Nuclear Waste, Gold and Land Theft in Newe Sogobia
On July 7, President Bush signed into law the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, the latest chapter in a long history of indigenous land theft. The bill authorizes the US government to pay the Western Shoshone Nation $145 million for 24 million acres of land in Nevada, despite heavy opposition by the majority of Western Shoshone tribal governments.
The Shoshone land, Newe Sogobia in the Shoshone language, has been occupied by the tribes for thousands of years, and the Western Shoshone Nation holds official title to 60 million acres via the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1863. The US government has ignored that fact for decades, illegally using Shoshone land for nuclear, mining and ranching interests against the will of the tribes. In 1979, the US proposed to buy the land for 15 cents an acre, but the Shoshone refused. The new distribution bill simply disregards Shoshone opposition--granting them the 1979 amount, plus interest--in order to escalate the exploitation of Newe Sogobia.
The Nevada nuclear test site was developed on Western Shoshone land in the early 1950s and was used for full-scale nuclear detonations until 1992, severely irradiating local communities. In February 2002, the Bush administration officially designated Yucca Mountain, also located within the treaty boundaries, as the repository for all the nation's nuclear waste. Bechtel has been awarded a $1.2 billion contract to build the facility.
The Western Shoshone, scientists and other concerned citizens have opposed the Yucca Mountain project since it was first proposed in the late 1970s. Geological and hydrological features of the area make it highly unsafe for the storage of nuclear waste. There are also concerns about the effects of radiation on nearby populations and possible accidents during transportation of the waste.
Disregarding significant evidence of dangers as well as the illegality of using the land, the US government is pushing through with the waste repository project. The Bush administration has also hinted at resuming nuclear weapons testing on Shoshone lands, despite strong international opposition.
Newe Sogobia is also rich in mineral deposits. A 1999 report by the US Geological Survey called it the "number one investment opportunity" for extraction companies. Ten percent of the world's gold production (two-thirds of US production) occurs on Western Shoshone land. The US has awarded mining contracts to Barrick, Placer Dome, Newmont, Kennecott and Marigold multinational companies.
A new privatization scheme currently in Congress, HR 2869, would award yet another mining contract to Placer Dome. The proposed contract for Mt. Tenabo--a sacred mountain in Crescent Valley, Nevada--is expected to yield seven to eight billion dollars in revenue for the company.
Nevada legislators are also trying to develop the many hot springs located on Western Shoshone treaty lands for geothermal energy production. Federal bill HR 2772 would open up the area to massive geothermal production, granting preliminary subsidies to the energy industry with the option to convert energy leases into mineral claims.
All of these actions by the US government and multinational companies are degrading and poisoning the land of the Western Shoshone. They are also completely illegal. Now, with the passage of the distribution bill, the US is trying to terminate all Shoshone claims to 24 million acres of Newe Sogobia by "buying" it.
Based on a straw poll completed by a handpicked group of Shoshone, the Bush administration claims that the "vast majority" of people in the Western Shoshone tribes want to sell the land. Tribal leaders call the vote a sham, and even the Bureau of Indian Affairs has not validated the results.
"A fraud is a fraud," said Western Shoshone National Councilmember Raymond Yowell. "The [people] who pushed for this money are not members of any federally recognized council and have no authority to speak on behalf of the Western Shoshone nation. The Nevada legislators and the Bush administration have been well-advised of this fact."
Six members of Congress attached a dissenting view to the legislation, arguing that the administration did not prove that a majority of Shoshone support the distribution. In fact, eight resolutions opposing it have been passed by various Western Shoshone governing bodies, representing more than 70 percent of the Western Shoshone population. In addition, the National Congress of American Indians, the United Nations and Amnesty International are against the bill.
The US government claims that the original Ruby Valley Treaty was invalidated by the so-called "gradual encroachment" of miners who squatted the land during the 1800s, but this justification cannot be upheld legally.
The tribes believe that the legislation may be unconstitutional due to the fact that the funds will be distributed amongst individual members of Western Shoshone tribes. Tom Leubben, an attorney for the Yomba Shoshone tribe, claims that "there is a legal issue, which is whether Congress has the constitutional right to individualize Western Shoshone assets without Western Shoshone tribal concurrence."
As many as 10,000 Western Shoshone could be entitled to payment. However, some have said they will not accept the money because doing so would suggest that they accept the legislation robbing them of their land.
"I'm not going to sell my dignity, my spirituality, my culture. No way, " said Carrie Dann, a traditional tribal member.
Dann claims that the government has stolen and exploited more than 60 million acres of Newe Sogobia across Nevada, California, Utah and Idaho, and a lawsuit challenging past land seizures is currently before the US District Court in Washington, DC.
Yowell echoes her sentiments. "What this bill does is give [the US government] an out, he said. "Now they can say that they paid the Shoshone for their land. I cannot be a part of it."
Unfortunately, many Shoshone will probably accept the payments, but tribal authorities still refuse to recognize the US government's claim to the land. "The fight is not over," said Yowell. "Individuals cannot sell out a nation, and the bill, although a threat politically, does nothing to change our inherent rights or our treaty rights . . . .We will use the Treaty of Ruby Valley to stop Yucca Mountain and to protect our lands."
Elders and traditional tribal members won't give up, because they cannot. "As Western Shoshone, we have been fighting for many years to simply remain who we are--Western Shoshone," said Dann. "The Earth is our mother and land provides us with life, like the water and the air. To take this land from us will be to lead us into a spiritual death."
© Earth First! Journal September-October 2004