(Commentary by Larry Piffero and Nancy Stewart, Guest Columnists.)
Eleven Western Shoshone representatives appeared in Washington, D.C. on March 21 to speak for their reservations. They were outnumbered by 10 lawyers and a four-man camera crew for cattlemen Carrie Dann and Chief Raymond Yowell and their organizations, the Western Shoshone Defense Project and the Western Shoshone National Council. This represents a small number of people, but a widespread network of non-Shoshone people.
The hearing was postponed without prior notification. Many of those who traveled to D.C. from Nevada were non-paid volunteers.
The representatives were there to speak on behalf of the majority of people's support of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, S. 958, The Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act. In 1998, a straw poll of 1,230 cast a vote to receive their court-adjudicated award.. Later, BIA received 415 additional letters of support for distribution and six opposed.
This number has grown since the U. S. Supreme Court's decision.
BIA reports that enrolled Shoshones are a small group with 5,062 members. There are approximately 3,375 enrolled adults eligible to vote, excluding children, contrary to the opposition's news releases reporting 10,000 Shoshones, an attempt to diminish the importance of the numbers voting.
Thirteen Nevada cattlemen continue to refuse to pay their BLM fees, amounting to over $1 million. Their 15?year case (from 1974 to 1989) reached the U.S. Supreme Court and it concluded that aboriginal title could not be used as a defense to cattle trespass.
The Supreme Court also ruled that a previous 26-year case (from 1951 to 1977) of the Shoshone people and payment of $26 million, now over $134 million in trust, for them effectuated full settlement of all claims against the U.S.
For 51 years, the Shoshone waited for the halls of justice to rectify their removal to reservations off their homelands. The Supreme Court ruling stands, regardless of lower court decisions, right, wrong or indifferent.
Over 25 years, the instability of tribal governments failed to produce a comprehensive plan. The time frame for devising a plan for distribution under a 1973 federal act expired in 1982.
The government-to-government negotiations compounded by cattlemen and their lawyers, who attempt to politically influence the seven tribal chairmen, contributed to the failure of this process. Now the people are forced to navigate the complicated difficult Legislative process.
The setback of March 21 and the postponement of a hearing were due to concerns on the straw poll ballot due to the ballot's construction. Following a private meeting between the lawyers, cattlemen, minority supporters and two staff members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on March 20, the committee's staff recommended 12th hour cancellation to the office of Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Some of those attending felt the complaint about the ballot was really a "red herring" to stop S. 958 by the minorities' cattle interest and their lawyers in seeking the return of two-thirds of the state of Nevada.
Others feel the minority is trying to overturn the Supreme Court decision through amending S. 958. This is where the Shoshone have been mislead by the minority group's lawyers, who have given a false sense of hope that Supreme Court rulings are not final and that they are debatable because of the findings of lower court decisions.
The minority opposing the bill has viciously and unfairly attacked Senator Reid and the Shoshone leadership for supporting a distribution bill. The Nevada Congressional delegations sponsored S. 958, per the Shoshone people's request. The majority of Shoshones feel they are being held hostage to the cattlemen's endless cycle of litigation and their lawyers' long-standing D.C. connections.
The majority of Shoshones feel the esteemed Senate Indian Affairs Committee, in the interest of finality and the long-sought closure the people deserve, needs to make a decision and bring this judgment to fruition.
The Western Shoshone Distribution Act is no different in that there will always be differing opinions. At the same time, it was never the intent of Congress to set up an Indian Claims Commission to facilitate processing of Indians claims for grievances suffered, only to leave those claims hanging in limbo for over 40 years.
Larry Piffero is the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Committee Chairperson. and Nancy Stewart is a committee member.