by Scott Robert Ladd
The author of the following article is a journalist who became aware of the Western Shoshone struggle back in 1992. The article was written at the request of a big-name political magazine; they purchased the piece but have never published it, because, as the author was told by an editor "It's an election year; we don't want Bill Clinton to look bad."
Well, Bill Clinton and his administration DO look bad. So I've expanded this piece, adding new information. Please distribute this article widely.
This is NOT an official publication of the Western Shoshone government, the Defense Project, or the Dann family. What you're about to read is one man's viewpoint - my viewpoint - on a terrible injustice against an indigenous people.
Scott Robert Ladd
Who owns Nevada?
Ask a federal land manager, and she'll tell you that eighty-five percent of Nevada belongs to the nation at large, as a public heritage managed by the Department of the Interior. Hearing that, a Nevada county commissioner is likely to counter that "Washington" lacks Constitutional authority to own land. Also weighing in is the state of Nevada itself, which laid claim to federal properties with laws passed two decades ago. But in the eyes of the Western Shoshone Indians, the various American governments resemble a band of thieves fighting over the spoils of a heist.
Many Shoshone believe they are targets of a genocidal campaign involving government fraud and corporate greed. They maintain that their land wasn't taken in war during the 19th century, and that they never sold or otherwise ceded their sovereignty in the Great Basin; instead, the United States used a dubious judicial process to usurp Shoshone dominion in 1979. Now the Shoshone struggle to retain control of their homeland, which they call Newe Sogobia. It is the place where nature placed them, as stewards of the world, a dry and rugged region stretching across twenty-five million acres of central Nevada from Idaho to California's Mojave Desert.
"I look at this land from the basic point of our religious beliefs," states Carrie Dann, a leader in the Shoshone community. "This land is not just the land, it's mother to all life, not only to human life but to all life. We never left our land; the United States can claim anything it wants, but the reality is that we're still here." She isn't espousing some New Age philosophy; her views stem from an ancient set of beliefs that drives her to defend her people's indigenous rights.
The acquisition of Nevada by the United States is, at best, problematic. Most textbooks say that Mexico ceded the Great Basin to the United States through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. But to cede lands, Mexico would have had to control them - and Mexico had no permanent settlements in Shoshone country. Official U.S. government maps from the 1840s show a blank space between central California and the Colorado river; beyond the occasional priest or surveyor, non-Indians had no interest in the deserts of the Great Basin.
Even more telling is the federal legislation creating the Nevada Territory, which states "nothing in this act shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in said Territory." "The United States didn't want this land," said Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council. "Look at the Congressional debate of the time, and you'll see how Senators argued against the expense of taking more land from the Indians. Their goal was to clear the way for moving gold from California to the East, to pay for the Civil War; they didn't want to expand U.S. territory."
Indeed, in dispatching agents to Shoshone territory, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs admonished them that "It is not expected that the treaty will be negotiated with a view to extinguishment of the Indian title to land." So it was that representatives of the United States signed "A Treaty of Peace and Friendship" with the Western Shoshone, at Ruby Valley, Nevada, in October 1863. The treaty allows the U.S. to locate mines, ranches, railroads, telegraph lines, towns, and military posts within Shoshone lands - but nothing in the document even suggests that such establishments extinguish Shoshone sovereignty.
The federal government never acted on a Treaty clause allowing for the creation of Shoshone reservations, and did little to protect the Indian's interests. Life for the Shoshone inevitably changed as their nomadic lifestyle became increasingly incompatible with EuroAmerican settlement. Game animals fell to the newcomer's guns while cattle quickly denuded the arid valleys of life-sustaining plants. The Shoshone survived by working at mines, ranches, and railroads, often moving into communities on the outskirts of white settlements.
