Western Shoshone vote challenged
BATTLE MOUNTAIN, Nev. ? A vote by Western Shoshone tribal members over whether to accept a $138 million land claim distribution created quite a sensation 10 days ago when unofficial results reported 1,647 voting in favor and 156 against.
The prospect of receiving a per capita cash payment of about $20,000 elated supporters of the vote, including members of the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Steering Committee. The payout would be distributed among eligible members of the 5,445 enrolled Western Shoshones.
But numerous allegations of irregularities surrounding the ballot and the voting process have roused the ire of other tribal officials. They say the vote is not legal or binding because established election procedures were not followed.
Chairmen from four Western Shoshone bands that comprise the Te-Moak Tribal Council are challenging the validity of the June 3 vote organized by Te-Moak Chairman Felix Ike. They worry that the vote will be construed falsely as a signal that the majority of tribal members want only money. They fear that Ike's actions will threaten the tribe's claim to 23.6 million acres of ancestral land.
(The vote was also repudiated by the leader of the Yomba Band, also Western Shoshone but not part of the Te-Moak coalition.)
"He acted on his own without Te-Moak Council authorization," said Battle Mountain Band Council Chairman Stanford Knight. "It did not come from the tribal council. He was avoiding us because we wanted to stop that ballot. The council has the final say over what the chairman can and cannot do, especially if tribal funds are being used."
Larson Bill, vice-chairman of the Te-Moak Tribal Council and chairman of the South Fork Band Council, said that based on the estimates, he believes that less than half of the tribe's eligible voters participated in the vote because they opposed the ballot or were not notified.
"We did not approve this balloting," he said. "We have a government-to-government relationship (with the federal government) and it has to start at the local level. That didn't happen. This ballot is being pushed by Senator Harry Reid's office and the State of Nevada who will benefit from selling our land. The process was premature and must be stopped. We have to have some questions answered before they extinguish all our rights."
The four leaders said Ike violated the tribe's constitution when he developed, in collaboration with Sen. Reid, D-Nev., a so-called "referendum" vote that is intended to convince the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to approve a bill Reid sponsored to distribute the money.
In a May 1 letter to Felix Ike, Reid stated "I am committed to moving S. 958, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, through the legislative process. A clear and unambiguous ballot is essential to show the Congress that the Western Shoshone people support the provisions in S. 958, and I believe we can make significant progress with the legislation once a new vote has occurred."
Reid also made suggestions on rewording the ballot and said, "The Committee on Indian Affairs suggests the inclusion of the following statement, which could be added to the fact sheet:
"The United States Supreme Court has ruled that claims to tribal aboriginal land title were extinguished upon the payment into the U.S. Treasury of judgment funds awarded under Docket Numbers 326K, 326-A-1 and 326-A-3 by the Indian Claims Commission. Accordingly, the distribution of these funds neither revives any extinguished claims nor extinguishes any existing or future claims against the United States government."
Chairman Bill calls the statement "an outright lie" and argues that the government simply paid itself and that no Shoshone has ever received one dime. He cites legal experts who say that under Federal Indian Law, once a tribe accepts monetary payment for its land, it loses legal footing for a land claim.
Reid's press secretary, Tessa Hafen, told the Reno Gazette-Journal that "the senator has said all along that he would let the tribe decide. These early numbers do indicate overwhelming support for this distribution and Senator Reid will move forward accordingly."
But Fermina Stevens, chairperson of the Elko Band, said, "The Te-Moak Constitution has a definite process for a referendum, and that was not followed. A majority of the Te-Moak Council must start the process by a formal resolution. But we have never made a decision as a government regarding any kind of vote on the claims distribution."
Leta Piffero, who sits on the Elko Band Election Committee, said even though the vote took place in Elko, the election committee had no involvement in the vote. She said Chairman Ike's secretary served as the election clerk, though it was unclear how she had been placed in that position.
Piffero also objected to the lack of choices on the ballot, which asked voters to choose yes or no on distributing the judgment funds awarded to the Western Shoshone to be paid at 100 percent per capita.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you stick a piece of paper in front of someone and ask them 'do you want money, or do you not want money,' that they're gonna take the money," she said.
Many Western Shoshone oppose the idea of receiving a one-time cash payment and no land. Larson said Shoshones who live in cities seem to favor the cash payments, while tribal members who live in rural areas are against it.
"People who live on the land know the value of it," he said. "The land is worth much more than the money."
Willie Johnny, chairman of the Wells Band, said, "We do not approve of what Mr. Ike is doing. He has never had a meeting with us about the ballot and ignored council resolutions directing him to stop actions that are not in the best interest of the Western Shoshone people."
Johnny said people need to have more options in such a vote, options based on both land and money for damages not a cash distribution that could destroy their best chances at retaining their land.
Noting that the Wells Band has only 80 acres of land for its 200 members, Johnny accused Reid of "trying to sell us out" and said his tribe opposed the process leading up to the vote.
"To me, the land is worth a lot more important than the money," he said. "People here don't want to sell their land. Money comes and goes, but the land is forever."
All four leaders interviewed agreed that Ike's close relationship with Reid has compromised the Western Shoshone nation's right to conduct its internal affairs without outside interference.
They question why a United States senator was involved in writing language for a tribal ballot that contradicts several tribal council resolutions that were passed in early April and May. The resolutions document concerns about "the apparent closeness of Chairman Ike and Senator Harry Reid to sell Western Shoshone lands."
South Fork Band Resolution 02-SF-09 states: "The Council goes on record curtailing Te-Moak Chairman from discussing the claims issue with Senator Harry Reid or others who may wish to accept the claims distribution as written. There is to be no election poll taken until each Band Council has an opportunity to review and have input in the future of Western Shoshone land and its people."
In addition, the Battle Mountain Band Council sent a letter to Reid on May 15 advising him that the council had restricted Ike from meeting with Reid without Tribal and Band approval.
"We are requesting for you to meet with each Band in their areas so they may ask questions and give input on this very important issue. Through Resolution 02-BM-11, the Battle Mountain Band requested the voting that is scheduled for June 3, 2002 not take place (because) the people have not been given the opportunity to give their ideas or input regarding the ballot," the letter stated.
Chairman Knight, who signed the letter, said Reid has not responded to any of their requests or acknowledged their concerns.
Likewise, Yomba Tribal Chairman James Birchim sent a letter to Reid on May 30 asking him to exert his influence over Ike to cancel the referendum because "a referendum that bypasses tribal government processes is not an appropriate means to assess the views of Federally-recognized Indian tribes on issues of public policy."
Senator Reid's office did not respond to calls seeking comment.