WASHINGTON ? The United States government is violating international human rights in its treatment of Western Shoshone elders Carrie and Mary Dann, said a long-awaited report released July 29 by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. It is the first time an international body has formally recognized that the U.S. has violated the rights of American Indians.
The report supports the Danns' argument that the U.S. government used illegitimate means to gain control of ancestral Shoshone lands and questions the government's handling of millions of acres of land under the Indian Claims Commission.
The human rights charges came on the eve of a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing Aug. 2 on S. 958, a bill sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., that would distribute some $138 million in a land claim settlement to members of the Western Shoshone Nation. The Danns and other traditional leaders oppose the payout, although a large majority of voting members supported it in a recent referendum organized by tribal allies of Sen. Reid.
"This report will have important implications for Indian nations all over the country that have complained for years about losing their lands as a result of fraudulent or high-handed claims in the Indian Claims Commission," said Robert T. Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, which brought the case before the Inter-American Commission on the Danns' behalf. "At last, there is a thorough, legal decision concluding that these procedures are seriously wrong and that they violate the most basic human rights of the Indian peoples involved."
The human rights commission found that the claims process ? which the U.S. says extinguished the Western Shoshone rights to most of their land in Nevada ? was a flawed process that denied the Danns and other Western Shoshones their human rights.
The commission concluded that the U.S. violated several articles of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, including the right of equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and the right to property.
The commission recommended that the government take steps to provide a fair legal process to determine the Danns' and other Western Shoshone land rights.
The sisters, now in their 70s, have spent 30 years fighting for the collective rights of their people to retain Native homelands and have been subjected to threats, harassment, helicopter surveillance and raids by federal agents to confiscate their livestock.
Carrie Dann insists the federal government has "terrorized" them for years, causing daily mental stress and even physical assaults as the sisters tried to block Bureau of Land Management agents from taking 269 horses in one particularly traumatic round-up. They have repeatedly refused to pay federal grazing fees for their livestock on the grounds that the land still belongs to the Western Shoshone Nation.
The Aug. 2 Senate hearing was to take up a controversial bill that would distribute the money awarded by the Indian Claims Commission in the Western Shoshone case though five tribal chairmen representing the Western Shoshone Nation have publicly objected to Reid's efforts to distribute the money.
In a referendum organized by Te-Moak Tribal Council Chairman Felix Ike in early June, 1647 tribal members voted in favor of the payout and 156 opposed it. The vote delighted the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Steering Committee, which supports the distribution. But chairman of five Western Shoshone bands, including the four that make up the Te-Moak Council, objected that the vote did not follow established procedures. Some also questioned the role of Sen. Reid in organizing the referendum. Questions about the wording of a previous vote were instrumental in canceling a Senate hearing on S. 958 scheduled for March.
"It is very saddening that Senator Reid has decided to unapologetically undermine Western Shoshone tribal sovereignty and governmental integrity by supporting the legislative objectives of a few people comprising the self-appointed Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Steering Committee without regard to the strong opposition of virtually all Western Shoshone tribal governments to S. 958," said Tom Luebben, attorney for two of the Shoshone bands.
"The scheduled March 21 hearing was cancelled on less than a day's notice, although representatives of most Shoshone governments were in Washington and prepared to testify. The hearing was apparently cancelled because most of the witnesses were going to say things Senator Reid doesn't want to hear and doesn't want in the record."
Many Western Shoshone bands and the Danns oppose the bill because of concern that it would undermine their rights to their lands and compound the human rights violations identified by the Inter-American Commission.
"Western Shoshone leaders have opposed distribution of the Indian Claims Commission Award for 22 years. Reid is attempting to work around tribal leaders representing the vast majority of Western Shoshone citizens," said Ian Zabarte, a longtime activist in defense of Shoshone lands.
"S. 958 does not provide for a land base necessary for the growth and development of the Western Shoshone Nation as contemplated by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, ensuring instead that the current condition of economic starvation continues on the tiny colonies and reservations."