"The Shoshone kept their end of the bargain," Yowell states. "The United States did not. As more and more emigrants settled on our lands, the promise of peace wasn't enough for the United States. Instead of dealing with us as a sovereign nation, the United States implemented a scheme to acquire title unlawfully." That scheme was embodied in the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), a court-like body established by Congress in 1946 to adjudicate outstanding compensation claims by Native Americans against the United States. The law allowed the Commission to recognize any "identifiable group" - even a small minority - as representative of an entire Indian people. Lawyer Robert Barker entered into a contract with a few members of one small band of Shoshone, the Te-Moaks; in their name, he filed an ICC claim in 1951 on behalf of all Shoshones.
"You have to understand our leaders of that time," Raymond Yowell said. "They had a limited education, and they had no idea of what things were all about; they were very limited in their knowledge of what the government was doing." Yowell remembers hearing, in his youth, how pressure and threats from the Bureau of Indian Affairs left Shoshone leaders feeling they had no choice but to file a claim action.
The ICC was not empowered to extinguish operative Indian title - but all ICC cases included a tacit assumption that aboriginal title had been lost at some earlier date. Barker belonged to a law firm that helped create the ICC; he must have known how the Commission would interpret the Shoshone case. But Barker didn't explain the ICC's perspective to his clients, and the Shoshone continued to believe that the case asserted their existing title.
Ignoring the Ruby Valley Treaty, the ICC commissioners determined in 1962 that Shoshone title had been extinguished by the "gradual encroachment" of white settlers. An official "taking" date of July 1, 1872, was agreed upon by the Commission, government lawyers, and Barker. The date does not correspond to any official or legal act; it was chosen for the purpose of placing a value on Shoshone lands. Census records from the late 18th century show that the Western Shoshone outnumbered EuroAmerican settlers, nearly thirty years after the purported "encroachment."
"Nothing happened in 1872," said Glenn Holley, a Shoshone leader from Battle Mountain. "No land was `taken' by the government. We never lost that land, we never left that land, and we're not selling it. In our religion, it's forbidden to take money for land. What's really happening is that the U.S. government is stealing the land from us right now."
In 1976, the Te-Moak Band Council fired Barker and hired a new lawyer in an attempt at stopping or delaying the legal proceedings. The ICC refused to recognize the new attorney or allow the Te-Moaks to terminate Barker's contract. When the Te-Moaks and other Shoshone entities tried to stop the ICC proceedings, the Commissioners ruled that a delay would not be in the Indian's best interests. Barker actively opposed actions by his erstwhile clients, working with the ICC and government lawyers to finalize a monetary settlement.
"The ICC said that traditional Shoshones couldn't intervene because they weren't part of the Te-Moak bands," said Raymond Yowell. "But when the Te-Moak bands tried to stop the claim, the ICC wouldn't listen to them, either. The court told us that we shouldn't upset the apple cart after the fruit had been so neatly stacked. Never mind the law; never mind what's right." While most Americans take for granted the right to choose one's own legal counsel, that right was denied to the Shoshone based on the "special status" of Native Americans in government eyes.
In calculating a settlement amount, the ICC categorized Shoshone lands, paying a few cents per acre for the majority of the land and slightly more for territory rich in minerals. The final settlement amount was just over $26 million. On December 12, 1979, the ICC granted an award to the Shoshone - who refused the money.
"What's most ironic about this," according to Carrie Dann, "Is that the U.S. offered the Shoshone people something like 15 cents an acre, while the gold companies are paying $2.50 for that same acre! The land is valued in mining law at the same date, in 1872, yet the government gets ten times the amount that it tried to pay us." In a 1995 speech, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called the evaluation of land under the 1872 Mining Law "a flagrant abuse of the public interest." But in recent talks with the Shoshone, Babbitt hasn't expressed any qualms about paying them a tiny fraction of the Mining Law price.
