Recently published photos of Iraqis being abused, by an undetermined number
of American GI's, has created an international furor. A U.S. army report
prepared by Major General Antonio Taguba, refers to the "horrific"
treatment of Iraqi men and women in U.S. military prisons in Iraq, most
notoriously at Abu Ghraib.
Even U.S. senators, known for being quite measured in their word choices,
are using words such as "disaster" to describe the long-term effect this
raging controversy is likely to have on the world's perception of the
United States. A May 5, New York Times editorial wrote, "the most enduring
image of the occupation [of Iraq] may be those pictures of grinning
American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners."
President Bush, appearing on Arab language television, referred to the
treatment of Iraqi prisoners as "abhorrent." "This is a free country," said
"We do not tolerate this kind of abuses." [sic] The U.S. president further
said that the people of Iraq "must understand what took place in that
prison does not represent the America that I know."
U.S. officials understandably view the United States as a model
civilization founded and built on an honorable system of morality.
According to this point of view, the United States knows the difference
between right and wrong, and behaves righteously the vast majority of the
However, this view of the United States only holds up if the history of the
U.S.'s treatment of American Indians is given no place on the scale used to
measure America's morality. One has only to think of the roughly 4,000
Cherokees who died on the thousand-mile forced march at American bayonet
point along the Trail of Tears, or the photographs of Lakota ancestors
murdered by the U.S. Army at the Wounded Knee Massacre, or the systematic
slaughter of Native people in California in the mid to late 19th century to
realize that, in terms of the U.S.'s treatment of Native nations, U.S.
"morality" is not self-evident. Indeed, how does this history match up with
President Bush's recent statement, "America is a compassionate country"?
Can a country that has been erected on more than two centuries of land
thefts, and the forced removal of indigenous nations from their ancestral
homelands, as well as an effort to destroy our respective languages and
spiritual traditions, truly be a country erected on moral values and
political values such as "freedom" and "justice?"
Given the lightning storm of controversy over events in Iraq, perhaps
Congress will now make a concerted effort to demonstrate a willingness to
treat American Indians on the basis of the moral values being so earnestly
espoused by American officials.
This brings me to my central reason for writing this column. The United
States Congress is now facing yet one more opportunity to "do the right
thing" toward a specific Indian nation by refusing to pass "the Western
Shoshone Claims Distribution Act," H.R. 884. (sponsored by Congressman Jim
Gibbons of Nevada and Senators Reid and Ensign of Nevada).
June 18, 2003, the House of Representatives Committee on Resources held a
hearing on the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act. At that hearing,
the Interior Department told the Committee that a majority of Western
Shoshones favor a distribution of the "judgment funds" in Docket 326-K,
which, with interest, now amounts to well over $140 million.
After Interior's testimony, Congressman Tom Udall of New Mexico requested
that Interior provide "for the record" specific documentation to
substantiate Interior's claim that a majority of the Western Shoshone
support the distribution bill. Nearly a year later Interior has still not
provided the Resources Committee with any documentation to back its 2003
When Western Shoshone representatives recently traveled to Washington, D.C.
they met on April 28 with the staff of Congressman Jim Gibbons, an original
sponsor of the Western Shoshone legislation. When Gibbons' staff person was
asked whether the Interior Department has provided the documentation
requested by Congressman Udall in June 2003, the staff person reportedly
became quite agitated.
By the strangest coincidence, on the very same day Western Shoshone
representatives met with Congressman Gibbons' staff, a letter was sent from
Gibbons' office to Congressman Richard Pombo, Chairman of the House
Resources Committee. In the letter, Gibbons said that he is now willing to
accept Senator Harry Reid's version of the Western Shoshone legislation, S.
618 (there were some minor differences between the H.R. 884 and S. 618 that
had to be reconciled before H.R. 884 could move).
Could it be that Congressman Gibbons is suddenly attempting to move his
bill forward because he became startled to see the Western Shoshones coming
together and presenting a unified front demanding to deal with the lands
rights of the Western Shoshone people? Gibbons response to this meeting was
to tell Rep. Pombo in the April 28 letter that H.R. 884 "is very important
to the Western Shoshone tribes in Nevada."
A land swindle involving millions of acres, is about to take place if
Congressman Gibbons and Senator Reid have their way. This is a repeat of
that demonstration of "American moral values" known as the period of Indian
Removal. In this modern effort at Indian removal, $26 billion in gold has
already been taken from Western Shoshone lands by some of the wealthiest
gold mining corporations in the world, and the Western Shoshone
Distribution bill would pay the Western Shoshones an average of a mere 15
cents an acre.
Perhaps some will find it strange, almost disrespectful for me to begin
this column by referring to the "horrific" torture of Iraqi prisoners by a
number of U.S. service people, and to then segue into a discussion of
proposed Western Shoshone legislation. Some may think that there is no
comparison between the two situations. However, it is the system of
morality professed by the United States that bridges both situations.
Based on news reports, one of the most telling assessments of the United
States on the Arab street is "hypocritical." "America" is seen as
professing or pledging one thing and doing the exact opposite. The Western
Shoshone case provides the U.S. with a clear choice to act with integrity
or to be hypocritical by refusing to uphold the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.
If the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act reaches President Bush's
desk, he must ultimately face a moral choice and a moment of truth with
regard to Western Shoshone lands rights. It seems to me that President Bush
ought to be willing to apply to the Western Shoshone Nation the very same
moral and political values he has expressed with regard to Iraq.
Question: Will Bush decide to act with integrity by upholding a duly
ratified treaty of peace and friendship between the U.S. and the Western
Shoshone Nation, a treaty the U.S. Constitution defines as the supreme law
of the land, or will he decide instead to sign the Western Shoshone Claims
Distribution Act into U.S. law and thereby back the members of Congress
aligned with powerful multi-national mining corporations who are forcefully
pushing the bill?
President Bush said on Arab language television, "We believe the people of
Iraq want to be free." One can only hope that both Congress and President
Bush realize that the Treaty of Ruby Valley guarantees the Western Shoshone
people the right to be free in their own homeland just as the Iraqi people
have the right to be free in theirs. The path to a just and meaningful
solution to the struggle between the Western Shoshone Nation and the United
States is negotiations based on the Treaty of Ruby Valley.