Cattle theft, vote are double blows to Western Shoshone land rights
It happened very fast, in the early morning hours. Some called it an "act of war." Agents from Interior Secretary Gale Norton's Bureau of Land Management, along with officials from the Nevada Agricultural Department and contract cowboys, confiscated 162 head of Indian-owned cattle, from an Indian allotment, on Western Shoshone Treaty lands.
The armed BLM agents arrived before sunrise on Friday morning of the Memorial Day holiday weekend and seized the cattle belonging to two tribal ranchers from the community of South Fork. By 10:30 a.m., the agents had the captured herd loaded on trucks en route to a federal holding facility in Palomino Valley. The 162 cows and calves, bearing the Te-Moak Shoshone Livestock Association brand, were auctioned within the week, at great financial loss to Indian rancher Raymond Yowell, traditional chief and spokesperson of the many Shoshone fighting for their tribal ancestral territory. Yowell's ranching enterprise is nearly destroyed by the federal rustle. The cattle in question were particularly valuable for their adaptation to the arid summers and harsh winters in that region of Nevada.
The raid was one of two blows against Western Shoshone justice in as many weeks. On June 4, by decisive margin, tribal members voted to accept the 100 percent per-capita distribution of the government's 1984 offer of $26 million, now worth some $138 million, as part of the final relinquishment of title. It signals a major setback for those engaged in the broader struggle to protect Shoshone lands under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, while giving tacit legitimacy to the longstanding federal occupation of a sizable tract of Indian country.
According to the BLM, the seized cows were trespassing on government lands and the Indian ranchers were failing to pay proper grazing fees. Since 1984, when the Te-Moak Shoshones and others stopped paying grazing fees, the federal government has levied fees and fines against them in the amount of $2.5 million. In the federal government's interpretation of the Western Shoshone case, the tribe simply has no jurisdictional rights over their ancestral, treaty-guaranteed lands. A major case, brought by Western Shoshone sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, saw the U.S. Supreme Court rule in 1985 that the tribe lost judicial recourse when the Secretary of Interior settled their land claim on their behalf. However, no one ever affirmed that title over the lands in question had transferred; it was simply assumed.
Nevertheless, many Indian people upholding their historical truth have fought for the wider recognition. Under the Indian Claims Commission, when many tribal members refused to accept compensation to quit the claim once and for all, they claim, it was the federal government that assumed the right to do it for them. These Shoshone disagree that a 1984 $26 million dollar monetary award accepted on their behalf by the same government which wanted the land can be assumed to be just compensation for the alleged extinguishment of Shoshone land title to over 24 million acres of ancestral territory. It was an unjust decision, they claim, and point to how lawyers representing the Shoshone before the commission would be paid only if title was extinguished as a result of their work.
While this is truly a sorry case, with many distortions of justice, nevertheless, it is clearly court-sanctioned. BLM has the legal basis and law-enforcement can do what it did ? although, of course, it could always have chosen to take less drastic and damaging, more legalistic courses of action. It often does, with non-Native cases. With Yowell and the Western Shoshones, it has chosen to strike a malignant and directed blow that has done serious damage to a family's business and to a tribe's potential for regaining land rights.
Once again tribal rights turn into an obvious travesty of justice, and a treaty can be trampled. In the case of the Western Shoshone, the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley guaranteeing peace and friendship forever, was conveniently ignored by the feds for long enough to convince the people that all recourse in the courts is closed and they have nowhere to go. Instead, money is offered, and a people who have lived long in the shadows of poverty opt to get paid.
Everyone knows, more or less, that no transfer of title has ever been established for these Indian lands; nor, as the tribe has argued for decades, was transfer of title ever intended. The treaty was an agreement to share lands, but did not transfer title. Title actually was assumed by federal jurisdiction in set-asides and re-drawings of reservation boundaries during the early 1900s and through the Great Depression. Thus, BLM assumed control of grazing areas surrounding the reduced reservations.
The tribe, with substantial documentation on its side, has consistently contested this assumption by the BLM. According to the feds, extinguishment was based on a 1962 finding by the Indian Claims Commission. This quasi-judicial body set up by Congress in 1946 ruled that the ancestral land in question had been lost by the Shoshone due to a process of "gradual encroachment by white settlers and others." Thus the land was stolen.
Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council, who lost 136 from his own herd in the BLM raid, has been among the most vocal tribal leaders. In typical fashion, when the feds hit Indian causes, they seem to hit leaders directly. This is evidenced in the speed with which the cattle was rustled and sold, at less than a fourth its actual worth. To all appearances, the agencies moved to hurt Yowell.
The raid on a traditional chief's cattle and the decisive vote (1,703-230) in favor of the money-for-land settlement constitute a double blow that fell hard on the traditionalists who have held up the Treaty to protect rights to their homeland. The money award, ostensibly accepted, had not been distributed, due to widespread hope by tribal members that their claim would find a truly just hearing in the courts. Since the high court decision against the Danns, and the BLM's continuous pressure to take control of the lands, such expectation has severely diminished. Now the larger number has opted to take the payment, in per capita form. The payment amounts to some $20,000 per tribal member. Although practical, perhaps even simply realistic, it is a pitiful decision for any people to have to make. It also runs against the national trend of tribal awareness, that only through the application of sovereignty, with tribes exercising control over their own lands and resources, can Indian peoples ever again hope to prosper.
The Indian ranchers and treaty-people have a few friends. Non-Indian ranchers of the Nevada Livestock Association, politician John Carpenter, R-Elko, and even cowboy poet Waddie Mitchell, came out in opposition to the seizing of Western Shoshone cattle. Nobody really could like the strong-arm tactics of the federal agency, seemingly willing to break the backs of legitimate Indian ranching enterprises.
"Under what law did they take our land? They have yet to provide an answer," asks Chief Yowell. The federal agencies have won in the courts, in the grazing field and then after 20 years of imposed hardship, in the voting booth, but still, there is no dignified answer that the government can provide. It would seem that one of America's most epic land swindles continues unabated.