Adding insult to injury, the ICC paid ten percent of the judgment fund to Barker in recognition of his "extraordinary" efforts in the face of opposition by his clients. The remaining money was deposited in a Treasury Department account, in the name of the Secretary of the Interior as the government-appointed "trustee" of the Shoshone. Unwilling to give up, the Shoshone continued their battle in the courts. A game of judicial Ping-Pong ensued, as courts remanded, reversed, and otherwise confused the issue. The most significant case was decided in 1985, when the Supreme Court declared that payment to the Secretary of the Interior constituted payment to the Shoshone. A lower court subsequently decided that Shoshone title was valid until the money was awarded in 1979 - even though the ICC award was based on a purported loss of title a century before.
"The federal government really did defraud the Western Shoshones, and has left them essentially landless in their own homeland," said Tom Luebben, a lawyer for the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. "The outcome in the courts only confirmed to the Western Shoshone that they have been egregiously wronged by the federal government - not in ancient times, but within the last ten years."
Beyond the gambling havens of Reno and Las Vegas, Nevada is largely treated as a natural resource by mining companies and cattle ranchers. Among those cattle ranchers are Shoshones who graze their livestock on lands administered by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Federal law requires ranchers to pay fees for the use of public range - and the Indians refuse to pay based on their belief that the land is still Shoshone territory. In August 1994, an internal BLM memo calculated that the Te-Moak, Yomba and Duckwater Shoshone Tribes owe more than $3.5 million in back fees and penalties; the independent Dann family of Crescent Valley was assessed more the $400,000 for illegal grazing.
The focus of government's anti-Shoshone campaign is the Dann's cattle operation in Crescent Valley. While other Shoshones quietly violate federal law, sisters Carrie and Mary Dann openly defy federal mandates, taking their case to international forums and the media. The BLM claims it is protecting the land from overgrazing by two thousand head of Dann-family cattle - yet anyone visiting the sister's ranch will find a herd of only three hundred animals. And before his retirement in 1994, former Nevada BLM director Billy Templeton admitted that his agency lacked hard evidence of Shoshone overgrazing.
Carrie Dann's feisty determination defines her people's resistance. In April 1992, during a BLM attempt at confiscating her cattle, Carrie argued and struggled her way past officers into a cattle chute, blocking cowboys from loading her livestock onto waiting trucks. "I have a right to defend my livelihood," Carrie admonished Eureka County Sheriff Ken Jones. "My land has never been for sale; it's not for sale now, it's not for sale tomorrow, either. And that's that way it is, Mr. Jones." Moments later, the BLM agents released her cattle, ending the confrontation.
Jones was less charitable when escorting a BLM convoy the following November. That BLM operation focused on removing horses, both wild and Dann-owned, from Crescent Valley. Clifford Dann, Carrie's 59-year-old brother, used his vehicle to block a road, stopping a convoy of BLM livestock trucks from leaving the valley. Standing in his pickup's bed, Clifford poured gasoline over his arms; as county and federal officers approached, he threatened to set himself afire if they did not unload his family's livestock.
When Carrie arrived, in the company of several non-Indian supporters, a debate ensued. Clifford was coaxed from his truck, assured by Sheriff Jones that none of his family's cattle are being confiscated. The Shoshone man began walking, gasoline and lighter in hand, toward the BLM convoy to see for himself what was in the trucks. Coming up behind the partially-deaf Shoshone man, BLM special agent Terry Somers tried - and failed - to take the gasoline jug from his hand. Amateur video of the incident shows a white spray of fire extinguishers erupting around Clifford and the surrounding officers. As several men struggle with Clifford, Sheriff Jones can be heard to yell "Get him down! Get him down! Break his fucking arm if you have to!"
As Carrie ran to aid her brother, an unidentified BLM officer grabbed her from behind. He pinned the 58-year-old grandmother's arms behind her back, and dragged her to the edge of the road.
"You're hurting me!" Carrie cried out. "I've got a bad shoulder!"
"Then be a good old lady and quit struggling," officer Somers instructed Carrie. As Carrie struggled before a camera, another law officer walked into view, expositing that "We're only holding her so she won't jump in front of the vehicles."
