WASHINGTON - Congress poised itself to strike down an icon of modern Indian
resistance to state power during the last week of May, but stayed its hand
after an outpouring of support for the Western Shoshone.
Rep. James Gibbons, R-Nev., scheduled the Western Shoshone Distribution
Bill for a vote in the House of Representatives June 1. According to
opponents of the bill, Capitol Hill staffers report that with the Senate in
recess the week before Memorial Day, Gibbons' fellow Nevadan, Sen. Harry
Reid, a Democrat, lobbied House Democrats to pass H.R. 884. It happens to
be identical to S. 618, the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill sponsored by
Reid and passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. If the House bill were
to pass, it would go directly to President Bush, whose signature would
enact it into law. With that, any willing Western Shoshone tribal member
would be able to collect a share of an approximate $135 million settlement
assigned the tribe by the Indian Claims Commission for lands identified in
the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863.
The sum reflects the principal and interest on monies assigned in 1979, but
never accepted by the tribe. Acceptance of an ICC award extinguishes any
land title claims. The Ruby Valley Treaty covers some 24 million acres in
Nevada, Utah, California and Idaho. Most of the land is currently
classified as public land, though the Western Shoshone maintain their title
Opponents of a distribution contacted congressional offices in force once
H.R. 884 appeared on the congressional voting schedule. Before voting
commenced on the evening of June 1, Gibbons withdrew H.R. 884 from the
docket. No reason for the delay could be ascertained, and Gibbons' office
did not immediately return a telephone message. But the bill could appear
again with little notice, according to Natalie Luna, a spokesperson on the
House Resources Committee staff of Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., an
outspoken foe of the distribution bill. Luna gave the status of the bill as
"day to day."
She added that Grijalva has concluded, from the response to a series of
questions he sent the Interior Department (which holds the Ruby Valley
lands in trust for the Western Shoshone), that the distribution bill is a
way of seizing resources.
Those resources include gold, water, and geothermal energy. Multinational
mining companies are standing by to operate within the Ruby Valley lands
through "privatization" bills brought forward by Gibbons. Gibbons and Reid
are among congress' leading recipients of mining company contributions.
In addition, President Bush has designated Yucca Mountain, a site within
the Ruby Valley lands, as the nation's nuclear waste repository.
The Western Shoshone have never ceded their ancestral lands. The Ruby
Valley Treaty of 1863 provided only rights-of-way to U.S. settlers, mostly
miners, as they passed through all of 24 million acres, mined for silver
and gold and set up encampments.
Almost a century later, the Indian Claims Commission identified a "gradual
encroachment" of non-Indians on Ruby Valley lands as the basis for
declaring a land cession by the Western Shoshone. One of the many
criticisms against the ICC (now known as the U.S. Court of Federal Claims)
is that it had no organizational infrastructure or authority to enforce due
process in arriving at its decisions.
The commission proceeded to identify eight claimants (but no tribal
government among them) and, at the prodding of attorneys the tribe
eventually fired, proclaim $27 million due the Western Shoshone. The figure
was based on valuation current as of 1872 - 15 cents an acre - and included
no interest on the loss over time. Interest on the $27 million assigned in
1979 has inflated the sum to the current $135 million.
But several groups of Western Shoshone, including most of the nation's
multiple tribal governments, deny that they ceded any land, and reject the
payment for fear it would extinguish land title. Because the Interior
Department, the U.S. trustee delegate for the tribe, however, accepted the
ICC settlement in the name of the Western Shoshone, the tribe has been
prevented from litigating its claim to land title in court.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a working group of the
Organization of American States, recently agreed that Western Shoshone
landowners have not received due process of law. The United States is a
member of the OAS, but the organization cannot enforce its recommendations.
So far the Bush administration has ignored its findings on the Western
Carrie Dann, along with her sister Mary one of the leading voices for
justice to the Western Shoshone, issued a statement June 1 that reads in
"I do not believe democracy should ever consider 'taken' as a way to obtain
people's land. The United States Constitution set up a procedure on how
lands can be obtained by the United States. Not one of the steps was
adhered to by the United States in its decision to 'take' Western Shoshone
lands. All the actions taken by the United States have been lawless and
"... When the acts of the United States violate the human rights of its own
people, those acts should not be taken."