WASHINGTON - In the final hours before Congress adjourned, S. 958, the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, died on Nov. 14 after it failed to be included in legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives.
A day earlier, the Senate passed the bill. Its sponsor, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., cited ten-to-one support for the payout in a referendum of tribal members organized by his allies. But the bill and the referendum were protested by the majority of federally recognized Western Shoshone tribal governments and traditionalists.
Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., said the bill died in the rush by Congress to consider which bills to pass.
"The Western Shoshone bill got caught in the crossfire of end-of-session politics," said Gibbons, who promised to reintroduce the bill next year.
If passed, the bill would have distributed some $138 million to tribal members that has been held in trust by the Interior Department since 1979. The money, originally awarded by the Indian Claims Commission in the amount of $27 million, has accumulated interest over the years. The tribe has long refused to take the money for fear that it would void their land claims.
The $27 million was the 1872 value of the land that has since proven rich in mineral resources. The territory includes the Carlin Trend, a gold-mining region that has produced more than $20 billion in revenue since the early 1960s. The Western Shoshone have not received any of this revenue.
While some 1,600 of the 6,600 Western Shoshone have favored the distribution because it would provide payments of about $20,000 to each eligible member, five of the Western Shoshone tribal governments have passed resolutions opposing the distribution.
They fear accepting the judgment funds will jeopardize their ability to negotiate a fair land claims settlement with the federal government for the taking of their traditional lands that comprised more than 60 million acres in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California.
"We would like to achieve economic self-sufficiency, but we need an enhanced land base to do so," said Geoffrey Bryan, tribal administrator for the Yomba Shoshone, one of the bands of Western Shoshone.
"Currently, cattle ranching is the tribe's only economic venture on our land base of 4,600 acres. Because of Bureau of Land Management restrictions, only three families can graze their cattle on so-called federal land that is ancestral Shoshone land. That has really hindered our people's livelihood."
Bryan and the elected leadership of five tribal governments are calling for land talks with the federal government as a reasonable solution to the long-disputed land claim. They want the U.S. to honor government-to-government relations and make a legislative commitment to enter into land talks in the same manner the federal government did when it settled land claims with the Timbisha Shoshone in the 1990s.
On Nov. 14, Amnesty International, the largest human rights organization in the world, threw its support behind the Western Shoshone request for land negotiations.
In letters to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and Ambassador Roger Noriega of the Organization of American States, Amnesty International Executive Director William Schulz expressed concern that the human rights of the Western Shoshone were being violated.
Schulz pointed to a recent report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights which found that the U.S. violated international human rights laws by denying Western Shoshone elders Carrie and Mary Dann, as well as other tribal members, "their rights to equality before the law, to be free of discrimination, to a fair trial and to property."
Schulz also raised concerns about the repeated raids by BLM agents on herds owned by the elderly sisters. The BLM maintains that the cattle are over-grazing federally owned ranges, but the Danns and other traditionalists refuse to pay grazing fees for the use of lands they say were never ceded to the U.S. government.
Schulz said Amnesty International is concerned that "any payments by the federal government not be used to deny the Shoshone from further pursuing claims to the land and from redress for human rights violations committed against them."
Finally, Amnesty International - which boasts a membership of more than half a million members - called on the U.S. "to uphold U.S. law and international agreements by ensuring the respect for human rights of the Western Shoshone" and urged the U.S. to review its laws and practices to ensure the property rights of American Indians."
Likewise, at its recent annual meeting in San Diego, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) passed resolution SD-02-017 in support of Western Shoshone land talks. NCAI cited the U.S. for "engaging in activities which deny Western Shoshone continued occupation of their ancestral lands and threaten the survival of the Western Shoshone people, their culture, social fabric, economy and ecology."
The resolution urged the U.S. to conduct good faith negotiations with the Shoshone. It stood behind Western Shoshone leaders who have called upon the U.S. to address the land and resource rights in a legislative commitment to enter into land talks.
"We are becoming an endangered species," Bryan said of the Yomba Shoshone whose population has decreased by nearly eight percent in the last decade.
"What is happening to our people is an example of cultural genocide. The government is killing my people by stealing our land," he said. "If they steal our land, they have given us a death sentence because without an adequate land base, we cannot provide a livelihood for our people now, much less for our children yet to come."