The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Western Shoshone Struggle Earns World Recognition

by Michelle Chen

Though their plight has earned the sympathies of human rights groups and the UN, an embattled Indian nation sees an uphill fight ahead to gain the respect traditional leaders demand from Washington.

Mar. 16, 2006 – A Native American group has renewed its push for equal treatment in the wake of a supportive ruling from the world’s highest human rights body. The decision, issued by a committee of the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights, sternly rebuked the US government for civil and human rights violations against the Western Shoshone Nation.

The Western Shoshone, whose territory stretches across Nevada, Utah, Idaho and California, brought a complaint before the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), charging that the United States is undertaking a systematic thievery of ancestral lands in violation of indigenous people’s rights. The petitioners included the native-rights groups Western Shoshone Defense Project and Indian Law Resource Center, along with the humanitarian organization Oxfam America.

In its ruling, CERD urged the US government to halt any plans to appropriate Western Shoshone territory for private development or environmentally destructive government projects. The 18-member panel also criticized government fees and restrictions levied on Western Shoshone people for using their own land, and urged the government to negotiate formally with tribal leaders on unresolved land-ownership issues.

Though the decision builds on earlier CERD comments issued in 2001, as well as a previous ruling by the hemispheric human-rights panel Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, it is the first full decision by the body specifically targeting US policy toward American Indians.

The petitioners argued that the government’s actions had violated their rights equal protection before the law and self-determination, as well as their cultural rights as native peoples.

Julie Fishel, an attorney with the Western Shoshone Defense Project, part of the delegation that presented the case to CERD at the UN in Geneva, called the ruling "the beginning of a watershed of Indian people standing up and saying, ‘No more.’" However, she added that the petitioners had gone to Geneva only after finding that Washington was ignoring their struggle. "Native people shouldn’t have to travel across the ocean to have their issues addressed," she remarked.

The CERD petitioners argued that the government’s actions had violated international covenants on civil rights and non-discrimination by denying them equal protection before the law, their right to self-determination, and their cultural rights as native peoples.

Though the abuses cited in the Western Shoshone case have historical underpinnings, the controversy over land rights reached a boiling point with the enactment of the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act in 2004. Heavily promoted by Nevada Senators Harry Reid (D) and John Ensign (R), the Act would forcibly distribute "payment" for the loss of ancestral claims to land and natural resources.

The Act provides for the distribution of over $140 million in federal funds to people of Western Shoshone descent. The funds have grown out of an initial award of about $26 million that the federal Indian Claims Commission issued in 1979 as purported compensation for land losses and mining extractions due to "gradual encroachment" by non-Native settlers and businesses onto the land dating back to the 1800s.

Advocates say that the government has treated the Western Shoshone as if they were trespassers on federal property, aggressively restricting some from so much as living and working on their land.

But for over two decades, the funds have remained untouched. Some Western Shoshone leaders have criticized the offer as an attempt to swindle the community out of land historically considered theirs. Opponents cite the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley delineated the borders of Western Shoshone land and provided guidelines for future industrial development and settlement.

Alarmed by the Distribution Act as well as other legislative initiatives to open up "federal" lands for government and private development, Western Shoshone activists sought a judgment from the UN last July. In their formal request, the petitioners wrote that "violations have persisted and in fact intensified despite… reports, findings and recommendations from international human rights bodies," including CERD.

Indigenous rights groups say the Distribution Act could legitimize the pattern of rights abuses and land exploitation that have been escalating for the past generation, unchecked by courts or lawmakers. Tim Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, said that unlike individual US citizens, who enjoy full constitutional protections, "Congress has for all intents and purposes completely unlimited power to do as it pleases with [Native American nations] and their property."

The disputed territory is prime real estate for the mining industry, yielding the majority of the country’s gold supply and ranking among the world’s largest gold-producing areas, according to a 1999 report by the mining-industry watchdog group Project Underground. Around the beginning of 2005, under the authorization of the Bureau of Land Management, gold-mining companies ramped up their exploration projects on Western Shoshone territory. In addition, energy corporations and officials, including Reid, are eyeing parts of the region as major prospects for geothermal energy development.

The land claimed by the Western Shoshone Nation also contains Yucca Mountain, Nevada, where the Department of Energy aims to build a highly controversial nuclear waste repository.

