Last stand for Western Shoshone; it might look legal, but it stinks


At Shoshone, they called it cattle theft. That's last week's description, after a massive, gun-toting raid by federal authorities to confiscate Indian cattle. This week's Senate version of the same issue is more clearly land theft. Just days after the raid by Bureau of Land Management agents intended to destroy the economic life of Western Shoshone horse and cattle ranchers, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved the distribution of money-for-land-title payments to Western Shoshone tribal members. The distribution plan, now slated to become law, effectively destroys the Shoshone claim to their aboriginal lands under the Treaty of Ruby Valley.

In an effort to continue a process that has otherwise been thoroughly discredited by any and all accurate historical accountings, the U.S. government has moved mightily to conclude, in the 21st Century, a massive land swindle that has been some 140 years in the making. The federal government has a growing number of people deeply troubled by its actions in this case. And they should be troubled. Among the affected, a large minority of the tribe, including the Dann sisters, a pair of grandmother-ranchers who have tenaciously upheld the assertion that their people never gave up title to their aboriginal lands. The U.S. asserts it that it seized the land by encroachment starting as early as the 1860s.

Under the bill introduced by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., those who are at least one-quarter Shoshone from around 6,600 tribal members living mainly in Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah would share the bulk of a $138 million fund. The bill now moves to the full Senate. Reid, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, is expecting Senate passage this year.

This massive land swindle has the appearance of legality, but it still stinks. In particular, there is no just cause for what Interior Secretary Gale Norton's Bureau of Land Management agents and enforcers are doing to the Dann sisters, Carrie and Mary, and other Western Shoshone ranchers. Its an outright shame that legitimate Indian farmers, Western Shoshone grandmothers in this case, have to undergo SWAT-type raids from the federal government, for living and working on their ancestral lands. With guns at the ready, under cover of darkness and with roads blocked, the 40-agent federal attack came, and over two hundred head of prime, locally-adapted cattle were confiscated, hauled away to be auctioned in penalty for fines.

The issue is of long-standing. Shoshone ranchers and many other ranchers have traditionally used the vast Nevada rangeland to feed their beef cattle. In the case of the Shoshones, traditional elders rely on the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which they claim did not relinquish title to their homelands. While the government claims the Shoshone lost title because of "gradual encroachment," even today, as Carrie Dann points out, "If they took it by gradual encroachment, where are all those people who encroached?" Of her Nevada homeland she says, "The only people living out here are Indians."

As reported by Indian Country Today Southwest Bureau Chief, Valerie Taliman in this edition, the Danns and other Shoshone ranchers pasture their cattle on the contested ranges, for which they are fined exorbitantly by the Bureau of Land Management, with the intent of breaking them financially. The raids are mounted to enforce the heavy penalties. The Dann sisters and Western Shoshone traditionalists maintain that their tribe never legally ceded their rangelands. For this perspective, which has much legal precedent and a supportive international ruling, they are treated like criminals. The federal raids are clearly aimed at causing demoralization and economic damage to the more politically astute traditional families.

Coming just days before the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee "marked up" Reid's bill to finally extinguish Western Shoshone territory, the raid stoked the sense in Indian country that federal agencies are once again playing in-your-face hardball, rather than searching for some other type of compromise over very deeply disputed Indian country lands.

As Taliman reports, a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, of which the U.S. is a member, found that the United States is violating the human and civil rights of Western Shoshone people. The report accused the U.S. of using illegitimate means to claim ownership and control of Western Shoshone land and resources. The OAS Commission recommended a remedy that will respect the Western Shoshone's rights to the land. This interesting development is a good reminder that federal Indian policy can be scrutinized by international bodies ? even though it remains to be seen whether the United States will respect the OAS report.

Nevertheless, the long-standing issue comes to a head as Interior ponders the privatization of huge sectors of rangeland. Extinguishment of Shoshone land ownership has been very high on the agenda and lawyers representing Western Shoshone opponents of the payout point out that Reid's bill is part of a drive to open the land to lucrative private gold mining. In a statement, they said it provided 15 cents an acre for land encompassing the Carlin gold trend, "with a mined value of $20 billion dollars and rising."

The white ranchers, too, are feeling the pinch of the BLM. The intensity of persecution against the Dann sisters at this moment has all the earmarks of an early sweep of the field. Consider that Nevada Senator Harry Reid has two bills in Congress. Senate bill 958 would pay off the Shoshones 15 cents an acre to "settle" their claim to the land. The other, S. 719, opens the land for privatization, selling the land to the highest bidders. Expectedly these will be for multi-national gold mining companies and other powerful interests. Indian Country Today will closely follow these developments.

The Nevada Live Stock Association, feeling the threat to their own lifestyles, also came out in defense of the Indian ranchers. Chairman David Holmgren and his wife, who were on the scene of the raid, called it, "unlawful siezures" and "cattle rustling" by the BLM. Holmgren stated on behalf of the state-wide association: "Grand larceny of the Dann cattle is being committed and the right to due process of law is a joke right now. We plan to stand against this threat to our liberty with the Western Shoshone people."

This is an eyewitness description of the attack provided by the Nevada Live Stock Association:

"The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) attacked the Dann Sisters from Crescent Valley, Nevada early Sunday morning September 22, 2002 in the Pine Valley area of Eureka County. They impounded an unknown amount of cattle (BLM estimates of 200 head), with the help of Greg Cook of Vernal, Utah, and his hired rustlers as well as from 50 to 100 BLM and federal personnel.

"Helicopters and surveillance airplanes roamed the skies. The BLM deployed and established a lock down of a great portion of Eureka County with armed quasi-militarized BLM enforcement officers as well as other federal agents. All access by roads, including the road from Carlin, Nevada and county access roads were blocked by BLM with assistance, on state highways, from the Nevada Highway Patrol.

"BLM set up the evening before the attack in Pine Valley. A large base camp with helipad, command post trailers, up to 100 personnel, the majority of which were armed. Various types of weaponry, camouflage, military paraphernalia, night vision scopes, flack vests, as well a some special operations type personnel. Manned four-wheel drive pickups and special camo-green ATV?s were deployed through out the area."

No, this wasn't Afghanistan. This was Western Shoshone Territory, within Nevada.

The national media needs to take a good look at this crisis. It is a classic case of land-dispossession and business corruption under the guise of old mining laws and one of the most egregious sleight-of-hand Supreme Court decisions in history. Callous and heavy-handed federal bureaucratic injustice now adds the weight of post 9-11 law enforcement against regular ranching people. It is urgent that the Interior Secretary forcefully review this dangerous policy of conducting para-military raids of enforced cattle rustling against productive and peaceful Indian families who are only trying to reclaim their proper land rights and to sustain a way of life.

To be fair, a majority of Western Shoshones did vote to accept the money-for-land-rights offer, but clearly out of economic desperation and necessity, a position to which they were pushed and cajoled by the U.S. even after a century of staunch assertion of continued possession of their lands. History will properly judge this powerful country for this unjust deed. The truth of the Shoshone claim is self-evident, even if their power has been curtailed by historical forces. Again, in 2002, and as always with Indian property, the land dispossession is being made legal, but it still stinks.