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Land Rights Battles of the Western Shoshone Indians

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Modern-day protesting Shoshone Indians.

Prior to the 1800s the Shoshone Indians roamed freely on a portion of the US, including nine northern and midwestern states1. The tribes were hunter/gatherers and moved about, depending on the seasonal vegetation and game animals. The different bands and tribes were named either by their main food resource, such as the 'Sheep-eaters', or by the area they inhabited, such as the Boise and Lemhi Valley Shoshone2.

Newe Sogobia

Newe is the Shoshone word for all people, and this is how they refer to themselves. Some sources say they believe that Ah-peh (Father) created all humans and the land on which they would live. Others say that the Newe were placed in their Homeland by the Creator, Pia Sokopia (Earth Mother). The Newe believe they have a sacred trust to protect Newe Sogobia (Homeland) and draw their sustenance from it.

When the white man (taibo) came, the land the Shoshone lived on was radically changed and their culture was almost eliminated. The white settlers distorted the natural balance of the area in their quest for gold and any other resource they could exploit. They destroyed many of the plants and animals that the tribes had formerly eaten to survive.

White Man Comes to Great Basin

Jedediah Smith, the fur trader and explorer, was to become the first white man to reach California overland across the Sierra Nevada mountains. In 1805, when he made contact with the Lemhi Shoshone, he described the Newe digging for roots and living the simplest of lives. This could be where the term 'digger Indians' originated. Other than reporting their existence to white explorers and entrepreneurs, Smith's contact with the Shoshone probably had little effect on their lifestyle. The years that followed and the white settlers came afterwards, however, drastically changed their way of life.

Smith reported his meeting with the Shoshone to the members of the Lewis and Clark team that later made contact with the Lemhi Shoshone. This was the team that made the first overland journey across North America to the Pacific coast, one of the longest trans-continental journeys ever made. A member of the team, Toussaint Charbonneau, had taken for his wife Sacajawea. A Lemhi Shoshone herself, it is likely she had been adopted by the Hidatsa tribe, which is where Charbonneau met her. Sacajawea served as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark team.

During the first half of the 1800s, the beaver population found in the traditional homeland of the Shoshone Indians was virtually eliminated3, and much of the plant and animal life was wiped out or driven away by the settlers. During the decade that followed, the Shoshone Indians rebelled against the white settlers. This was the time of the US Civil War, and the government wished for peace with the tribes and unfettered access to the mines in their territory.

Treaty of Peace

Lacking sufficient troops to protect passage of its agents through Shoshone territory, the US requested a treaty for peace from the Shoshone Nation. The Treaty of Ruby Valley, also known as The Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1863. The treaty offered compensation for the damages suffered by the tribes in return for safe passage through their territories. It stated that the government would pay them annually for 20 years the sum of five thousand dollars in articles such as cattle or any other commodity the President deemed suitable for their needs.

Broken Promises

The Shoshone agreed to accept the terms of the treaty in return for the loss of game and plant life in their homelands. The treaty did not cede the tribes rights to the land, but instead granted passage without molestation to the US needs. The treaty was ratified by Congress in 1866.

In reality, the US ignored the treaty and allowed white settlers to move into the area, under the pretence of being necessary to passage as outlined in the treaty. The Shoshone have, and do, contend that they have held up their part of the bargain, despite land being laid to waste by the mining they had reluctantly agreed to. As early as 1932, they realised their need to retain counsel to enforce the treaty and their land rights. Through different legislative acts, 90% of Western Shoshone land came under control of the Department of the Interior and its branches, such as the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1951, an atomic test site was established in Nevada. More than 100 atmospheric tests have been conducted, more than anywhere else in world, and 950 nuclear bombs have been detonated on Shoshone land since 1951. The most recent detonation was in April 1990.

Decades of Resistance

In 1951, the Bureau of Indian Affairs persuaded a group of Western Shoshone to file a claim with the Indian Claims Commission to seek compensation for the taking of lands4. For the extent of the proceedings, from 1951 to 1979, large numbers of the Western Shoshone protested the claim and refused to accept any money.

In 1962, the Indian Claims Commission decided that the Western Shoshone had been deprived of their land by 'gradual encroachment' of whites and others without a specific 'taking' date. They used July 1872 as the date of valuation for the compensation. The Indian Claims Commission's jurisdiction was supposed to have been limited to awarding damages for ancient wrongs. Yet its finding were repeatedly upheld, despite the very recent occurrences of some of those wrongs.

Legal Wrangling

In 1974, The Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association sought to exclude from the 'taking' of those lands not currently occupied by whites. Their request was denied. In 1976, they applied for a stay pending determination by the Interior Department as to the status of their claim to title. They also filed an action in the Federal District Court. The stay was denied and in December of 1979, the action was dismissed. When appealed, the Court of Claims suggested they take their case to Congress.

By 1979, the US Court, against the wishes of the major portion of the Shoshone, awarded less than $27 million, the 1872 value without interest, for the 'taking'. The Shoshone refused to accept the money because it would constitute them giving up all their rights to their ancestral homeland. Since the Western Shoshone refused to take the money, it was received by the Secretary of the Interior to be held in trust. Since then, the fund has grown with interest to over $100 million.

In 1983, the Ninth Circuit reversed, saying the Shoshone title was not extinguished because the money had not been paid. The government then petitioned the Supreme Court for a review. They did not ask the court to determine ownership, only if payment had been made. The court held that the transfer of funds to the Interior Secretary constituted payment whether the Shoshone accepted the funds or not.

