The “Western Shoshone Distribution Bill” (S 618/HR 884) has passed both houses of Congress and is on its way to the Bush administration for signature. The bill would authorize a payout to the Western Shoshone Indian people of approximately 15 cents an acre for tens of millions of acres of disputed lands in Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California.

A majority of tribal councils, representing approximately 80 percent of the population, and the Western Shoshone National Council strongly oppose the measure. The National Congress of American Indians, Amnesty International, Oxfam America, and the Petra Foundation have also denounced the bill.

The legislation was passed in the House by a voice vote on June 21. The Senate had previously passed the measure, but because of the death of the Senate bill on June 1, it passed it again on June 25.

At stake are 60 million acres of Western Shoshone land recognized by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Competing with Western Shoshone interests are corporations seeking billions of dollars in profits from gold, energy production, nuclear waste storage and weapons industries. The land produces two-thirds of the gold in the U.S., making it the third largest gold-producing area in the world behind South Africa and Australia.

At a House Resources Committee hearing a year ago, Interior Department officials testified that “vast majority” of Western Shoshones favor distribution of the money. Democratic Rep. Tom Udall of New Mexico responded to this testimony by requesting “for the record” whatever documentation Interior had used as the basis for its testimony. Ten months later, Interior has still not honored Udall’s request. Such stonewalling leads to at least two questions. What is the Interior Department hiding? What did it base its testimony upon?

This push is being made at the same time that the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste repository is being pushed along and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.) is sponsoring other legislation, HR 2869 and HR 2772, which would open up Shoshone lands to privatization by multinational mining companies and massive geothermal energy development with no provision for Western Shoshone interests or concerns.

Additionally, in the last two weeks, notices of intent to impound livestock have been received by Western Shoshone grandmothers Mary and Carrie Dann and other Western Shoshone ranchers.

Carrie Dann said it is domestic terrorism designed to steal the dignity of the people. “Economically we were a self-sustaining people. With these recent actions stealing our livelihood we are now facing economic starvation designed to remove us from our lands. To me, that is terrorism. Domestic terrorism. This behavior is designed to steal our dignity, our honor and to make us feel that we are less than or lower than human – we are treated like animals. We are being dehumanized.”

Dann said the distribution bill is an unconstitutional, unjust and unwanted payment. “To take this land from us will be to lead us into a spiritual death.”

Last year, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in its final report on the case of Dann v. U.S., found that with regard to the Western Shoshone, the U.S. is currently in violation of rights to property, due process and equality under the law. It is the first judicial review of the United States law and policy regarding indigenous peoples within its borders.

Julie Fishel, attorney for the Western Shoshone Defense Project, said the United States does not want American Indians to learn about the ruling.

In a November 2003 letter sent to Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, Congressman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) raised serious concerns about the real intent of the Distribution bill and the involvement of the federal government and mining, energy and nuclear industries in presenting a misleading picture of the issues to the public and to members of Congress. In the letter he raises concerns that the bill may be contrary to federal policies with regard to treatment of Native Americans and may conflict with the Interior Department’s position as trustee and its obligation to uphold the laws of the United States. A copy of the letter and more information on the bill is available on the Western Shoshone Defense Project’s website at www.wsdp.org.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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