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Western Shoshone tribal councils oppose Reid's legislation

It's amazing what a powerful U.S. Senator can accomplish, especially when he wants to throw his weight around. A case in point is Senator Reid's success in pushing forward legislation (S-958) that would pay out some 128 million dollars, which the U.S. says is compensation for Western Shoshone land. The bill is now attached to an omnibus Indian appropriations bill, and is on fast track for passage.

The traditional Western Shoshone say that the earth is their sacred Mother and therefore their land is not for sale. They also say that the United States has never produced any documentation to show that the Western Shoshone people ever freely consented to forfeit their land to the United States.

Many Western Shoshone opponents of Reid's legislation, such as Chief Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council and Mary and Carrie Dann, have grown frustrated by Senator Reid's steadfast refusal to communicate with them about the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.

Reid's office has also refused to talk with those Indian Reorganization Act tribal councils that oppose his legislation.

On May 30, 2002, the Yomba Shoshone Tribal Council unanimously approved a letter to Senator Reid that stated in part, "we implore you to exert your influence to cancel the proposed referendum and instead to open discussions with Western Shoshone tribal governments to seek a final resolution of Western Shoshone land and treaty claims." Reid's office never responded to the letter.

The Te-Moak Tribal Council is comprised of four separate Band Councils: Battle Mountain, Elko, South Fork, and Wells. In a May 2002 Te-Moak Tribal Council meeting, the chairpersons of these four Band Councils voted unanimously against Te-Moak Chairman Felix Ike's efforts to push forward with a June 3 vote on the monetary distribution bill.

On May 14, 2002, the Battle Mountain Tribal Council passed Resolution 02-BM-11 stating in part: "the Battle Mountain Band is not authorizing Felix Ike to meet with Senator Harry Reid on any land claims issue; we are requesting for the voting regarding the land claims issue to be stopped and not to be continued."

On May 15, the Battle Mountain Tribal Council wrote a letter to Senator Reid, which says in part: "Through Resolution No. 02-BM-11, the Battle Mountain Band requested the voting that is scheduled for June 3rd, 2002 not to take place. The people once again have not been given the opportunity to give their ideas or input regarding the Ballot."

The letter continues, "In the Te-Moak Constitution it gives each Band the right to vote on a Band Initiative, and Felix Ike should not have taken it upon himself to put the claims issue on secret ballot, without approval from the [Te-Moak] Tribal Council or the Band Councils. Therefore through Resolution No. 02-BM-11 and by request from this letter we are demanding for all voting regarding the claims issue to stop." Reid never responded to this letter.

On May 5, 2002, the South Fork Band Council passed Resolution 02-SF-09, stating the South Fork Band Council's "concern with the apparent closeness of Chairman Ike and Senator Harry Reid to sell the Western Shoshone land." The resolution goes on to say, "?the proposed ballot drafted by Chairman Ike does not reflect the best interest of the Western Shoshone, especially the final paragraph? THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT has ruled that claims to TRIBAL ABORIGINAL LAND TITLE WAS EXTINGUISHED UPON THE PAYMENT [to the U.S. Treasury]. This is an outright lie." (original emphasis).

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The South Fork resolution continues, "The South Fork Band Council goes on record curtailing Te-Moak Chairman [Ike] from discussing the claims issue with Senator Harry Reid or others whom may wish to accept the claims distribution as written?. There is to be no election poll taken until each Band Council has an opportunity to review and have input into the future of Western Shoshone Land and its people."

On June 13, 2002, the Wells Band Council passed a resolution opposing the June 10 vote, and contending that Reid's bill is not in the best interest of all the Western Shoshones. Furthermore, Fermina Stevens, chairperson of the Elko Band Council, personally wrote a letter to Senators Inouye and Nighthorse Campbell, explaining that Te-Moak Chairman Felix Ike was told by the Te-Moak Tribal Council to not go forward with a vote on Reid's bill, and that Ike did not comply with the requirements of the Te-Moak Constitution.

On Aug. 7, 2002, the Te-Moak Tribal Council again directly opposed Te-Moak Chairman Ike and passed four resolutions condemning Ike's having proceeded on the ballot and the June 10 vote without authorization from the respective Bands and from the Te-Moak Council as a whole. One of the resolutions declares, "the voting and ballot used that took place June 3rd is invalid because of the lack of Tribal Council or Bands approval."

In June, I faxed copies of the Yomba letter, and the South Fork and Battle Mountain resolutions mentioned above to Patricia Zell, who is Senator Inouye's, D-Hawai'i, top legislative aide. Ms. Zell recently told me, "We made some inquiries and determined that most of the Bands no longer support Senator Reid's bill." Ms. Zell informed me that Senator Inouye "in the fashion of the Senate" had informed Senator Reid that "most of the tribes don't support" his bill.

Yet despite this, Senator Inouye allowed S-958 to leave the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. This is baffling. Why didn't the good senator at least postpone the bill's movement until a meaningful dialogue could be worked out with the traditional Western Shoshone and with the IRA tribal councils?

Recently, Senators Inouye and Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., argued powerfully against an amendment to the Interior Department appropriations bill that would have placed a moratorium on any further federal recognition of Indian tribes. The two senators cited historic wrongs committed against Indians to argue against the bill offered by Senators Christopher Dodd and Joseph Lieberman.

The question therefore arises, why weren't the two senators equally impassioned and outspoken about the traditional Western Shoshone, and about the tribal council resolutions opposing Reid's legislation? It is good to point out historic wrongs. It is better to point out and stop present wrongs, in this case by not allowing Reid's bill to leave the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

If Reid's bill passes, the U.S. will demonstrate once again to the world community that, more often than not, whenever it comes down to a choice between moral principle and the violation of fundamental Indian land rights, it will choose the latter over the former. The injustice that Congress is on the verge of committing against the traditional Western Shoshone, in violation of the Treaty of Ruby Valley, provides more sound evidence that, in the context of U.S. Indian policy, America's professed values of freedom, democracy, and "the rule of law" are empty slogans rather than actual operating principles.

Yet bill or no bill, the land within the boundaries of the Ruby Valley Treaty will still be Western Shoshone land. For the U.S. to contend otherwise is to convert U.S. law into an instrument of plunder.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Research Coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.