Raymond Yowell: A Courageous Indigenous Leader

Peter d'Errico

The Western Shoshone have been litigating the rights to their homeland since at least 1951, when a claim was filed, purportedly in their behalf, before the United States Indian Claims Commission (ICC). A full statement of this history is in Elmer R. Rusco, "Historic Change in Western Shoshone Country: The Establishment of the Western Shoshone National Council and Traditionalist Land Claims," 16 American Indian Quarterly 337 (1992).

Raymond Yowell's pro se lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the latest effort in this struggle to make the United States live up to its treaty obligations. Not surprisingly, the federal court dismissed the suit. I say not surprising, because the dismissal is in line with prior decisions attacking Western Shoshone lands. The courts are at least consistent in their support for U.S. claims of domination over Indigenous nations.

The U.S. has endeavored for years to extinguish the territorial integrity of the Western Shoshone Nation. Yowell's persistence in challenging this is a thorn in the side of the federal government. After the ICC decision, the U.S. offered money in exchange for Western Shoshone title. When they refused to accept the money, the U.S. took the extraordinary step of accepting it on their behalf, claiming to be their "trustee." The U.S. Supreme Court upheld this in United States v. Dann, 470 U.S. 39 (1985), stating that "the Shoshone's aboriginal title has been extinguished" because the U.S. accepted the money from itself on behalf of the Western Shoshone.

Raymond Yowell's land, from which BLM seized his cattle, is within the ancestral territories of the Western Shoshone Nation recognized in the 1863 Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed at Ruby Valley . The Western Shoshone have never ceded or relinquished their fundamental indigenous relationship to these territories. They continue to hunt, fish, gather, graze, and live on the lands in accordance with laws and instructions given to them by the Ah-Peh (Father).

In 1995, Mr. Yowell was Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, the traditional government of the Western Shoshone Nation. Under his leadership, the Council decided to challenge claims by the U.S. and Nye County, Nevada, that they had title to Western Shoshone lands. This litigation was conducted jointly by the Western Shoshone National Council on behalf of the Nation, and by Chief Yowell as representative of the class of Shoshone persons who assert individual relationship to the lands.

I had the honor of working with Raymond Yowell and the Council to assist in the conduct of the litigation. Steve Newcomb was involved as a researcher and Robert Doyle as a consultant. The litigation challenged the fundamental doctrines of federal Indian law—"plenary power" and "trusteeship"—on the ground that these are extensions of Christian imperialism asserted in the colonial process.

One might think the Western Shoshone were foolish by raising these issues. A conventional approach to federal Indian law says Indians have "lost" title because of the "discovery doctrine." However, as soon as the Western Shoshone filed their lawsuit in the controversy between Nye County and the U.S., those two parties decided they would give up the title claims and focus on land management issues instead. In other words, everyone knew that the Western Shoshone title was better than any other party. The judge went on to ignore the Western Shoshone, and the Appeals Court somehow "lost" their filing. Twice.

Chief Yowell won another brief victory in the course of the litigation, when an injunction was issued against the BLM, prohibiting it from "impounding, confiscating, or forcibly removing" Western Shoshone livestock. That order was later dissolved, when the court ruled that (1) the Western Shoshone Nation's assertion of self-government "flies in the face of reality" because the relationship of American Indians to the United States "is not, and has not traditionally been, one which could be characterized as a foreign or independent nation"; (2) the application of principles of international law is not "appropriate"; and (3) that "both tribal and individual aboriginal title to the Western Shoshone lands ... have been extinguished and compensation paid therefore."

The breadth of the court's ruling shows the breadth of the challenge that Raymond Yowell and the Council were making. Theirs was an astounding effort to use U.S. courts to challenge U.S. power. Perhaps it was doomed from the start, despite the abandonment of title claims by the county and feds and the brief injunction Whatever one thinks about the effort, it stands out as an historic moment in the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the U.S.

Raymond Yowell's tenacity in trying to force the courts to recognize the sham that is called federal Indian law is a testimony to his courage and perseverance. He is a leader of his people, putting himself on the line in the ongoing struggle for Western Shoshone self-determination.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinébe'iiná Náhii?na be Aga'diit'ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.