Moments later, the livestock trucks escaped. Clifford, glasses askew and face streaked with blood, was rushed away by police. Four months later, Clifford refused to defend himself during his trial, declaring that the United States lacked jurisdiction in Newe Sogobia. Federal Judge John McKibben rejected that defense, and a jury quickly convicted Dann of assaulting a federal officer with gasoline. Although Clifford had no prior arrest record, he would spend nine months in maximum-security federal prison. McKibben handed down the stiff sentence "to send a message to journalists, activists, and the Western Shoshone."
The courts have ruled time and again against the Shoshone - but those same courts are seen by the Indians as instruments of the United States government and its policies. "We don't need lawyers who are sworn agents of the U.S. courts," said Yowell. "We need Indian lawyers who present Indian law." And there, perhaps, lies the salient issue: That the Shoshone do not see themselves as citizens of the United States, but as citizens of their own nation. In Yowell's view, international law should apply in his people's dispute with the United States.
Yowell leads the Western Shoshone National Council, which describes itself as the original government of the Western Shoshone people. "We're the same entity that signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley," Yowell states. The United States disputes the legitimacy of the National Council, preferring to work with tribal governments it embodied under the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. In Newe Sogobia, nine federally-sponsored tribal governments - known as "IRAs" - speak for 2300 Shoshones living in urban enclaves and on rural ranches.
"The IRAs cannot call themselves nations," said an agitated Carrie Dann, the National Council representative for her clan. "The IRAs are nothing more than corporations of the United States. How can they be sovereign nations when they can't do anything without the permission and money of the United States?"
She isn't alone in questioning the independence of tribal governments; throughout Indian country, traditional Indian leaders often distrust and eschew participation in IRA entities. Tribal governments receive direction and funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) - making them inherently unpalatable to those who question American motives. The Interior Secretary can veto tribal laws; all reservation land is owned by the Department of the Interior and held in "trust" on behalf of Native Americans.
The National Council allows participation by all Shoshones, including those, like the Danns, who have no connection to federally-recognized tribes. While it does not accept federal money, the National Council does include representatives of several Shoshone IRA governments. Two tribal governments, however, chart independent courses. The Te-Moak Tribal Council continues to define itself as the representative of all Shoshones, even going so far as to declare its leadership on the Internet. The Duckwater Shoshone Tribe was once affiliated with the National Council; it broke away in the late 1980s to pursue its own solutions to Shoshone problems.
"One of the greatest problems the Shoshone face," Tom Luebben told me, "is chronic disunity." While Luebben's assessment is accurate, his solution requires all Shoshone, including the National Council, to join with the Duckwater IRA that he represents. The National Council demands a true government-to-government relationship with the United States.
"You sign treaties with nations, not tribes," Yowell states. The negotiating process is as old as the problem. Even as the ICC moved toward a final judgment, Jimmy Carter's Secretary of the Interior, Cecil Andrus, talked to Shoshone leaders about creating a three million acre reservation. Andrus broke off talks in 1979, after the Defense Department announced plans to site the mobile MX missile in Nevada. The MX would have placed two hundred nuclear warheads on trucks traveling a vast network of desert roads. The Western Shoshone vigorously opposed the MX, and the project was eventually scrapped in response to additional opposition from non-Indian Nevadans and the Mormon Church. Carrie Dann notes that some high school history books now credit the Shoshone with stopping the MX. She also sees the MX fight as a turning point in Shoshone affairs. "When the United States wanted to put the MX in, it opened the eyes of some Western Shoshone people."
During the Reagan-Bush years, another series of abortive negotiations accomplished little. Some Shoshone expressed optimism about Bill Clinton, since he made many promises to Indian leaders during his campaign. Hope flared as the Clinton's Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbitt, began a negotiating process at the behest of Senator Daniel Inouye. Babbitt sent one of his long-time associates, Don Moon, to talk with the Shoshone and assess their needs; Moon met with several Shoshone groups, including the National Council, and he soon offered to represent the Shoshone in the negotiations.
