SOUTH FORK RESERVATION, Nev. — At an isolated subdivision here, boxy government housing perches on a scrub brush hillside, wood stoves provide the only heat and televisions seem to drone all day--a sad refrain for a people who have lost their place.
At least a third of the Shoshone Indians on this reservation don't have jobs. Those who do usually struggle to make a living on a tiny sliver of their once vast homeland.
So it's hard to say what is more surprising: that people here have $116 million in the bank, or that some of them don't want the money.
But "money in the bank" takes on an entirely different cast when the bank is the U.S. Treasury and when withdrawal could end a tribe's claim to land that it has longed for since white settlers began to push the native people aside more than 150 years ago.
After decades of impasse, a resolution may be at hand this year to distribute the fortune, payment for 23.6 million acres taken from the western bands of the Shoshone tribe more than a century ago. Tribal members have persuaded at least one of Nevada's U.S. senators, Harry Reid, to introduce legislation in coming weeks that could disburse $20,000 to every Shoshone man, woman and child.
In the eyes of the government, payment would end the tribe's claims to its historic homeland.
Some of the Shoshones' top leaders are fighting fiercely to leave the money untouched in a Department of Interior account. They want to stand fast with the remaining handful of American Indian tribes that defiantly hold out for a return of aboriginal lands.
The ferocity of the disagreement is a reminder that, even in a new century, America and its native people still struggle with the great, unresolved "Indian question."
"You can't just snap your fingers and resurrect an entire culture," said Michael Lieder, an attorney and authority on native claims against the government. "We have been fighting that issue and we will keep on fighting it."
Average Check Less Than $1,000
The U.S. Congress and President Harry S. Truman hoped for a cleaner, more expedient resolution when, in 1946, they established the Indian Claims Commission. The panel and a court that followed it heard more than 600 cases and paid out nearly $1.5 billion.
But that meant that the average Native American often received a check for less than $1,000--money that went for decidedly mixed uses, said Lieder, coauthor of the book "Wild Justice" on the claims commission's work.
Some tribal members spent their money on new cars or other goods that have long since landed on the junk heap. But others pooled their resources and invested in economic development.
Several Apache tribes received payments totaling $32 million in the 1960s and 1970s. Much of the money went to help establish logging, beef cattle and tourism operations, including a ski resort, on the Mescalero Reservation in south-central New Mexico.
Today, the largest single unsettled case involves the Sioux. The tribe's eight nations have $538 million in claims money held in trust by the Interior Department. Despite the tribe's size and far-flung nature, it has remained the most steadfast in opposing distribution of the money.
The Sioux people's disdain for the U.S. government has been legend--dating to the massacre of at least 150 men, women and children by the 7th Cavalry in 1890. Nearly three decades ago, activists laid siege to the scene of the massacre--Wounded Knee, South Dakota--in one of the most powerful displays of budding Native American militancy.
Activists today consider attempts to put a dollar value on the Sioux's hallowed Black Hills nothing less than sacrilegious. In an interview, one tribal leader declined even to say how large the trust fund has become.
"Some people perceive that if you even talk about the money, you are thinking about trying to take it," said Louis DuBray, vice chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux. "It's very touchy."
With that history as a backdrop, the Western Shoshone feud quietly churns through the dozen remote reservations and urban Indian "colonies" of northern Nevada, where most of the tribe's 5,062 enrolled members live. A grass-roots group backing the cash payments threatens to remove from office the tribal leaders who have blocked distribution. Blood relatives have stopped speaking to each other about the issue.
Opposing camps frame the debate as a struggle between traditional values and a devotion to the land on the one hand, and pragmatism and pursuit of economic development on the other.
Most Shoshones say they are not a demonstrative people. But when Nancy Stewart told friends that a newspaper reporter was coming to her home in the western Nevada farm town of Fallon, nearly 30 tribal members quickly assembled to have their say.