 1954. McCarran’s name is everywhere in Vegas: on street signs, building names, and, until 2021, the Las Vegas International Airport. Many locals remember McCarran for being a champion of the mining and ranching industries; less proudly, they have come to recognize that he was an unabashed anti-Semite.

For this reason, Clark County Commissioners recently rebranded the airport for a different Democratic senator, Harry Reid. Still, in reckoning with McCarran’s legacy, Nevadans sometimes overlook the ways in which even his most laudable successes carried on an ugly tradition of stealing from Indigenous people.

Dispossession began before McCarran’s time, in the 19th century. After Mexico ceded its northern territory to the United States in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, decades of violence ensued between white newcomers and Native nations defending their land.

American diplomatic efforts sought to reach accords between settler and Native communities, but often undermined Indigenous sovereignty in the long run. In 1863, near what is now the Utah-Nevada border, Western Shoshone leaders signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley for the sake of “peace and friendship.” The treaty acknowledged Native jurisdiction over much of the Intermountain West from Death Valley to Idaho’s Snake River, stating that “The United States [is] aware of the inconvenience resulting to the Indians … [from] agricultural and mining settlements” and promising “full compensation … for the loss of game and the rights and privileges hereby conceded.”

Except for limited rights of way, forts, and mines, Shoshone delegates neither ceded nor sold any real estate to the federal government. Nevertheless, Nevada became a state the next year, on Oct. 31, 1864. As American settlers began arriving in droves, they treated Newe (Western Shoshone) land—along with that of nearby of Nüümü (Northern Paiute), Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute), and Washoe nations—as “public domain,” empty for the taking.

Pat McCarran achieved his vision for the desert: when he died in 1954, Las Vegas was one of the fastest growing cities in the country. Southern Nevada now contains over two million people, with a Native population of less than 1%.