NEWE SEGOBIA, Nev. - International opposition to Senate Bill 958, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, is growing in response to an appeal from Yomba Shoshone Chairman James W. Birchim to stop legislation sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., from being passed in the Senate.
The bill is now on the Senate floor and Reid is pushing for it to be passed by unanimous consent instead of by roll-call vote, a move opposed by five of the Western Shoshone tribes who have passed resolutions opposing the distribution.
Earlier this week, Chairman Birchim sent letters of appeal to tribal leaders throughout Indian country asking for their support in opposing the bill after the Senate Indian Affairs Committee allowed the bill to be favorably reported out of committee with no opposition.
"S. 958 is a bad bill," Birchim said. "It will distribute the entire judgment fund 100 percent per capita, leaving nothing of Western Shoshone ancestral heritage for our future. Senator Reid publicly stated that it S. 958 will finally resolve the Western Shoshone land claim issue, but the bill makes no mention of preserving our treaty rights.
"Nor does it provide for return of lands to the Shoshones or provide for any economic development funds to our tribal governments. Once the distribution is underway, the United States will tell the world that the Shoshones have been fully compensated, however dishonest that characterization may be."
Reid's bill intends to distribute some $138 million under the Western Shoshone Indian Claims Commission Judgment Fund by paying eligible tribal members about $20,000 each. The ICC judgment amount represents roughly 15 cents per acre for only 24 million acres, not the 60 million aces of ancestral lands that the Shoshone tribes documented in their claim.
Earlier this year, Reid and a small committee of Western Shoshone, who favor accepting the money, conducted a "straw poll" that asked tribal members from nine Western Shoshone bands if they wanted $20,000 payments from the ICC award.
Approximately 1,500 Western Shoshone voted in favor out of a total of 6,500 eligible voters, but the straw poll cannot be construed to be a legal referendum, according to Yomba tribal administrator Geoffrey Bryan, who noted serious flaws in the voting process in a Sept. 24 letter to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.
"Not all eligible voters were notified about this election or given the opportunity to vote," he said. "Only 23 percent of our people voted in favor, but Reid called this a majority. That's not true. The vote was not widely publicized and the poll only lasted for a few hours. Eligibility to vote was not certified and there were no independent monitors. Those in favor were the ones who certified the votes."
Bryan said the most troubling aspect of the straw poll is that it bypassed Western Shoshone tribal governments, five of whom passed resolutions opposing monetary distribution. Instead they want a negotiated settlement with the federal government that provides for "culturally and economically viable land bases for Western Shoshone people."
The majority of Shoshone leaders fear that the monetary judgment will forever take away their claim to ancestral homelands and leave them with inadequate land bases out of the millions of acres that would be taken. Currently, there are several small reservations comprising about 24,000 acres, mostly near mining towns.
"Where is respect for government-to-government relations?" Bryan asked. "All we are asking for is a reasonable solution to establish adequate homelands for our people. It's wrong to force money down our throats and ignore the rights of our tribal governments and people."
Fresh opposition is being fueled from tribal leaders across Indian country who say that if Congress can force the Western Shoshone to accept a land claim judgment, a dangerous precedent is being set for other tribes like the Sioux Nation who have refused to accept money for their claims to the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota.
Oglala Sioux President John Steele publicly denounced the actions of Sen. Reid last week in a radio commentary on KILI radio, which is broadcast throughout Lakota territory.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, President Steele said, "Senator Reid is using a small band of Western Shoshone nation to forcibly distribute their judgment monies from the Court of Claims.
There are a lot of other tribes in similar situations including the Sioux Nation.
"We have two dockets, 74a and 74b for claims to the Black Hills. If the Western Shoshone money can be forcibly distributed using small bands and an unofficial referendum, then this could happen to the Sioux Nation. I am going to be contacting Senators Campbell, Johnson and Inouye to voice a protest to get this stopped. It sets a very bad precedent."
The United States is once again ignoring the treaties, ignoring the rights of Indian people and unilaterally is trying to take Indian lands, he said.
"We are still fighting the same fight - it's about taking Indian land. Throughout history, they have passed their own legislation to satisfy Article Five of the Constitution that requires compensation for real property taken. But they are forgetting that other nations are watching the United States violate our human rights. Where are justice and democracy in all this?
The Oglala Sioux Tribe is going to fight to stop this injustice and we hope all the other Indian nations stand up and use whatever means possible to seek justice for our people."
Well-known native activist Winona LaDuke also is advocating against passage of the bill. She characterized it as a "classic David and Goliath battle" in which the United States is "shamelessly violating the human rights of the Dann sisters and all Western Shoshone by seizing their ancestral lands in return for a pittance in compensation."
LaDuke said thousands of native and human rights activists all over the world are watching the U.S. government's actions and pointed out the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the U.S. has violated the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man by denying the Western Shoshone their indigenous land and treaty rights.
Support is also coming from the National Congress of American Indians, the Inter-tribal Council of Nevada and several non-Indian organizations like the Nevada Livestock Association, Friends of First Nations and Amnesty International.
Jonathan Hurd of Friends of First Nations, based in Ogden, Utah, who was on the Dann ranch during the recent cattle confiscation said, "The U.S. government has been stealing native lands for over 200 years and the importance of this case is that they are not done yet. To see what our government is doing to these elders - and what the Senate and House are getting ready to do - breaks my heart. I hope and pray if we can let enough people around the world know about this national disgrace, we can stop it."
Carrie Dann said they appreciate and honor the people who are standing up in support of them, whether it is because of their belief that what is being done to the Western Shoshone people is wrong or whether it is because they are frightened that it may be their property rights that are taken away next.
"It's time the U.S. sat down with the Western Shoshone and discussed the future of our homelands," she said. "Not only would that would be in the best interest of the Western Shoshone people, but also the American public. It's their tax dollars at work. For almost thirty years now the federal government has devoted millions of dollars attempting to remove two grandmothers from our homelands and to destroy our livelihood. It's about time the American citizens stood up and said enough is enough."