The Western Shoshone land claims case is a contemporary, classic, textbook example of Manifest Destiny. While private and governmental forces work avidly to quiet all past, future and potential title to Western Shoshone lands, the reality of a case not proven, even if decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, continues to reveal a fundamental injustice.
Last week, the House Resources Committee held meetings and heard testimony on the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, H.R. 884. If the bill passes committee vote, it will go to the floor for a full House vote. The bill, which has the strong support of the Nevada congressional delegation, would approve the direct distribution of federal funds to the Western Shoshone tribal members. It would force settlement of two long-standing land claims filed by the Te-Moak Bands of the Western Shoshone.
Attempts to force such a settlement to the ancient Shoshone land claim have been defeated before, but bills continue to be introduced and lobbied. This one is sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., as S. 618 in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and by Representative Jim Gibbons in the House Committee on Resources.
The Interior Department contends, along with the Nevada congressmen and willing Shoshones, that the vast majority of the tribal members in question support the distribution. And, indeed, Felix Ike, chairman of the Te-Moak tribe testified that over 2,500 enrolled members or some 65 percent of the population of nearly 3,700 identified as having 1/4 or more Western Shoshone blood, voted for the distribution of the trust funds.
It is understandable that many Western Shoshones are tired of the decades-long claims process and would rather move on. A Supreme Court decision against the case is the ultimate step, they say. They would use the money for economic development, chairman Ike said, and while no one can dispute that such is needed, its per capita distribution is unlikely to achieve the intended results. Additionally, the Te-Moak Council asserts that Ike acted outside his constitutional authority by both holding an illegitimate referendum and in testifying before Congress without its consent. (The letter advising Congress on this matter and signed by a majority of the Te-Moak Council is published in this issue.) Many now wonder aloud, what's in it for Ike?
Most impartial observers will see that the issue is not at all clear cut. There are several recognized Western Shoshone governments. The majority of these councils, as governments, do not agree with the settlement. There is no mistaking that many Western Shoshone, perhaps even a majority, do not agree with the settlement. These Western Shoshones contend that the land is theirs by inheritance and quite effectively challenge the federal government to prove just how and when their people or tribal nation ever relinquished it. As Raymond Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, said at the House hearing, "By what law did the United States acquire the lands of the Western Shoshone?" We also wonder how any American Indian would agree to relinquish lands and resources worth billions, for the trivial compensation offered by the government.
The manner of the recent vote is controversial. Many challenge it for having been held in only one community, publicized only there by a single newspaper ad. Apparently, too, that first referendum ballot indicated, wrongly, that acceptance of the claim money would not affect Western Shoshone land rights. But it does.
The contention plays hardest on the ground, where several Western Shoshone ranchers have dug in and battled the Bureau of Land Management for over 20 years. The past year has seen the seizure, confiscation and forced selling of much of their cattle and horses, actions that wreaked financial havoc on the ranchers, including the elderly sisters, Mary and Carrie Dann. According to recent alerts, "Helicopters and ongoing Department of Interior surveillance (armed rangers) continue to harass community members and their livestock." The concern of the Western Shoshone activists is that, with distribution of the settlement clearing Indian title, the federal government will "turn around and auction the lands and waters off to large corporations - mining, energy and military contractors." (Western Shoshone Defense Project)
To complicate (or perhaps clarify) matters further, conflict of interest questions are trailing Nevada Senator Harry Reid like flies on cowpie. A recent Los Angeles Times article paints a portrait of a senator deeply influenced by lobbyists, mostly members of his own family, working for major interests, real estate and resource industries, in Nevada. Fair or not, the sense of something amiss pervades his methods. The whole of Nevada seems riddled with this problem. Once, the mere appearance of conflict of interest was cause for shame and consternation; these days, actual conflict of interest is often simply ignored, even accepted as normal by a fat-cat media ruled by a fat-cat corporate-congressional alliance.
The issue is deeply cultural and historical - the land is sacred to the Shoshone - but the issue is also fully economic. It is about tribal private property, clearly demarcated, being stolen. There are many natural resources to be extracted on and under Shoshone lands worth billions of dollars. The desert setting and low population density also makes it attractive to all manner of massive exploitation, including highly toxic gold mining and even more toxic nuclear weapons testing (add now potential nuclear waste storage).
The Western Shoshone opponents point to their 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, which recognizes Western Shoshone homelands. But the U.S. chose to ignore that promise and has managed the area as federal lands. It ushered in the wildcats while squeezing the Indian jurisdictions and disregarding treaty rights. For many years, prior to any court or congressional settlement, the federal and state governments treated Western Shoshone lands as "public" lands, always assuming that Indians would disappear. Increasingly, urban sprawl, mining, military testing have been managed under the assumption that the land had transferred title, that Western Shoshones had no say over it, or any claim whatsoever to the wealth emerging from their ancestral tribal properties and lands, wrested away from them with impunity by raw power and greed, to the great and growing benefit of non-Indian squatters.
Serious property and money is involved. Placer Dome, a gold mining enterprise now estimates that their recent "discovery" in Crescent Valley, home of the Dann sisters, will produce over $1 billion in gold. The Placer Dome operation is just one of numerous major gold mining operations on Western Shoshone lands. Dome's President and CEO Jay Taylor praised his company's foresight in a "strategy of gaining large land positions in known gold camps." He is right there, but what of the Western Shoshones, who had already "gained and held" those large land positions?
Then there is Bechtel, Nev., which straddles governmental and private sectors. Bechtel constructed several of the large gold mines in the area. It manages the Nevada Test Site as well as the counter-terrorism facility that conducts nuclear, biological and chemical weapons construction and testing. Bechtel has the contract for high level nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, a site sacred to the Western Shoshone. All this happens on Western Shoshone lands, a most valuable piece of real state and resource base that provides some two-thirds of all the gold produced in the U.S. Of course, no compensation accrues to the Native people whose lands and properties have been thus confiscated.
The Dann sisters' case recently won a victory at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which found the Indian Claims Commission process that justifies the taking of their lands as "illegitimate." We agree with this decision, and applaud any and all efforts to gain justice for the Western Shoshone Indian people. We urge the media to witness the cattle and horse raids, where good reporting and video documentation is entirely necessary. There has been enough stealing from Indians. From confiscated lands and properties that are worth so much, political and economic justice must prevail.
Whether accepted by none, or one, or all Western Shoshones, who have a right to a proper referendum process and a proper negotiation over their political and economic rights, the manner of this imposition remains an example of America at its worst.