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Newcomb: An open letter to Congressman Tom Delay

Dear House Majority Leader Delay,

Reportedly, when Congress reconvenes on Jan. 20, you will be involved in handling H.R. 884, otherwise known as "The Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act." If passed, the bill would pay out over $142 million dollars to Western Shoshone Indians as supposed payment for their ancestral homelands. I am writing you this open letter in an effort to persuade you to withdraw your support for this bill, and not allow it to pass.

Whenever one writes a persuasive letter such as this one, it is, of course, imperative to know one's audience. Thus, I am placed in the predicament of attempting to surmise what your core values are, in my effort to persuade you to support the traditional Western Shoshone Indians who do not want this bill to pass. They are opposed to passage of H.R. 884 because a distribution of the judgment funds will, in their view, create the wrongful impression that their land rights have thereby been eliminated.

But how am I to discern what will appeal to your values with regard to the Western Shoshone? Am I best advised to appeal to a sense of fairness, and to the Treaty of Ruby Valley that the Western Shoshone have with the United States, and appeal to its status under the Treaty Clause of the U.S. Constitution? This treaty of "peace and friendship" defines the territory of the Western Shoshone Nation, which the Western Shoshone people have never freely consented to surrender to the United States. Is this something that will appeal to your values of liberty, justice, democracy, basic fairness, and other American values?

Am I well advised to refer to the Nevada Territorial Act, passed by Congress in 1861, a document that specifically stated that "all Indian land" is "excepted out of and shall constitute no part of the Territory of Nevada?" Thus, the Western Shoshone lands described in the Treaty of Ruby Valley were "excepted out of" the Territory of Nevada, and have never to this day become part of the lands of the State of Nevada. Is this the kind of information that is likely to convince you to support the traditional Western Shoshone by not allowing H.R. 884 to move forward?

Should I appeal to the way in which H.R. 884, when combined with Congressman Gibbons' "Northern Nevada Rural Economic Development and Land Consolidation Act of 2003" (H.R. 2869), would work to give away Western Shoshone lands to major mining interests such as Placer Dome Mining? Should I try to convince you that it is morally wrong for $26 billion dollars to have been taken out of Western Shoshone lands without one penny of that money having gone to the Western Shoshone people, and for Senator Harry Reid to say that the distribution bill is his effort to solve Western Shoshone poverty?

Perhaps I should appeal to your good judgement by referring you to the Northwest Ordinance, passed by the Continental Congress in 1787, and reaffirmed by the first Congress under the current Constitution as the basis for Indian relations. Would I appeal to your core values by informing you of how Congress pledged in this document that "the utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians," and "their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent;" and that "in their property rights and liberty, they shall never invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars declared by Congress?"

Unfortunately, Congressman, I have no way of knowing what kind of information and what kinds of arguments are most likely to appeal to you. Thus, I am, in a sense, writing in the dark, so to speak.

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Perhaps you will be persuaded by the fact that former Te-Moak Chairman Felix Ike and a few supporters orchestrated a "ballot" process, in partnership with Senator Harry Reid, in order to create a false perception that a majority of Western Shoshone desire passage of H.R. 884. No one other than Ike and a few of his friends and relatives have ever been allowed to see and count those ballots; there was never any independent confirmation of the numbers that Ike reported to Congressman Gibbons, Senator Harry Reid, and the Department of the Interior; and no one, other than perhaps Ike, knows where those ballots are at present. If a "vast majority" of Western Shoshones approved of and supported Ike's actions, why were he and his closest supporters voted out of office last fall?

When Congress formed the Indian Claims Commission in 1946, it did so in order to provide American Indians with a forum for filing claims against the United States for lands wrongfully taken from them by the United States. Upon signing the legislation that formed the ICC, President Truman declared that the Commission was an effort to deal with Indian people in a "fair and honorable" manner. Unfortunately, passage of H.R. 884 would serve the opposite purpose by taking an unfair and dishonorable action against the Western Shoshone Nation because there is no historical documentation to show that their lands were ever taken, and there is a treaty declaring their land rights to be protected and upheld.

Congressman Delay, when I look back on the reprehensible manner in which the United States has historically dealt with American Indian nations and peoples (think "Trail of Tears," the Sand Creek Massacre, and the Wounded Knee Massacre), I have to ask myself, what values do the United States truly represent? How can the United States be considered a great country in the eyes of the world community if it continually and without equivocation takes the lands and resources of Indian nations, in violation of solemn treaties which the U.S. Constitution declares to be "the supreme law of the land," and behaves toward Indian peoples in an unjust manner?

Negotiations between the Western Shoshone and the United States of America on the basis of the Treaty of Ruby Valley is the fair and just means of working out an equitable solution to the land dispute between the two nations. The question is, will you decide to support this course of action by refusing to allow H.R. 884 to move forward in the House of Representatives?

Congressman Delay, I hereby appeal to your sense of compassion, and ask you to show true leadership by refusing to go along with the powerful interests that are attempting to ride roughshod over the traditional Western Shoshone people and thereby violate and dishonor a treaty duly ratified by the Senate of the United States.


Steven Newcomb

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Law research coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan, on the Reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.