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beaver's picture
I urge Indian students everywhere to seek a career in law and specialize in what they call Federal Indian law.
derrico's picture
And be sure in your studies to take a critical look at the fundamental doctrines of the field. That's where all the skeletons are buried! (e.g., doctrine of 'Christian Discovery'; the pretense of 'conquest'; the sham of 'trust'; etc.) Be aware of the contradictions and tensions involved in trying to use a colonizer's system to assert rights of self-determination. Work with what's available, but always with an eye to overturning the wrongful doctrines. Remember what Thurgood Marshall did for Black civil rights when he went for overturning the doctrine of 'separate but equal.' The irony is that the same year he pushed the Supreme Court to make that big change (Brown v. Board of Educ.), the court took an Indian case (Tee-Hit-Ton) and reaffirmed 'Christian Discovery'!
chett2cleve's picture
The Treaty of Peace and Friendship in Ruby Valley~ On October 1, 1863 the Ruby Valley Treaty was signed between the Western Shoshone Nation and the Nation of the United States of America. On October 31, 1864 the Territory of Nevada became the State of Nevada and thus the motto: 'Battle Born' was established because the state was created during the Civil War - or the War Between the States. QUESTIONS: How much of the Territory of Nevada was included to comprise the State of Nevada? When the territory was converted into statehood was the Shoshone Nation taken into consideration? Were those who endorsed the territory into statehood aware that they had a separate nation running through the middle of the state which embodied over 86% of this territory and was protected by the Ruby Valley Treaty signed previously by the President of the United States? They had a year to figure it out. What agency did the surveys on these lands and how did they arrive at their conclusion? Was this the first violation of the treaty by the U.S. Government? The 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty - "The Treaty of Peace & Friendship" has never been ratified by the President of the United States or the United States Congress with the Shoshone Nation or any of its People. Never! The changes that have been claimed by the BLM, and as they state - "by the Order of the Courts that the Shoshone People "LOST" their claim's) to their lands by way of "ENCROACHMENT" is not only utterly absurd it is highly illegal. These unities do not have the authority to modify or change any treaty between two nations. Besides that, the lands are not LOST and the Shoshone still live on them and do so by way of their sovereign rights protected by the 1863 Treaty. It cannot be stated enough, the President of the United States and the United States Congress are the ONLY ONES, along with the Shoshone Nation that can make any changes or modifications in or to this treaty. THAT IS THE BOTTOM LINE. EDITORIAL OPINION: There has been some controversy amongst some Shoshone tribal members who do not fully understand the content of the 1863 Treaty to this day, and many non-Native Americans as well, that what has and is going on in regards to the Dann Sisters, Yowell and others are matters concerning them only as to certain violations claimed by the BLM and other USG agencies. It is the observance and opinion of this publication that whatever the Shoshone People do on their lands, as protected by the RVT of 1863, cannot be held as a violation in any degree. No matter what people may think that these individuals are doing on Shoshone Land...as long as they are not in violation of the treaty...it is their right. It is the right of all Shoshone People to live on THEIR lands the way THEY choose and not be forced by any government or corporate-jackbooters to do otherwise. All in all, what this web site publication is attempting to accomplish is unification throughout all of the Shoshone Nation. Like the United States always says: "United We Stand - Divided We Fall". They have done everything in their power to divide, and keep divided, all the Indian Tribes and all the Indian Nations in an effort to nullify their word and signed treaties with any Native American Nation and/or Tribe as a justification to take these lands. When the Native People allow this to happen...they will surely loose the entire battle. Some of the tools that have been used against Native Americans throughout the United States is germ-warfare (small-pox, etc.), alcohol, drugs, diabetes and the list goes on. Therefore, there must be a call throughout all of the Nations to Stand United once and for all. To come together as one. This must be done...and we believe that it must be done soon. No more bickering amongst the People...it accomplishes nothing...and that's just where they want everyone to be. Go to your lodges and think about this very long. When you have done this, step into the sunrise renewed, fresh, alert, healthy and stand strong and proud that You are a member of one of the greatest people to every exist on this entire planet since it was born. You are still here. Our People are still here. What is Your language? Who are Your People? What is YOUR name?