WASHINGTON - The Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted Sept. 25 for a plan to distribute about $20,000 apiece to qualifying members of the Western Shoshone Tribe for federal seizures of their land dating to the 1860s.
The bulk of a $138 million fund would be released to those who are at least one-quarter Western Shoshone, under a bill introduced by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The tribal members -- numbering about 6,600 -- live mainly in Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah.
The bill by Reid, who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, now moves to the full Senate. Reid is hoping for Senate passage this year.
The legislation has been controversial because a minority of the tribe opposes it. The dissenters believe it thwarts their challenges to land rights.
Lawyers in the Western Shoshone Defense Project, representing the opponents of the payout, charged that the bill was part of drive to open the land to lucrative private gold mining. In a statement, they said it provided 15 cents an acre for land encompassing the Carlin gold trend, "with a mined value of $20 billion dollars and rising."
"The failure of Senator Reid to reasonably address the issue of land rights is especially questionable in light of another bill he has sponsored, Senate Bill 719, the Northern Nevada Public Lands Management Act," said the statement. "That bill would open up all 'public lands' in Nevada (approximately 87 percent of the state) to privatization and sale to the highest bidder ? multinational corporations have already begun exploration activities."
Among opponents of the payout are Western Shoshone ranchers Carrie and Mary Dann, who contend the tribe still owns the land under terms of the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. In a massive raid starting Sept. 21, agents for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seized 227 head of their cattle grazing on what the BLM contends is public land and the Dann sisters maintain is unceded tribal territory.
The treaty between the Western Shoshone and the United States resulted in the U.S. taking 23.6 million acres of land from the tribes. Tribal leaders have argued that the treaty simply granted the United States limited access to the land and didn't cede it to the federal government.
But the majority of the Shoshone are said to favor receiving the payments. In June, tribal members voted in support of the plan by an 8-1 margin.
Reid argues that a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and an Indian Claims Commission settlement in 1979 make it clear the Western Shoshone no longer have land claims, and the time has come to make the payments.
The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii. Vice Chairman is Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo. In addition to Harry Reid from Nevada, other Democrats on the Committee include Senators Kent Conrad, N.D.; Daniel K. Akaka, Hawaii; Paul Wellstone, Minn.; Byron L. Dorgan, N.D.; Tim Johnson, S.D.; and Maria Cantwell, Wash. Republicans include Frank H. Murkowski, Alaska; John McCain, Ariz.; Pete V. Domenici, N.M.; Craig Thomas, Wyo.; Orrin G. Hatch, Utah.; and James Inhofe, Okla.
No Senator objected.
(Staff and Associated Press reports.)