Western Shoshones battle government land grab

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The Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, signed by George W. Bush on July 7, will pay more than $100 million to the Western Shoshone Nation for their homelands in Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah. The problem is that the land was not for sale. The bill was opposed by the majority of Western Shoshones as an act of theft and cultural genocide.

A 30-year struggle to preserve land rights. In passing the act, Congress was merely writing the latest chapter in over 200 years of government policy that defies U.S. Indian law, international law, and the U.S. Constitution.

The land dispute goes back to 1863, when the Western Shoshone signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The treaty did not cede any land to the U.S., but recognized Western Shoshone title to approximately 24 million acres.

The harsh, desert landscape of the Great Basin was viewed as useless at the time. Today it is the third most productive gold-mining area in the world. It also hosts Air Force bases, bombing ranges, and a federal counterterrorism facility managed by Bechtel, and is the proposed dumping site for the country’s nuclear waste. The Nevada Test Site has made the Western Shoshones the most bombed nation on earth, with over 1,000 nuclear explosions detonated there.

Given the newfound value of the land, it is no surprise that the government is anxious to clear the title. But the Western Shoshone have put up more of a battle than anyone would have thought possible for a small, impoverished and remote population.

In 1974, the Bureau of Land Management charged two Western Shoshone sisters, Carrie and Mary Dann, with trespass for grazing cattle on BLM land. With the Ruby Valley treaty in hand, the two sisters fought their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the UN.

In the course of their thirty-year struggle, the Dann sisters built a movement of Western Shoshones and their supporters across the country, winning the backing of groups including Amnesty International and the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

Carrie and Mary Dann have paid a price for their resistance. Most of their livestock has been taken by the BLM in armed raids, and now federal officials have threatened to seize their ranch. Despite winning international awards for defending Western Shoshone land and culture, the two elderly sisters could end up homeless and destitute.

The Danns are not the only Western Shoshones who have suffered. Livestock raids have been carried out in several communities and threatened in others. Many Western Shoshones believe these assaults are meant to intimidate them into accepting the government’s payoff and signing away their land.

Nevertheless, the Western Shoshone are more united today than ever before. Tribal governments representing 80 percent of the people opposed the distribution bill, as did the Western Shoshone National Council. The NCAI, OAS and UN have all urged the U.S. to resolve the dispute in nation-to-nation negotiations as demanded by federal Indian law.

Survival as a nation at stake. Congress ignored all this in passing the distribution legislation. This blatant violation of U.S. and international law has been condemned not only by the Western Shoshone, but by Indian governments and organizations throughout the country.

Moreover, the money will not be used to set up funding and infrastructure for badly needed tribal education, healthcare, or housing, but will be split into individual checks. Each tribal member will get about $20,000. Meanwhile their land, livelihood and national heritage will be gone forever, signed over to global gold barons and military contractors.

The Western Shoshone are not defeated and have vowed to keep up the fight. It’s expected that it may be two years before the money is actually distributed. In the meantime, supporters can get involved by visiting the Western Shoshone Defense Project at www.wsdp.org.

“This bill changes nothing,” says Carrie Dann. “We are here to protect our mother earth. That is our responsibility. Our obligation will not be deterred by thieves.”

Jonathon Hurd, a frequent Dann ranch visitor while living in Utah who now champions the Western Shoshone cause from Seattle, can be reached at jonathon_hurd@yahoo.com.

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