May 29, 2004 – Even though for decades the people of the Western Shoshone indigenous nations have faced encroachment on their resource-rich traditional lands and seen tens of billions in gold mining revenue taken without a penny of royalties coming back to their communities, Western Shoshone tribal governments have lined up in opposition to a rapidly advancing federal bill that would provide every tribal member about $20,000.
Tribal leaders see the legislation as a threat to treaty-guaranteed traditional lands -- some 60 million acres they say have never been for sale.
"What theyâ€™re asking us to do is accept money for something we donâ€™t want to sell. Itâ€™s our mother. We canâ€™t sell it," said Western Shoshone grandmother Carrie Dann. "If they force us to do it, it would be spiritual genocide as far as I can see."
The Western Shoshone Distribution Bill (HR 884), which would disburse funds that have been earmarked for the Western Shoshone since the 1970s, has already passed in the US Senate and cleared the House Resources Committee. Opponents warn that the bill could come up for a vote in the House of Representatives as soon as June 2, when Congress comes back into session after Memorial Day. If passed, it would go immediately to President Bushâ€™s desk to become law.
To understand why this money has been sitting untouched since 1973, it is necessary to understand the treaty history of the Western Shoshone. Most treaties signed between the US government and indigenous nations ceded lands to non-Indian settlers. The Western Shoshoneâ€™s 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty never did; instead it merely allowed non-Indians limited access to traditional tribal lands in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California.
Without explicit protection of Western Shoshone land rights written into the legislation, tribal leaders say, the billâ€™s passage will merely represent a colossal resource grab
But the federal Indian Claims Commission (ICC) in 1973 ruled that gradual encroachment on these lands constituted US acquisition of Shoshone territory, and decided to offer the tribes that make up the Western Shoshone Nation a one-time payment of $27 million for the approximately 60 million acres -- a pittance that was based on the landâ€™s value in 1872. The tribes refused that payoff.
"Paying someone for something they never agreed to sell doesnâ€™t actually transfer title," says Julie Fishel, who works in the land recognition program of the Western Shoshone Defense Project, an organization that advocates for indigenous nationsâ€™ rights. "If you try to buy my car and I say no, and then you stick five bucks in my pocket and try to drive my car away, has title been transferred? I would say no."
The money appropriated by the ICC has remained in a Department of Interior account drawing interest ever since, with the tribes refusing to take the money on principle. A forcible disbursement, says Fishel, reflects "the US attempting to put the nails in the coffin" of Western Shoshone sovereignty.
Congressional staff members say that settling ownership disputes over the land is a separate issue from the current bill. Amy Spanbauer, a spokesperson for bill backer Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-NV), says the legislation "does not affect in any way any land claims that [the Western Shoshone] may have with the US Federal Government â€¦ These are monies that are owed to the Western Shoshone people, and should be distributed to them."
But public attitudes on ownership, Fishel says, could swing with the perception that the tribes have been paid for the land. While advocates for native people believe the Western Shoshone would still maintain legal title to the land even if the bill passes, on a political and public relations basis, acceptance of these funds would substantially undercut their argumentâ€™s appeal. "Politically, the fact that the Shoshone have rejected that money is very powerful," said Fishel.
And without explicit protection of Western Shoshone land rights written into the legislation, tribal leaders say, the billâ€™s passage will merely represent a colossal resource grab.
"The land has never been for sale," said Hugh Stevens, chairman of the Te-Moak Tribe, one of nine federally recognized Western Shoshone tribal governments. Seven of those governments, including the Te-Moak, are on record opposing the bill; Stevensâ€™ tribe has gone so far as to hand-deliver a letter of opposition to each member of Congress. Traditional Western Shoshone, whose governance structures are not federally recognized, also oppose the bill.
Critics of the bill charge that legislators are moving the bill forward without communication or consultation with tribal leadership. According to Stevens, the Te-Moak are willing to meet the federal government halfway in negotiations. "We just want enough land to grow on," he said -- but he worries that legislators are more concerned about grabbing land than negotiating in good faith.
"We just want to be heard," Stevens said, "but weâ€™re not getting any response from our representatives here in Nevada."
By appearing to gain clear title to these lands, Stevens says, the US government could lease or sell off mineral resources to powerful mining and energy companies. Besides the rich veins of gold and other precious metals, the lands possess immense capacity for geothermal energy generation.
One of the billâ€™s supporters, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who has particularly deep ties to the mining industry, did not return phone calls seeking comment. He is one of the top recipients in Congress of campaign contributions from the mining industry ($72,875 in the 1990s), and his sons have worked as mining industry lobbyists. For fighting against environmental reforms, Reid himself has received a lifetime achievement award from the Nevada Mining Association.
Spanbauer denies that Rep. Gibbons, whom she says "stands nothing to gain" from pushing the bill. She says he supports the bill merely to satisfy a monetary obligation to the Shoshone. However, Gibbons has also garnered mining industry accolades for fighting regulations, including last yearâ€™s Distinguished Service to Minerals Industry Award from the Northwest Mining Association.
Not all tribal members are opposed to the bill. Nancy Stewart, vice-chair of the Western Shoshone Steering Committee, testified before Congress that she views the money as an "apology of substance" from the US federal government. But tribal leaders such as Stevens view the all-volunteer steering committee as a sham. Since legislators like Gibbons can point to the small group when asked if they have been working with the affected tribes, many council members see the group as an excuse to avoid meaningful consultation with elected tribal governments.
Once title is cleared to the land, dramatic mineral and energy wealth could be distributed to private companies for pennies on the dollar. By promoting the idea that the Shoshone have been paid for the lands, Defense Project representatives assert, this bill would be a major step toward such redistribution. "Every taxpayer should be concerned about that," Fishel said, "because this could be a huge boondoggle."
Even with the interest it has garnered, bringing the total amount to around $140 million, the payment would amount to a few cents per acre for resource-rich territory in an area where a typical acre of land runs between $200-$1,000.
Dann says this is just another chapter in a long history of government theft of Indian resources. "I find it so appalling that a country that claims to be a constitutional government, a democracy, would act in this way," she said.