Some Western Shoshone tribe members pledged Wednesday to refuse federal payment for their ancestral land after President Bush gave final approval to paying more than $145 million to settle a decades-long land dispute.
But an apparent majority of the 6,000 eligible tribe members support the measure, contending that seeking the return of millions of acres is not realistic and the money would help buy basic necessities.
“The needs of our people are simple. Most of our homes don’t have telephones, 98% don’t own computers,” Nancy Stewart, co-chairwoman of the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee, said after the House passed the bill in June.
“I’m not taking the money,” said Carrie Dann, a tribal member active in the Western Shoshone Defense Project in Crescent Valley. “That land is sacred to us. This Earth is our mother. It’s not for sale.”
Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Rep. Jim Gibbons (R-Nev.), who backed the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, hailed Wednesday’s signing of the law authorizing payments that some American Indians called long overdue.
“For years, members of the Western Shoshone tribe have been asking us to pass this legislation,” Reid said in a statement. “Today, their efforts and hopes have become a reality ... and now the money can finally be distributed.”
But some say that accepting the federal money would mean giving up legal claims to ancestral lands in Nevada, California, Utah and Idaho.
“I am utterly disappointed,” said Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council. “Individuals cannot sell out a nation and the bill, although a threat politically, does nothing to change our inherent rights or our treaty rights.
“The fight is not over.”
Gibbons says the law “finally ends the delays in the distribution of funds that were awarded by the Indian Claims Commission over 25 years ago and ensures the Western Shoshone will receive the funds due to them.”
The Indian Claims Commission, established in 1946, determined that Western Shoshone lands had been taken through “gradual encroachment” during settlement of the West. It awarded $27 million to the tribe -- the 1872 value of the 24 million acres.
Tribal members unwilling to relinquish their claim to the land took the case to the Supreme Court, where they lost in 1985.
The Western Shoshone ancestral lands ranged from the Snake River Valley in Idaho to Salt Lake Valley in Utah, across most of eastern and central Nevada, and into Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in California.