"Does the government acquire title to your backyard because your neighbor trespasses?" Moon asked Bruce Babbitt in a memo. "What happened here was a cold-blooded land rip-off that could never have happened to a non-Indian, or even a well-represented Indian." Moon appealed to Babbitt's sense of idealism, advocating traditional Shoshone views and urging redress of historic wrongs committed by the United States. Simultaneously, Babbitt was reading internal government analyses, which contain strategic omissions and factual distortions supporting the federal government's acquisition of Shoshone land.
Babbitt held a January 1994 introductory meeting in Denver. Attendees included Raymond Yowell, Carrie Dann, and representatives of Shoshone tribal governments. The conference lasted little more than an hour, and each Shoshone faction had only five minutes to present its case. As the meeting closed and Babbitt hurried away, he promised to continue the process through his chief counselor, John Duffy. Subsequent meetings have accomplished little; Duffy emphasizes the distribution of the ICC judgment funds while the Shoshone demand a resolution of land and water issues. Moon has since quit working in the issue in frustration over Duffy's intransigence and Shoshone discord.
The National Council is no longer involved with the negotiations. "We monitor what's happening through our friends," said Chief Yowell. "But we don't see much point in taking part. The government wants to disburse the money, as soon as it can, so it can say that the land is really sold."
Salt Lake City attorney John Paul Kennedy is one party who seeks immediate distribution of the ICC funds. Claiming to represent 1,400 unnamed Shoshones, Kennedy characterizes members of the National Council as "extremists" while demanding that the government pay his unidentified clients. Several Shoshone, in turn, describe Kennedy as an old-style Indian lawyer who will receive a substantial percentage of any award granted his clients. Over the vociferous objections of the IRA governments and the National Council, Secretary Babbitt expressly included Kennedy in the negotiations.
Representatives of state and federal governments invariably answer questions about the Shoshone with "We can't say anything because it might affect the negotiating process." Letters of inquiry go unanswered, and unreturned phone calls are the rule. The only hint about the government's thinking comes through documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - and those requests meet with stone walls, often taking more than a year to be partially filled.
Even State Department meetings seem to enter the Twilight Zone when the Shoshone are involved. Last April 3, Raymond Yowell participated in a Washington human rights conference. The event was hosted by the Carnegie Institute, lead by Assistant Secretary of State John Shattuck, and addressed by Warren Christopher and UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright. Two hundred attendees from around the world focused on the resolution of conflicts in the post-Cold War era. Repeated inquiries have not found anyone at the State Department who is willing to explain the reasons for Yowell's invitation.
Does the federal government fear a domestic version of Mexico's Zapatista revolution, where armed rebels have taken over privately-held ranches?
"We have no issue with private land holders," Yowell said. "And our paperwork states that clearly. Our interest is only in the federal public domain lands, and in some lands held by the corporations." The Shoshone consistently point out that armed resistance is futile. "A handful of Shoshones out here are fighting the mightiest nation on Earth. If the United States really wants to do us in, they have the power to do it."
If something has the federal government nervous, it may be the National Council's campaign to assert its independence in the international arena. In December 1994, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali received a Shoshone statement of sovereignty based on the UN charter and international treaties. Copies of that statement were then delivered to government officials ranging from President Clinton to district attorneys in Nevada. Postal reply cards verify that the documents reached their destinations, but only one recipient, a California federal judge, responded to the Shoshone declaration.
In 1993, the Dann sisters filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States. The United States responded by declaring that Shoshone land had been purchased in the ICC proceedings; the case is still pending. German and English networks have shown two Shoshone documentaries narrated by Robert Redford. The National Council maintains liaisons overseas and regularly sends representatives to visit the European Community; in April 1993, a delegation from the European Parliament came to Newe Sogobia on a fact-finding mission. Further recognition came when Carrie and Mary Dann received a 1993 Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm. On December 9, 1993, the Swedish Parliament lauded the Shoshone sisters for "their courage and perseverance in asserting the rights of indigenous peoples to their land."
