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Land Battle Splits Shoshone Nation

Compensation: Most members want their share of $140 million the U.S. may pay the tribe for its territory. Others want to keep fighting.

July 22, 2002|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CRESCENT VALLEY, Nev. — Though weary from a 30-year struggle, sisters Carrie and Mary Dann remain hopeful they can keep ancestral Western Shoshone lands in the hands of the Indian nation. But far from their dusty ranch here, an upcoming vote in Washington is expected to end their crusade.

The Senate is considering disbursement of nearly $140 million to the tribe for land the government says the Indians lost 130 years ago. In the meantime, the Danns continue to run cattle and horses on the disputed land without paying grazing fees--as other Indians have, claiming the land is still theirs.

At issue is about 24 million acres of historic Shoshone land, a swath of desert and mountains from the Great Salt Lake, across most of Nevada, and into California's Death Valley.

The Danns and other traditional Shoshone Indians--as well as a host of historians, attorneys and international human rights commissions--note that the tribe never ceded its territory to the U.S. government nor lost it to Western conquest.

But a congressional commission summarily declared in 1959 that the Shoshones had lost their land to encroaching pioneers in 1872. The Danns and their allies say they were blindsided by a bureaucratic ambush more contemptible than any act of violence.

Carrie and Mary Dann, who won't give their ages but whose deep-creased faces betray at least six decades of hard life running cattle and horses, say distribution of the money will all but end any hope they have of retaining the land. Their claim to the land has been dismissed by the Supreme Court but is supported by human rights commissions sponsored by the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

The sisters are mad that apparently most of their fellow Shoshone Indians want the money, which would amount to about $20,000 each.

"What's $20,000?" asks Carrie Dann, the younger of the two women. "I'm looking at the future of our children. I'm looking at our birthright, which is not for sale."

Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has sponsored a bill authorizing the money's release. The Senate's Indian Affairs Committee will hear debate on the bill Aug. 2. Since 1977, the $26 million set aside to reimburse Shoshones for their land and lost mining revenue has increased, with interest, to nearly $140 million.

Reid, who sits on the committee, said he has sympathy for the Danns and others who resist losing their land. "But this matter has been through the court system, and the vast majority of the Shoshones--whether you think it is unfair or fair--want their money."

Felix Ike is one of those who wants the money. Ike, chairman of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshones, the largest of the various tribes and bands that constitute the Indian nation, said he doesn't share the same passion for the land as do the Danns. "Yes, there's a case to undo the wrongs done to the indigenous people," he said. "We were shafted. But now we have to move on."

Although three polls have indicated that a majority of the estimated 6,000 Western Shoshone Nation members want their money, others such as Mary Gibson, 45, say they are standing on principle.

"The money is dirty money, money that the government wants to pass off on us because it has a bad conscience," said Gibson, who works at the Elko County Library. "But I don't want to sell myself out."

Yet her own daughter, she said, wants the money to buy a car. She said her daughter doesn't understand the issues, which are virtually unprecedented in U.S. history.

In 1863, Shoshone Indians signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley promising peace and friendship to white settlers and travelers bound for California. These newcomers could hunt, mine, cut timber, run railroads, even establish towns. But nothing was said about Indians giving up their land.

In 1946, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission to compensate Indians for lands taken during the westward march, intending to correct century-old wrongs.

In 1951 a Shoshone band made such a claim for the land under dispute today, even though the government acknowledged that the band did not speak for all Shoshones.

The government in 1962 concluded that Shoshone land had been lost to whites nine years after the Ruby Valley treaty was signed. Later, the Indian Claims Commission authorized payment of 15 cents per acre--the value of the land in 1872, just before gold and silver mining exploded across Nevada, dramatically increasing the land's value. The money was placed in a trust account in 1979.

Shoshone activists protested, and a U.S. District Court judge sided with them, noting that there had been no act of Congress nor treaty that transferred the land from the Shoshones to the federal government. It was almost as if, some observers have noted, the government had realized it had never acquired the Shoshone Indian territory and was now belatedly trying to take it.

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