Advocates for the Western Shoshone say that for decades, the government has treated them as if they were trespassers on federal property, aggressively restricting some natives from so much as living and working on their land.

A 1974 lawsuit filed by the Department of Interior against two Western Shoshone sisters, Mary and Carrie Dann of Crescent Valley, NV, helped solidify the government’s territorial grasp. The Danns challenged fines charged by the Bureau of Land Management for cattle-grazing without a permit, claiming instead that the grazing took place on their own land.

The Supreme Court in 1985 upheld the Indian Claims Commission’s position that gradual encroachment had "extinguished" Western Shoshone territorial entitlements. The court also affirmed the Department of Interior’s claim that it had acted as a "trustee" of the Western Shoshone and "accepted" the compensation funds on their behalf.

Since then, the government has continued to crack down on the Danns’ livelihood. In 2002 and 2003, federal officials staged confrontational raids, seizing over 200 cattle and threatening to impound several hundred horses belonging to the family.

Carrie Dann, now in her seventies and a figurehead for the Western Shoshone indigenous-rights movement, views the Distribution Act as an assault on cultural values embedded in ancestral lands. "How do you pay for spirituality? How do you buy somebody’s religious beliefs?" she said. "How do you come out smelling like a rose when you’ve pushed money down people’s throat for something that they don’t want to part with?"

Just how many Western Shoshone support or oppose the payout is a subject of fierce debate. For individuals, the financial stakes are high: divided among the estimated eligible population of more than 6,000, recipients could receive as much as $30,000 each, and a small portion of the total funds has been set aside as an educational trust. Proponents of the bill argue that the Western Shoshone indicated overwhelming support for the Act in "straw poll" referendums administered by a self-appointed "steering committee" of Western Shoshone who have split with more traditional tribal leaders.

Western Shoshone Lands

Responding the CERD ruling, Ari Rabin-Havt, a spokesperson for Reid’s office, cited the polls and argued, "The UN might have said something, but the tribe itself agrees with what Senator Reid did."

But critics of the settlement suspect that the polls were political implements, asserting that the results lacked supporting documentation and covered an unrepresentative sample. Moreover, seven of the nine tribal councils within the Western Shoshone Nation passed resolutions opposing the legislation, with demands that all territorial issues be settled before moving forward on any such deal.

The resolution passed by the South Fork Band Council of Spring Creek, NV, urged the US Senate to "look at the best interests of the Shoshone people as a whole, and not individuals that have a different, biased agenda which will not address the needs of our people and the future generations."

Fishel of the Western Shoshone Defense Project said that politicians’ focus on financial recompense is both shortsighted and telling. "This isn’t about the money," she told TNS. "It’s about human rights violations; it’s about protection of culture and spirituality, clean water, clean air. That’s what the Shoshone are talking about."

Environmental and indigenous-rights groups warn that allowing the government and industry to further exploit native lands could aggravate environmental problems, ranging from mercury pollution caused by gold mining to potential contamination by nuclear-waste storage sites.

The Geneva proceedings have brought US policies toward Native American communities directly under the scrutiny of the international human-rights regime. Presenting supportive petitions with over 13,000 US signatures, the Western Shoshone delegation pressed CERD for an immediate response.

The US Ambassador to the UN in Geneva argued, according to a March 2 United Nations press release, that "the issues the petitioners had raised were not ‘novel,’" and no special action was warranted. But CERD ultimately issued its decision under a special "Early Warning and Urgent Action" procedure. The US has until July 15 this year to respond to the Committee.

Activists have celebrated the ruling somewhat cautiously – as an international recognition of a problem that is too often ignored domestically. Pete Litster, executive director of the anti-nuclear activist group Shundahai Network, speculated that the US could simply continue disregarding international opinion on issues like nuclear-waste storage and indigenous rights.

Litster said that while Shundahai, which campaigns against nuclear-related projects on Native American lands, supports indigenous-rights advocacy at the UN, the main question lingers: "What now is there to be done to force the United States to comply with that decision – and to comply with the wishes of the Western Shoshone – about how their land is to be used and about how they’re going to be allowed to participate in the decision-making [process]?"

Yet for all the political questions encircling Western Shoshone activists, people like Carrie Dann are anchored by a resolutely straightforward answer: "The water, the air and all those things are sacred.... That’s our identity, that’s who we are. And that’s not for sale."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Article originally appeared in the March 16, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Michelle Chen is a staff journalist.

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