Officially, the federal government frames the conflict in terms of the Dann family, even though the true picture involves a complex set of issues. The Western Shoshone organized numerous anti-nuclear demonstrations at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, where more than 900 nuclear explosions scarred Newe Sogobia. While the bombs have stopped exploding, the Department of Energy plans to construct a permanent nuclear waste dump in Shoshone territory at Yucca Mountain. On the environmental front, thirsty Las Vegas and Reno threaten to suck the water from beneath Nevada's arid valleys. Geothermal mines tap geysers for energy while violating a Shoshone belief in the sanctity of water. At Rock Creek, Lander County plans to construct a dam that will flood traditional Shoshone gathering grounds. And the ever-present U.S. military sends its warplanes swooping across the valleys, loudly disrupting the desert peace.
Carrie Dann sees multinational corporations as the enemy, and the United States as their puppet. She bases her belief on experience with several gold mines that lie near her ranch. These giant, open-pit operations use cyanide to leach gold from crushed mountains. Mines of this type are responsible for several recent, highly-publicized environmental disasters. In August 1995, a dam failed at a cyanide-based gold mine in Guyana, poisoning a major river and threatening 15,000 people living nearby. Three years ago in Colorado, leaking cyanide from the Summitville mine devastating 17 miles of the Alamosa River; the clean-up now costs taxpayers millions annually.
The Dann ranch has a clear view of three massive gold mines. Their property, an 800-acre spread homesteaded "under white man's law" by Carrie's father, stands astride the Carlin Trend, one of the world's richest-known gold deposits. She attributes the disappearance of the valley's natural springs and streams to the destruction of aquifers by mines, and her anger focuses on a federal government that does little to restrict mining operations. It is her family's future that is being ground into pebbles and soaked in poison, all to provide gold for strangers.
In August 1996, the Danns became aware of an old enemy in new clothing: gold prospectors, calling themselves Oro Nevada Mining Company declared a desire to begin test drilling near the family ranch. Oro Nevada is wholly-owned by Oro Nevada Resources of Toronto, Ontario, Canada - and that company, in turn, is financed by MVP Capital Corporation, to the tune of US$40 million. After buying a 48,000 acre ranch next to the Danns for US$15 million, Oro Nevada Mining staked claims on 94,000 more acres nearby. Oro Nevada's operating plan calls for drilling to begin in September 1996.
While Oro's President, Bob Jones, disclaims any knowledge of "indigenous issues," he and other Oro representatives have visited and talked with the Western Shoshone. The Dann family and the National Council have declared Oro's test drilling to be a violation of the Ruby Valley Treaty and international law. Oro Nevada has not been dissuaded; it recently paid US$350,000 to the U.S. government for maintaining its claims.
Oro Nevada's test drilling will take place within sight of the Dann homestead - and will occur on top of a hot spring and Dewey Dann Creek. The later is named for Carrie's late father, and it is the only year-round water supply for the ranch. The hot spring is a sacred site for the Dann family. Many other Shoshone hot springs have been destroyed by test drilling, which releases the geothermal pressure that drives the hot water flows. Once again, the greed for gold is moving to destroy the natural world so loved by the Western Shoshone people.
For more than ten thousand years, nomadic Shoshone clans have drawn a living from their homeland; what EuroAmericans see as forbidding desert, the Shoshone see as a beautiful land of great contrasts and powerful forces. Carrie Dann has lived her whole life in Crescent Valley; her family and ancestors reside there, and her goal is to protect the land for future generations.
"When they ask me about sacred places, I tell them it is all sacred," Carrie explained, waving her hand across the landscape. "I am working for the future, for my grandchildren, so they will have a place to live."
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