ELKO, Nev. ? Another push to extinguish Western Shoshone land claims in Nevada emerged May 4 when Te-Moak Tribal Chairman Felix Ike introduced a new ballot that would provide a cash distribution of more than $138 million to tribal members. The hastily called meeting was attended by about 120 people.
Ike said he went to Washington and worked with Sen. Harry Reid's office to design a new ballot and time-frame for distributing a monetary settlement that would give some 6,500 eligible people payments of about $20,000 each.
His proposal, however, was met with hostility by many of those who attended the meeting, in part because Ike did not consult with members of the Te-Moak Tribal Council, which is comprised of leadership from Battle Mountain, Wells, South Fork and Elko bands of Western Shoshone. They said they did not authorize Ike to develop a ballot and had no idea he was doing so.
One opponent characterized the new ballot as a "shameful attempt by a legislator to bypass tribal governments and the National Council" by creating a process that did not come from the people.
One key criticism centered on agreements made by tribal leaders in a March 21 meeting with Sen. Reid, D-Nev., following the cancellation of a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing in Washington at which the Western Shoshone distribution settlement was scheduled to be heard.
The hearing was abruptly cancelled after Reid said other members of the committee had questions about the wording of the original ballot used to determine that Western Shoshone people wanted a monetary settlement in exchange for land.
Hundreds of Western Shoshone people oppose any settlement that would accept money as payment for millions of acres of land in Nevada still claimed by the tribes under the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
Many favor being paid for damages but insist that they must receive a fair portion of their ancestral lands as part of any settlement.
At the March 21 meeting with Reid's staff, the chairpersons of the South Fork, Elko, Wells and Battle Mountain bands and the chief of the Western Shoshone National Council expressly refused to accept money for land and instead proposed a commitment to work with all Western Shoshone communities to develop a proposal that would secure permanent land bases for the bands.
The majority of those who spoke at the meeting with Reid's staff said they had no interest in a distribution of funds if it would jeopardize Western Shoshone land and treaty rights. Ike was the only person who spoke solely in favor of receiving the money, said one person who attended the meeting.
In a May 1 letter to Ike, Reid suggested that he include a "fact sheet" with the new ballot that included the following statement:
"The United States Supreme Court has ruled that claims to tribal aboriginal land title were extinguished upon the payment into the U.S. Treasury of judgment funds awarded under Docket Numbers 326K, 326-A-1, and 326-A-3 by the Indian Claims Commission. Accordingly, the distribution of these funds neither revives any extinguished claims nor extinguishes any existing or future claims against the United States government."
The problem with the statement, according to legal experts who oppose the settlement, is that acceptance of an ICC "award" extinguishes land rights. Any language that encourages Western Shoshone people to believe that they can accept the claims "award" without prejudicing their efforts to enforce the terms of 1863 treaty is patently false, said Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute.
While the Supreme Court in 1985 ruled in United States v. Dann that the claims award itself prevents the Western Shoshone from defending their territorial title in court, it never dealt with the question of title.
"There have been 15 court decisions on this, and federal district and appeals courts have decided several times that we still hold title to our territory. The Claims Commission never litigated the issue of title," said Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council. "We continue to reject the monetary award because we will never accept an award for a taking that never occurred."
According to an Indian Claims Commission finding in 1962, the land was taken by "gradual encroachment of whites, settlers and others." No actual date of taking could be established, nor was the ICC was unable to identify the number or acres or specific areas where U.S. citizens encroached. Yet the ICC's decision was used to ratify a presumption that a "taking" had somehow occurred.
Speaking to the crowd in Elko, Carrie Dann called the gradual encroachment argument "a racist tactic that was only used against Indian people. I call that fraud. America committed fraud against us."
Nancy Stewart of Fallon was among those who favor a monetary settlement. She has worked on a small steering committee that developed the first ballot with Reid and said she was weary of arguments for land.
"People that are holding out for land are kidding themselves," she said. "The Supreme Court said that Shoshone people have been paid. It would be nice if people could work toward one goal, but unfortunately many Shoshone are beginning to feel used."
Under Ike's proposed schedule, a vote on the new ballot could come as early as this June. The ballot asks for yes or no votes on a cash distribution of the $138 million and whether the money should go to people who are one-fourth Western Shoshone or more.
Some people at the meeting questioned Ike's leadership post pending a May 29 hearing in federal district court over an election dispute two years ago. Elwood Mose won the election, but a tribal court later overturned it. The May 29 hearing will examine evidence on whether the tribal court had the right to overturn the election.
Kyle Prior of Duck Valley said the issue needs to be resolved and urged people to vote on the new ballot.
Another man in the audience, whose name was not recorded, summed up the feelings of those who favor a cash distribution. "Maybe $20,000 might not buy land, but at least it will buy something. It's time for people to vote."