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Western Shoshone National Council speaks out on hearing

WASHINGTON ? Anti-settlement tribal leaders of the bitterly divided Western Shoshone people said the March 21 cancellation of Senate hearings on a buy-out bill was a positive step towards protecting their relationship with their ancestral homeland.

At a sparsely attended press conference at Mott House, the Washington headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union, Chief Raymond Yowell said the Western Shoshone people were fortunate the hearing had been called off. He argued that the bill S. 958, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., was premature and ambiguous.

"It never addressed the question of where it [the bill] is to begin with," said Yowell. "At the hearing of record in 1980 it was asked to the hearing officer what United States law did you acquire Western Shoshone land under."

He added that the hearing officer could not answer the question and was told by the Western Shoshone council to keep the money until the question could be answered. The money in question is a $128.8 million escrow fund held by the U.S. Treasury from a settlement offered by the now defunct Indian Claims Commission as payment and interest for Western Shoshone land.

"We need to answer this question before we can get to legislation," said Yowell. "In our view the only way to get to that is to conduct honest and just negotiations at the highest level." Yowell said that the "highest levels" meant with President Bush and that nation-to-nation discussions would involve the Secretary of State.

In return, Yowell said his group would send representatives to the negotiations who actually had the authority to make decisions for the Western Shoshone people. Step-by-step signed agreements could be correlated into some type of legislation and submitted to Congress to prevent any further disagreement, he said.

"There will be no fight from the United States government and no fight from us," said Yowell.

At the time of the press conference, Yowell had not yet received word on why the Senate hearing had been cancelled. He said that comment without further dialogue with Sen. Reid would be mere speculation. Yowell said finding common ground with the senator was a good place to start reaching some sort of consensus.

"We are opposed to the Yucca Mountain proposed high-level nuclear waste repository and he is opposed as well. This may be a grounds to work towards something," said Yowell.

Yowell denied that the Western Shoshone National Council was planning to stage some sort of demonstration.

"We certainly had no plans to protest anything when we came here," said Yowell. "We merely came here to oppose this bill and we had very lawful and logical reason for doing that." He said they were in Washington looking for due process of law for the lack of enforcement of treaties and past legislation protecting Western Shoshone territory.

"We are honorable people and we don't deal that way," said Yowell. "We used to protest at the test sites where they were exploding atomic bombs, but they were always peaceful. There were never any guns or even knives."

Carrie Dann, a Western Shoshone grandmother and rancher who also attended the conference, said she shared Yowell's position that negotiation had to take place at an international setting with the United States.

"We should be able to draw up and draft a new and better agreement to protect our people and to protect the future generations yet to come," she said.

Dann and her sister Mary have had a long-standing dispute with the federal government over land issues and have piled up massive fines exceeding $1 million for allegedly illegal grazing.

Sen. Reid and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., held a press conference at the Capitol Building on unrelated health care legislation about an hour after the Western Shoshone statements. Reid said he had postponed the legislation because of criticism of a 1998 straw ballot that purported to show overwhelming support for the payoff.

"The ballot was not good to my estimation," said Sen. Reid. The ballot was a plebiscite seeking Western Shoshone approval of S. 958, introduced by Reid. He declined comment when asked to expand his position and said further media questions on the subject were "out of line."

"I don't know who you are, but I don't need to talk to you," said Reid to members of a film crew documenting the Western Shoshone settlement, as security personnel escorted him into the Capitol.

"I am confident that we will be able to resolve many of the issues that have been raised with regard to S. 958," said Reid in a written statement. "I want to do my best for members of the Western Shoshone tribes, and we will take whatever time is necessary to work through the newest concerns."

There was no new date set for the hearing, according to the same statement.

By request of a delegation of Western Shoshone who favor accepting the settlement, members of the media were barred from attending a substitute meeting with members of Reid's staff, Betty Robson, a member of that delegation, told ICT in a telephone conversation on March 26.

Robson was extremely critical of the Western Shoshone National Council and Carrie Dann, alleging they did not represent their people and were delaying settlement of the issue for their personal benefit.