Newcomb: Congressional hearing on Western Shoshone lands faces unresolved questions

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On June 18, 2003, the House Committee on Resources will hold a Hearing on H.R. 884, The Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, sponsored by Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons. The Committee has decided to allow only three Western Shoshones to testify: Te-Moak Chairman Felix Ike, Laura Piffero (whose recently deceased father Larry Piffero was a member of the self-styled Western Shoshone Steering Committee), and Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council.

Chairman Ike will no doubt make a lot of noise to the Committee members about the "referendum" vote that he, Mr. Piffero, Nancy Stewart, and their supporters orchestrated last June. It's pretty certain that Ike will try to present the ballot results as definitive proof that a majority of Western Shoshones want the funds (some $130 million) in Docket 326-K distributed.

There is no reason for us to expect Ike to reveal to the Committee certain details that would serve to undermine his own credibility and that of his "vote." It's unlikely that Ike will disclose to the Committee, for example, how the Te-Moak Tribal Council opposed his actions every step of the way. Nor is he likely to tell the Committee how he defiantly and arrogantly ignored repeated demands by the Te-Moak Tribal Council that he conduct himself in keeping with the terms of the Te-Moak Constitution that he is sworn to uphold.

Last November, I wrote a column describing how Chairman Ike had defied the Te-Moak Tribal Council by holding a vote on the distribution issue. I pointed out how the Te-Moak Tribal Council, and several of the Band Councils that comprise the Te-Moak Council, passed resolutions telling Ike to stop what he was doing, to slow down, to proceed only with Council approval, and to deal with the land issue. He refused to honor or respect these resolutions, and instead went ahead with his "vote." Ike even went so far as to refer to his vote as a "referendum" despite the fact that he refused to abide by the Te-Moak Constitutional format for a "referendum." Through his actions Ike violated the Te-Moak Constitution he is sworn to uphold.

As I was recently thinking about the dubious nature of last June's "vote," a number of questions occurred to me. For example, why do people like Felix Ike and Senator Harry Reid assume that the Western Shoshone people only have the right to vote at the very tail end of the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) process? In other words, have the Western Shoshone ever been allowed to vote on whether or not they would accept the ICC's "findings of fact" and "final determination" in the Western Shoshone case? No they haven't.

Have the Western Shohsone ever been allowed to vote on whether they would accept the Indian Claim Commission's decision, especially given their knowledge that the Commission did not produce one scrap of historical documentation to support its "finding" of a "taking" of Western Shoshone lands by "gradual encroachment?" No they haven't.

Were the Western Shoshone ever allowed to vote on whether or not to withdraw their case from the Indian Claims Commission process once they realized that that process was a trap that would create the illusion and the legal fiction that their lands had been "taken" from them? No they weren't. A non-Indian court was allowed to decide the matter for them, without their consent.

Were the Western Shoshone ever allowed to vote on whether or not to accept the stipulated agreement between the federal government attorneys and the attorney's for Wilkinson, Kragun, and Barker, whereby the attorneys agreed to the idea that Western Shoshone lands had been "taken" by "gradual encroachment" as of July 1, 1872? No they weren't. Non-Indian attorneys were allowed to decide that issue for them without their consent.

A stipulated agreement is made between opposing attorneys in a given case in order to save time and money. Rather than incur the time and expense of continuing their dispute, the attorneys come to a mutual understanding of certain "facts," even though in some cases these "facts" do not correspond to anything that ever happened in real life. This is certainly what happened in the Western Shoshone case.

And now, as a "legal matter," and from the point of view of the United States, all Western Shoshones are considered bound by a stipulated agreement that came out of the minds of non-Indian attorneys, without Western Shoshone consent, and without Western Shoshone involvement. Even those Western Shoshones who were never parties to the Indian Claims Commission process are considered bound by the results of that process, without any right to vote on the matter.

Have the Western Shoshones ever been allowed to vote on whether in their view the United States ought to honor and respect the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley? No they haven't.

In one sense, there was more than one Western Shoshone government vote on whether or not Chairman Ike ought to work with Senator Harry Reid to develop a ballot that would serve to get the funds in Docket 326-K distributed. The Te-Moak Tribal Council voted when they passed a number of resolutions explicitly telling Ike he was not authorized to work with Reid on the ballot and the vote.

The response to this vote, however, was all too predictable when Reid promptly ignored the results, but chose instead to legitimize Ike's "vote." Reid's involvement in the matter is particularly troublesome because it means that a United States Senator shamelessly engaged in unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of an Indian tribe by assisting one side over the other to violate the Te-Moak Constitution.

It is worthy of note that Reid did not help to develop a ballot that would gauge whether the Western Shoshone want their treaty and land rights upheld and protected. The reason is clear. Such a ballot would possibly lead to a result that wouldn't serve Reid's true goal: to remove once and for all the Western Shoshone title cloud from Western Shoshone lands. The Associated Press reported last week that Reid has Nevada land holdings and mining claims worth $786,000 to $1.67 million. Question: Are these land holdings and mining claims located in Western Shoshone country?

Above, I have cited many of the issues that the Western Shoshones have never been given the opportunity to vote on over the decades. Are we supposed to believe that the ICC process was "democratic" because a secretive group called the "Western Shoshone Steering Committee" was able to politically manipulate a "vote" last June, with the assistance of a powerful U.S. Senator?

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