More Dead Ends

In 1986, the Western Shoshone met with the Interior Department Representatives, including Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Ross Swimmer. The negotiations ended with Swimmer stating that no Shoshone land would ever be returned.

In 1994, they met with newly appointed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who promised to form a team to negotiate legislative proposals on their behalf. Between 1994 and 1997, the only proposal would have allowed the Shoshone to buy the land at market value from the Bureau of Land Management Disposal List, using the Indian Claims Commission funds. They would in effect pay current market value for the same land that the government supposedly 'bought' from them as recently as 1979 for 15 cents per acre - the 1872 value. The Shoshone rejected the offer and the government made no other.

The Dann Sisters

Mary and Carrie Dann are two elderly Western Shoshone women who live in the Crescent Valley, 350 miles north of Las Vegas. The ranch had been homesteaded by their father, Dewey Dann, who had paid the grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management without protest. However, the sisters contend that they have ancestral grazing rights to the land, since it has never been conceded by treaty. They insist the Treaty of Ruby Valley upholds their rights to occupy and graze the land.

The Raids Begin

In 1973, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) cited the sisters for trespassing on BLM land. When the case went to the Supreme Court, the BLM's position was upheld. In November 1992, the BLM began its assault on the Western Shoshone Nation at the Dann Ranch. They set up a media and transportation blockade, and seized the livestock of the Dann Band of Shoshone Indians. They took and sold 700 horses from the ranch at auction.

In the May of 1998, the BLM demanded $564,000 from the Dann sisters for grazing violations. Then in September, 2002, they staged a pre-dawn raid that confiscated more than 200 head of cattle. Around 4am, they arrived with six or seven big trucks to haul the cattle, helicopters, an airplane and 20 all-terrain vehicles, along with more than 50 armed federal agents.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In 1993, the Danns along with the Yomba and Ely Shoshone tribes filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, of which the United States is a member. The complaint accused the US of failing to live up to its obligations with the Western Shoshone and challenged them to reform their discriminatory practices that deny the human rights of America's indigenous people.

On two separate occasions, the Commission issued 'precautionary measures' against the US to halt the BLM action against the Danns until completion of the Commissions investigation. The US never formally responded. On July 30, 2002, the Commission released a report stating that the United States government is violating international human rights laws with regards to its treatment of Mary and Carrie Dann. The commission found that the US violated articles of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, including the right of equality before the law, the right to a fair trial and the right to property.

The Dann Sisters, or the Western Shoshone at large, have yet (at the time of writing) to have their claims addressed in a serious manner. While they fight their individual battles with the US, plans are under way in high offices to make their efforts mute.

Senator Reid

The US asserts it seized the Shoshone lands by encroachment as early as the 1860s. Accepting this as the US official stand on the matter, individuals such as Senator Harry Reid, have introduced bills to the senate to extinguish the Shoshone claims once and for all.

Senate Bill 958

Senate Bill 958, pushed by Senator Reid, would distribute evenly the over $100 million fund to any Shoshone in the area of at least one quarter blood descent. If the distribution is allowed to take place, the Shoshone will receive a fraction of the huge price the land would command on the open market.

Many believe Senator Reid deliberately bypassed tribal governments and down-played opposing public opinion in order to push Bill 958 through congress. It has also been suggested that his eagerness to see the bill passed may be related to a separate bill he supports, Senate Bill 719. The Northern Nevada Public Land Management Act would privatise the greater portion of Nevada and make it available for sell to the highest bidder.

His office has repeatedly ignored attempts by the Shoshone to contact him and arrange some sort of equitable negotiations.

National Holiday

For every band, tribe and nation of natives living in America on the arrival of white men, there is a story of ill treatment. The story of the Dann Band of the Western Shoshone Tribe of Indians is not unique in its miscarriage of justice. Despite the magnitude of the problem, there is little public debate on the issues. Not enough people are aware of the situation to keep it in the news, and the ones who are, feel helpless to change it.

Native American Day Holiday Bill

To address this state of affairs, United Native America has brought a bill before Congress known as the Native American Day Holiday Bill , HR 5653. The purpose of the bill is to have a hearing on the racial exclusions suffered by natives of the US. They also propose to pay tribute to those who have endured the longest and most costly in human lives, oppression of peoples known to the world.

The Indians contend they do not want to sponsor Columbus Day and believe it should not be a national holiday. It cites examples of states that have already done away with the holiday that pays tribute to a, somewhat dubious, national hero. The fact that Columbus has a national holiday and yet the peoples whose lifestyle he helped to eradicate do not, is indicative of the attitude that persists in America today.

The Gathering of First American Nations March

United Native Americans is also supporting The Gathering of First American Nations March set for June 27, 2003 at the Freedom Plaza in Washington DC. The gathering hopes to convince Native Americans to unite and take a stand against the deliberate deterioration of their tribal sovereignty by the US government. They demand that the treaties be honoured, and insist they cannot continue to tolerate the third world conditions their people must live in, in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The message they want to get out is this: the US Constitution is not being honoured as far as the first peoples of this land are concerned.

1These include most of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, as well as parts of California, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.2There were seven distinct Shoshone groups including the Eastern, Goshute and Western Shoshone. The four remaining groups are generally considered The Northern Shoshone and they include The Fort Hall, Lemhi Valley and Northwestern Shoshone.3One notable example is the expedition of Peter Skene Ogden of Hudson's Bay Company. His mission was to create a 'fur desert' to discourage American trappers from coming into the area.4The claim was known as 'Western Shoshone Identifiable Group Vs US'.

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