Editorial: Congress should consider injustice inherent in Western Shoshone case

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The Dann sisters of Nevada - Mary and Carrie - are something akin to modern mythological figures. A pair of hardy Western Shoshone ranchers who have attempted over the decades to assert their right to a land-related lifestyle, based on their treaty rights as Native people, they are heroic.

Indian people of today should recognize contemporary heroes of our nations. We have a few - more than most people realize, in fact - but we tend to gloss over their worth. Yet, example is everything. Example is what raises a worthy generation. When heroic stances by principled people of obvious integrity arise, we should always recognize, support and celebrate them.

The Dann sisters, who in their seventies and eighties still ride and herd cattle and horses, are a heroic example. The Dann sisters have sustained their Shoshone lifeways with a determination that should be recognized by all self-reliant Indian families and nations. In the face of federal harassment, confiscation and wanton resale of their hard-raised cattle, in the face of millions of dollars in fines, in the face of armed intrusions, they have epitomized American Indian principle and courage - hardiness, resiliency, honesty. To some, they may seem simply a couple of elder siblings trying to hold on to a ranch in the outer prairies; but they represent much more than that. They are saying (and have fought this to the U.S. Supreme Court): we have a right, as tribal people, to hold sway over our ancestral lands.

Indian ranchers take note: these are heroes worth emulating, worth putting forth to the American public as ambassadors of an Indian self-determined future on traditional lands. To the new Western Shoshone generation take note; someday you may want to graze your food-providing animals on that same prairie or find other ways to utilize your ancient and valuable birthright. The Dann sisters are saying: it belongs to you.

The shame inherent in the United States' effort to usurp Western Shoshone title to Nevada lands appears deeper than previously reported. Writing for Indian Country Today, columnist Steve Newcomb recently detailed his revealing, unsuccessful, search for a crucial piece of finality, asserted by the U.S. Supreme Court and required by law. According to Newcomb's finding, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) reporting requirement, or certification that a case was concluded, was never filed in the Western Shoshone case, among others.

Noting that "finality" in cases brought before the Indian Claims Commission required "that the report of the Commission must be 'filed with Congress'," and that, "such report shall have the effect of a final judgment of the Court of Claims," the columnist went in search of it. Again, he found only that the required report was in fact never filed.

What this means is uncertain. But the face of it indicates that proper procedure in what became rationale for a negative Supreme Court ruling was neither accurate nor conclusive. A procedural piece is missing. Like a great magic trick, the purported dispossession and disappearance of Western Shoshone lands may well have been a massive government illusion in which even contemporary lawmakers have been led to believe. Like the supposed "encroachment" upon their tribal lands that ostensibly justifies the negation of Western Shoshone title, the record does not add up in the termination of Shoshone title. Writes Newcomb: "The proposed distribution to the Western Shoshone of roughly 140 million dollars in judgment funds in Docket 326-K, is premised on the assumption that the ICC had reached finality." But it didn't.

Expectedly, the Justice Department and other federal departments will weigh in with analysis and rationales for rounding out the missing piece of the record. This will likely carry the land grab forward, but it will be just another layer in the travesty of injustice that characterizes this case.

Perhaps the Dann sisters' and Western Shoshones' claim is in its final throes. Certainly, two elderly women, and their ranching tribesmen, tough as they may be, can not long withstand the mighty iron fist of the Bureau of Land Management backed up by a U.S. Supreme Court decision (1985), no matter how false and incomplete the record. But then again, perhaps the Dann sisters are being particularly favored from above. Their long-standing and sympathy-provoking case against the U.S. government has seemed on its death-knell for years, yet always something keeps happening to help it walk. That something is truth with honor.

Before Newcomb's discovery that the crucial report was missing, the congressional bill that would authorize final payment and title transfer for the land hit quicksand, at least in the last Congress. All expect the bill to effect these payments will be reintroduced by Nevada Senator Harry Reid and Congressman James Gibbons in the upcoming session of Congress, but it has missed at least one beat.

The bill would distribute some $140 million to tribal members. Held in trust by the Interior Department since 1979, the Indian Claims Commission award in the amount of $27 million accumulated interest over the years. However, the tribe refused to take the money for fear that it would void their land claims. As reported by Valerie Taliman in ICT: "The $27 million was the 1872 value of the land that has since proven rich in mineral resources. The territory includes the Carlin Trend, a gold-mining region that has produced more than $20 billion in revenue since the early 1960s. The Western Shoshone have not received any of this revenue."

Says Geoffrey Bryan, tribal administrator for the Yomba Shoshone, one of the bands of Western Shoshone: "Currently, cattle ranching is the tribe's only economic venture on our land base of 4,600 acres. Because of Bureau of Land Management restrictions, only three families can graze their cattle on so-called federal land that is ancestral Shoshone land. That has hindered our people's livelihood."

Then, at the Organization of American States, as pro-U.S. an international body as there ever was, the case goes to the Danns and their Western Shoshone claim. Its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the U.S. violated international human rights laws by denying Carrie and Mary Dann, as well as other tribal members, "their rights to equality before the law, to be free of discrimination, to a fair trial and to property."

In letters to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and Ambassador Roger Noriega of the Organization of American States, Amnesty International Executive Director William Schulz expressed concern that the human rights of the Western Shoshone were being violated. Schulz raised concerns about the repeated raids by BLM agents on herds owned by the elderly sisters. The BLM maintains that the cattle are over-grazing on federally owned ranges, while the Danns and other Shoshone ranchers refuse to pay grazing fees for the use of lands they maintain were never ceded to the U.S. government.

Might does not make right. But in this case the mighty have worked hard to convince Americans of a legal foundation built on an illusion.

We know there is more. We urge all men and women of honor and principle, particularly in Congress, to consider the justice of their actions in the Western Shoshone case. Someone once said that great countries, like great leaders, honor their agreements.

On a media note:

The New York Times not long ago picked up the Dann's story ("Range War in Nevada Pits U.S. Against 2 Shoshone Sisters," October 31, 2002). Feature writer Charlie LeDuff, a Native journalist, pieced together a solid portrait of the Danns and their situation. We quibble with it only this much: the tendency to assume the U.S. government's assertion of reality over the Native viewpoint. It made us ponder the differences, advantages and disadvantages of the American Indian press, in tribal and national mainstream contexts, when presenting American Indian histories.