SOUTH FORK, Nev. ? Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council is asking the Senate to look into numerous irregularities surrounding the controversial May 24 confiscation and sale of more than 160 cattle by the Bureau of Land Management that cost him and fellow rancher Myron Tybo more than $100,000.
In a pre-dawn round-up on Memorial Day weekend, BLM agents seized stock bearing the TeMoak Shoshone Livestock Association brand and trucked them across Northern Nevada where they were held near Reno and sold on an internet auction seven days later for $24,444.
In recent letters to members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., Yowell said BLM actions were linked to his rejection of a bill that could cost the Western Shoshone millions of acres of land.
S. 958, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, would divide an Indian Claims Commission Monetary Award worth $138 million among eligible tribal members, despite vocal opposition from five chairmen of the Western Shoshone bands.
"This matter has a direct bearing on S. 958 that Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., has introduced in the U.S. Senate," Yowell said. "We are requesting that an inquiry be made by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on this matter and that there be no forward movement on S. 958 until the illegal seizure, illegal impoundment and illegal sale of our cattle by the BLM is totally investigated."
The rejection of the Indian Claims Commission Monetary Award is the foundation for the decision by many Western Shoshone ranchers not to pay federal grazing fees to BLM, he said.
At the heart of the issue is the federal government's assertion that millions of acres of Western Shoshone land is now "public land" under the jurisdiction of BLM which requires ranchers to pay grazing fees.
For decades, Yowell and many other Western Shoshone leaders have rejected that claim and insisted that the federal government prove how it gained legal title to Shoshone land that under treaty still belongs to the tribe.
"Western Shoshone cattlemen stopped paying the BLM for our cattle that we graze on so-called 'public land' because we want documentation of how they took it," Yowell told the senators.
"We told BLM we were not going to pay grazing fees until they could prove how the United States legally acquired the territory of the Western Shoshone Nation. They can't do it because it still belongs to us. So we asked them to negotiate the matter."
Two negotiations eventually took place, once in the mid-1980s and again in the mid-90s, but both failed to answer the critical question of how Western Shoshone land was legally taken.
"The question remains unanswered to this day," Yowell said, "along with many other unresolved issues that are violating the rights of our people."
Human rights violations
A recent report by the Organization of American States has found human rights violations by the U.S. government against the Western Shoshone people, but the release of the OAS findings are being delayed by the Bush Administration, he said.
"We don't know the reason why they would be doing this," Yowell said. "This ruling by the OAS is another reason that our cattle should not have been impounded by the BLM."
It is customary for the OAS to share their findings with nation-states before the official document is made public. As a member of the OAS, the U.S. is legally bound to uphold the organization's human rights principles.
The OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights twice requested, in 1993 and in 1998, that the U.S. government stay its actions against the Western Shoshone pending an investigation. The requests were based on complaints that the U.S. had denied the Western Shoshone, and notably the sisters Carrie and Mary Dann, their collective cultural rights as indigenous peoples to use and occupy their ancestral lands.
"The U.S. has violated their rights to due process, to equal protection under the law and to own property," said Chris Sewell of the Western Shoshone Defense Project. "Western Shoshone people continue to hunt, graze livestock, raise families and gather traditional foods and medicines. They act as caretakers protecting the land for future generations.
"The U.S. is actively taking away the abilities of the Western Shoshone to continue this way of life. It denies the use of their lands, while at the same time permitting the degradation of these lands by multi-national mining corporations, the military and the nuclear industry."
Sewell compared the fines levied against Western Shoshone ranchers to the meager fines charged to mining companies. In 1992, he said, the Buckhorn Mine was fined only $2,000 for fuel spills while groundwater polluted with cyanide and acid mine drainage incurred no penalties.
"Nor was Oro Nevada Mining Company charged for a sump polluted by hydraulic oil, despite failing to report it," Sewell said. "Cortez Gold has repeatedly violated their water pollution permit, but was fined only $4,000 and that fee was waived when the company agreed to build a cattle guard and maintain a fence."
Yowell said after their cattle were confiscated, BLM gave them one week to pay outstanding back fees in order to save their stock from auction. He was told if the cattle were not sold, they would be destroyed.
"To this day, we have never received a bill from the BLM, but I heard on the TV news that we owned more than $2 million," he said.
Despite the efforts of U.S. Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., to urge the BLM state director to hold off on auctioning the cattle to allow due process for the Western Shoshone ranchers, BLM officials refused the request and sold the cattle.
Yowell questioned the BLM's practice of forging his name on the brand inspection certificate that was accepted by Nevada brand inspectors to certify that a sale was in compliance with Nevada law. Their actions were "a total violation of Nevada law," he said.