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Newcomb: Senator Reid and the Western Shoshone Indians

Harry Reid is one of the nation's wealthiest and most powerful senators. A Los Angeles Times story that ran this past summer revealed that his four attorney sons, and attorney son in-law, have tremendous pull in Washington and with virtually every major industry in the state of Nevada. Over the past two years, they have earned some $2 million dollars in consulting fees from many wealthy and powerful interests.

The extent of Senator Reid's clout is certainly not news to the Western Shoshone Indians of the Great Basin, located in what is now referred to as Nevada.

Nevada senators Reid and Ensign, along with Congressman Jim Gibbons in the House are now working intensively to pass legislation in Congress to distribute the funds in "Docket 326-K" of the Indian Claims Commission. The traditional Shoshones say that the legislation constitutes a "land grab." Reid says that he's trying to do something about Western Shoshone "poverty," while refusing to make the connection between that "poverty" and the U.S.'s refusal to recognize their land rights. Of those Western Shoshone opponents of his bill, Reid said this summer that it's not "fair" for a group of Shoshone "dissidents" to hold up his bill.

The traditional Western Shoshones contend that Senator Reid is attempting to remove any Indian title-cloud from their homelands so that he can privatize those lands for wealthy real estate developers and mining companies, and so vast Shoshone water resources can also be privatized.

For some time now, traditional Western Shoshones and their supporters have been wondering why Senator Reid and his congressional colleagues are working so hard to distribute the funds in Docket 326-K, rather than allow for a negotiated settlement of the Western Shoshone land dispute. The recent revelation about the ties that Senator Reid's family has to powerful mining interests and real estate developers has provided insight into what may lie behind such a powerful congressional effort to quiet Western Shoshone land rights.

Reid's son Rory and son-in-law Steven Barringer, for example, are lobbyists for the Placer Dome mining company, which owns the Cortez mine situated in Crescent Valley, home of the Dann Family and other traditional Western Shoshones. Just recently, Placer Dome doubled its estimates of the amount of gold deposits that will be extracted from Western Shoshone lands.

Here are some basic facts about the Western Shoshone case. In 1863, the ancestors of today's Western Shoshones entered into the Treaty of Ruby Valley with the United States. The most traditional among them still consider the treaty to recognize and uphold their land rights, and point out that they have never consented to give up their lands.

In 1946, the United States established the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) to investigate all Indian land claims. In 1951, a law firm encouraged an "identifiable group" of Western Shoshones to file a claim with the commission against the United States.

However, when the commission investigated the Western Shoshone case, it found no evidence that the Western Shoshones had ever been deprived of their lands. Ignoring the lack of evidence, the Commission issued a "finding of facts," saying that the Western Shoshone lands had been "taken" by a process of "gradual encroachment."

Realizing that a lack of evidence made it impossible to identify precise historical activities and dates of any land "takings," the non-Indian attorneys for both sides hit upon a solution. They would simply agree, without Western Shoshone involvement or consent, to value the lands in question as of July 1, 1872, a date that one court later referred to as "magical."

Interestingly, this agreement was reached in October of 1966, apparently just one year after the Carlin gold trend was discovered inside the Western Shoshone treaty boundaries, a deposit from some 14 billions of dollars in gold have been removed.

The stipulated agreement was a win-win proposition for the attorneys, but a losing proposition for the traditional Shoshones. Once it had been officially entered into the record, it created the unfounded presumption that the federal government now owned Western Shoshone lands, while enabling the attorneys for the "identifiable group" of Western Shoshones walk away with 10 percent of whatever award the Commission made to the Indians.

In 1977 the Indian Claims Commission made an "award" of some $26 million for some 26 million acres of land and for a certain amount of mining between 1863 and 1872. In December 1979, the Court of Claims reported this "award" amount to the U.S. Treasury Department. The Secretary of the Interior accepted the money on behalf of the Western Shoshone "wards" of the government even though they refused it.

In 1985, the Supreme Court said that the Treasury Department's placement of the money into an account set up for the Western Shoshones constituted "payment" to the Western Shoshones. The monies have now accumulated with interest to some $142 million dollars.

In December 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found that the United States, through the Indian Claims Commission process, has violated the human rights of the Western Shoshone people. The United States rejected the report on all points.

When President Harry Truman signed the Indian Claims Commission Act into law in 1946, he said that he was doing so to demonstrate "fair and honorable dealings" toward the American Indian. In a press release issued when he signed the bill, Truman cited the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, which states in part, "The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed." The Western Shoshone legislation now before Congress is a direct contradiction of this congressional pledge.

U.S. treatment of the Western Shoshones has been neither fair nor honorable. But when it comes to Indians, it is a time-honored tradition in the United States for the government, the well heeled and the corporations to end up with land and resources worth billions, and for the Indians to end up with a pittance. With the amount of land and resources at stake, from which huge corporations stand to further profit, the Western Shoshone legislation sponsored by senators Reid and Ensign, and Congressman Jim Gibbons, is a 21st century version of trinkets and beads.

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.