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Western Shoshone delegates claim harassment

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ELY, Nev. - A delegation of Western Shoshone traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, Aug. 1 to address the United Nations Subcommission on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights.

The subcommission is supposed to monitor a human rights declaration signed by several countries including the United States.

The delegation represents three groups of Western Shoshone, the federally recognized Yomba and Ely Bands and the non-recognized Dann Band.

The visit is part of an appeal by the Western Shoshone bands who claim the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is unlawfully restricting Shoshone access to lands they claim are theirs and have generally disregarded Shoshone culture.

Perhaps most significantly the Western Shoshone also claim that the BLM is unrightfully confiscating their livestock.

The Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., reports this is the latest in a string of incidents with the BLM that directly violate treaty rights signed between the United States and the Western Shoshones.

"It (the visit to Geneva) was not motivated by the latest problems with the BLM but are the result of a series of abuses from the United States government," said Deborah Schaaf, an attorney with the center.

A Shoshone press release claims that BLM Elko District manager Helen Hankins has acknowledged the agency will confiscate the livestock but declined to say exactly when this will happen.

Shoshone tribal members claim they have been given an "order to remove" their livestock from BLM lands. The tribe is claiming that the lands in question were given to them in a 19th-century treaty and say that the United States has not produced any documentation showing how they acquired the lands.

The tribe is basing its claim on the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty signed with the United States. The treaty guaranteed the Western Shoshone a large tract of what is currently the state of Nevada.

True as this may be, the BLM thinks the tribe is taking aim at the wrong target. BLM Elko District field manager Clint Oke said his agency must abide by federal law and has no jurisdiction over past treaties signed with the Shoshones.

He specifically cites two tribal members, sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, who have been grazing cattle and horses on a 300,000-acre BLM parcel without authorization. Apparently the Danns have a 640-acre parcel in which to graze their livestock and Oke claims they have been openly defying the law by letting their animals graze on the adjacent BLM lands.

Oke says no order has been given to the entire Shoshone tribe but to the Danns and a few other individuals who are violating grazing laws. He confirmed that two such impoundments have taken place.

"You have to have authorization to graze on public lands and my office is obligated to administer this as public land. If there is livestock grazing on these public lands it is then illegal without permission," Oke said.

Oke added that the issue has gone through the federal courts and both the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court confirmed the area in question is public BLM lands and must be administered as such. Furthermore he said it is not within his ability to change federal law.

Carrie Dann, however, is claiming that this constitutes harassment. In a press release she claims to have been harassed in this manner for the last several years.

"Also, you can help me in understanding the harassment, which causes me great mental pain and stress. I am not young anymore and this harassment is now into its 28th year," Dann wrote.

Christopher Sewall, the program director for the Western Shoshone Defense Fund, said he thinks the BLM is not an unfair target. He feels it is the most tangible representative of the federal government and it is that agency which is not recognizing Western Shoshone treaty rights.

Additionally, Sewall said he thinks the Western Shoshone visit to Geneva is the last recourse for the tribes and hopes to receive a condemnation of perceived U.S. injustice against the tribe.

What if the United Nations were to condemn the U.S. treatment of Western Shoshone treaty rights? Ultimately such a proclamation would have no legal standing in the United States. What good would such proclamations produce?

Sewall responded that such a condemnation of U.S. policy could affect the legitimacy of U.S. condemnations of human rights abuses in other parts of the world.

"They (the Western Shoshone) have no choice but to appeal to world opinion. The United States court system has failed them, so this is what they have to do," Sewall said.

Finally, Sewall said the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty contained a clause where the Western Shoshone agreed to become agriculturists and herdsmen and by restricting access to lands given them in the treaty, the United States is failing to uphold its end of the agreement.

The delegation is expected to remain in Geneva for a few days. Representatives of the delegation did not return scheduled telephone interviews.