Fundamental questions remain on Western Shoshone Distribution Bill

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WASHINGTON - Testimony was heard before the House Resources Committee, June 18, over the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, H.R. 884. The next step is a vote of the full committee and if passed, the bill would go to the floor of the House for a vote.

The bill will allow distribution of federal funds to Western Shoshone tribal members for land claims in Nevada.

However, serious questions remain about the legitimacy of the process that seeks to dispossess the Western Shoshone from their ancestral lands.

A long-standing issue, the judgement funds stem from two claims filed by the Te-Moak Bands of Western Shoshone in the Indian Claims Commission in 1951. One, an aboriginal land claim, concluded in 1979 for $26.1 million. The other, an accounting claim, resulted in two awards. The first, for approximately $823,000 had funds appropriated by Congress in 1992. The second award, for $29,000 had funds appropriated in 1995.

These are the disputed funds according to Michael D. Olsen, counselor to the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs for the Department of the Interior. He testified that since 1980 numerous attempts have been made to reach agreement on the disposition of these funds.

Olsen said his office supports the bill because it reflects the wishes of the vast majority of the Western Shoshone people.

"We are also pleased that three of the four successor tribes have expressed their support of the distribution, as well as two other tribes with a significant number of tribal members of Western Shoshone descent," said Olsen.

Felix Ike, chairman of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada, testified that the over 2,500 enrolled members, which is more than 65 percent of the nearly 3,700 identified people who are 1/4 or more Western Shoshone blood, voted overwhelmingly in favor of distribution of trust funds. Te-Moak, its four bands, and the other federally recognized tribes at Duckwater, Ely, Yomba and Duckvalley all have legitimately elected and recognized councils.

Ike said the funds will be used to support economic development.

"It is our understanding that this legislation is to compensate the Western Shoshone for past wrongs and will, in no way, diminish the United States government's obligation to continue to provide services as needed for the health and well-being of our people," he said.

However, Ike's testimony was not authorized by his own Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, whose council stated in a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives, date June 13, 2003, that the Chairman had been directed "to not have any discussion regarding the Claims issue without the consent of the Tribal Council." The Te-Moak Constitution prohibits the Tribal Chairperson from obligating the tribe without the prior written consent of the Tribal Council.

Laura L. Piffero, lead co-chairman for the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Steering Committee presented testimony also in favor of the bill and talked about the good the bad and the ugliness of the issues surrounding the claims.

"The Shoshone's view the claims award as an apology of substance offered by the United States via the U.S. Indian Claims Commission established after the injustices to the American Indian became more widely known to principled contemporary politicians following World War I. The Shoshones enthusiastically filed their case for the wrongs done in 1951."

Many Western Shoshone believe the settlement of the long-standing dispute for per capita payments serves as cover for an illegitimate process aimed at removing them from their far more valuable land and resources.

Raymond Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone National Council spoke against the bill saying his people reject the monetary award.

"By what U.S. law did the United States acquire the Territory of the Western Shoshone Nation," Yowell asked.

"Today, 23 years later, the United States has not answered the question put to it by the Western Shoshone," he continued, explaining that his people have been withholding grazing fees as there has always been a problem with U.S. claims of ownership to the Territory of the Western Shoshone Nation.