ELKO, Nev. - Senator Henry Reid, D-Nev., has introduced controversial legislation that would pay tribal members of several bands of Western Shoshone in Nevada more than $121 million for long-standing claims against the federal government.
The funds were allocated in 1979 and have been sitting in trust awaiting disbursement.
The measure introduced June 27 pitted many tribal members against their own governments.
Four Western Shoshone tribal governments - the Ely, Yomba, Duckwater and Te-Moak - in Nevada oppose the legislation because they want to make sure that tribal claims against the United States are not waived by accepting the $121 million. They fear it could be a buyout of federal responsibility.
A non-profit, grass-roots organization called the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee supports the legislation and says it does not endanger other tribal claims regarding such things as land, grazing, hunting and fishing claims.
Both sides agree to the basic issues. Tribal governments say they want the funds disbursed, albeit on their terms. The committee says it also wants to safeguard all tribal claims.
"They (the tribal councils) have confused things. We support land, grazing, hunting and fishing claims. What we're saying is not to confuse the two issues. I mean that they're separate things. Let's get the money to the people," says Larry Piffero, co-director of the committee.
What Piffero and his co-director, Nancy Stewart, did after forming the claims committee was to go out and drum up support for disbursement at tribal community meetings.
"The problem is that the tribal governments have been dragging their feet. Every time that we think that we've worked something out with them (tribal governments), all of a sudden there's a new tribal government that's taken their place and they have a bunch of new objections. We just got tired of it and decided to see if we could do it ourselves," says Piffero.
Traveling throughout Nevada, they managed to put it to a referendum vote with 1,230 people voting in favor of disbursement and 53 opposing it.
Arthur Kaamasee, chairman of the Ely Band of Western Shoshone, says the people who voted in the referendum comprise slightly less than one-fourth of the total tribal members who would be affected and he says the vote was in no way legally binding.
"Our problem with Sen. Reid's proposal is that there's no land language. We feel that it doesn't adequately address the Western Shoshone's land claims," Kaamasee says.
He also says the BIA presented them with the payment as a take it or leave it deal. "We told them that we needed more time to make sure that everything was properly addressed. The next thing we know is that Sen. Reid has introduced this legislation."
Kaamasee points out that his tribe has only 111 acres and needs more space to properly develop tribal economics. He says the Shoshone have claims to what amounts to two-thirds of the state of Nevada and wants to make sure that nothing jeopardizes that.
"The BIA had a mother-knows-best mentality regarding disbursement," says Kevin Brady, chairman of the Yomba Shoshone. "We told them that we wanted to do it themselves."
Brady said he feels tribal members should realize the tribal governments are representatives of the tribal people themselves and should trust them to safeguard their rights.
"We want to make sure that it's clear that this money is for damages done to Shoshone people not as some sort of land compensation," says Brady.
David Cherry, a spokesman for Sen. Reid, says the money has been sitting in three trust funds for more than 20 years and that $1.5 million has been earmarked as a grant for, among other programs, tribal education.
Cherry also furnished the text of the legislation. The section regarding waiver of treaty rights is as follows: "Receipt of a share of the judgment funds under this section shall not be construed as a waiver of any existing treaty rights pursuant to the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley inclusive of all Articles I through VIII and shall not prevent any Western Shoshone Tribe or Band or individual Shoshone Indian from pursuing other rights guaranteed by law."
Kaamasee says he understands what the bill says, but believes the language is too ambiguous. "They want us to take the money first but we're saying let's deal with the land issue. We want to make sure that they don't use the payment as leverage against us. They have in the past."
Stewart says she would like to see land included in the bill, but says the Shoshone people have waited too long for disbursement. She says tribal traditionalists have fallen on both sides of the issue. "Some say that it's over and it's time to take compensation. Others see it as selling the land and say that we can't do that."
Both sides acknowledge this fight has been relatively civil for Indian country. Representatives for both sides say they can understand the point of view of their respective opposition and both say tensions have increased recently over the issue as a result of frustration in resolving it.
"All the Shoshone people have been caught in the middle. I just want this thing settled to everyone's satisfaction. We think that it will," Stewart says.
"If they just put the land language in the bill, we'd all be in agreement," Kaamasee says.
Both sides say they are planning their next steps in regard to the legislation. For the time being, the tribal governments say that they will continue to oppose the measure and the claims committee says it will continue to support it.