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Western Shoshone at odds over payout

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ELKO, Nev. - Nevada is largely a ghostly country of brown barren rift valleys and towering sagebrush-covered mountains. However, ghosts from the past in the form of unresolved land claims have come back to haunt the descendants of the Western Shoshone.

A bill authored by Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., currently making its way through the House of Representatives, seeks to compensate Western Shoshone Indians for lands they say they never ceded by treaty. A settlement by the now defunct Indian Claims Commission awarded the tribe a sum that with interest now totals approximately $142 million.

This bill is a sister bill to one by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. which passed the U.S. Senate but died in the House because that legislative chamber recessed before the bill could make it to a vote

The bills are nearly identical, but have at least one significant difference. In its current state the House bill allows taxation of any payment over $2,000, which was not in last year's Senate bill.

Some very vocal opponents of the bill fear that by accepting payment, Western Shoshone tribal members would forfeit all future land and monetary claims against the federal government.

The issue is further clouded by several factors. Among them are whether a committee, set up by the Te-Moak tribe, is actually representing the interests of individual tribal councils and whether or not those tribal councils are truly representing the will of the people.

Opponents of the settlement bill are claiming that the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee is acting against the wishes of individual tribal councils.

These same opponents are claiming that a referendum held last year was invalid. They are claiming it is invalid because it was not done in accordance with the Te-Moak constitutional procedure and was not certified by either the Interior Department or the BIA.

Te-Moak tribal chairman and steering committee member Felix Ike, who favors the payout, insists that the elections were fair and that 65 percent of nearly 3,700 identified eligible Western Shoshones voted in favor of the settlement referendum. The elections, says Ike, lacked BIA involvement only at the request of the Interior Department who he says regarded this as a "people's issue."

Ike claims that most of the opposition against the bill stems from a few tribal councils and not the majority of the Western Shoshone people. The Te-Moak tribe is a consortium of four bands, Elko, Battle Mountain, South Fork and Wells.

The Elko Band, which comprises four of the seven Te-Moak council seats, has gone on record as supporting the pay-out bill. Ike says that the main opposition stems from tribal councils of the other three bands.

One of the primary concerns is that if the money is paid out, the Western Shoshone would not be able to make further land claims against the federal government. Ike says that he would ideally like to see the settlement money be disbursed and expand existing tribal reservations.

Reid's office says that both the House bill and last year's Senate bill would be separate from any future land expansion legislation. Ike claims that he received verbal agreements from House Resources Committee members Richard Pombo, R-Calif., and Rep. Gibbons, as well as from Reid himself.

"They told me that Nevada is 80 percent federal land and that it should be no problem to give some of that to the Western Shoshone," says Ike.

Deborah Schaaf, an attorney with the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont. says that it is here that the problem lies. She maintains that there is no place in any of the payout legislation that would guarantee the tribes would not abdicate the right to further land claims by accepting the payment.

"Reid and Gibbons know full well what the implications of accepting the settlement would be," says Schaaf, who also says that through established legal maneuverings the tribe would lose legal credibility on all land use issues.

Schaaf contends that the Western Shoshone Steering Committee has "no credibility" since they are not a specific tribal government. She says that the tribe would also have to admit that their lands were taken over by "gradual encroachment" rather than by broken treaties such as the Ruby Valley treaty.

Additionally, Schaaf says that she has trouble with the fact that Reid has threatened to hold up legislation in the Indian Affairs Committee unless they addressed the Western Shoshone payout bill. She wonders why he would "put his political credibility on the line for giving a few million dollars to a few thousand Shoshone."

Some opponents are also questioning Reid's motives due to his established links to Nevada's mining industry, which were well documented in a recent Los Angeles Times expose on Reid. The investigation made the claim that Reid's environmental legislation was being effected by industry dollars.

Both Ike and Schaaf agree that Reid is clearly connected to the industry, though Schaaf admits that there is no direct evidence that Reid's Western Shoshone policy is influenced in any way by mining dollars.

In fact, Ike also says that Reid is by no means the only Nevada politician who is influenced by the mining industry. Given mining's clout in the Silver State, Ike feels it is unrealistic to expect any elected officials in state government not to be linked somehow to mining money.