Land Rights Battles of the Western Shoshone Indians

4 Conversations

Prior to the 1800's the Shoshone Indians roamed freely on a portion of the US including 9 Northern and Midwestern states. 1 The tribes were hunter/gatherers and moved about based on the seasonal vegetation and game animals. The different bands and tribes sometimes took their name from their main food resource, such as Sheep-eaters, and sometimes by the area they inhabited, such as Boise and Lemhi Valley Shoshone. 2

Newe Sogobia

Newe is the Shoshone word for all people and is how they refer to themselves. Some sources say they believe that Ah-peh (father) created all humans and the land on which they would live. Others say that The Newe were placed in their Homeland by the Creator, Pia Sokopia (Earth Mother). They believe they have a sacred trust to protect Newe Sogobia (homeland) and draw their sustenance from it.

When the white man (taibo) came, the land the Shoshone lived on was radically changed, and their culture almost eliminated. The white settlers in their quest for gold and any other resource they could exploit, distorted the natural balance of the area. They destroyed many plant and animal forms the tribes had formerly surivived on.

White Man Comes to Great Basin

Jedediah Smith, the fur trader and explorer, was to become the first white man to reach California overland across the Sierra Nevada mountains. In 1805, when he made contact with Lemhi Shoshone, he described the Newe digging for roots and living the simplest of lives. This could be the beginnings of reference to the Newe as the digger Indians.

Other than reporting their existence to white explorers and entreprenuers, Smith's contact with the Shoshone probably had little effect on their lifestyle. The years and white settlers that followed however, drastically changed their way of life.

Smith reported his meeting with the Shoshone to the members of the Lewis and Clark team that latter made contact with the Lemhi Shoshone. This was the team that made the first overland journey across North America to the Pacific coast, one of the longest trans-contintental journeys ever made. A member of the team, Toussaint Charbonneau, had taken for his wife Sacajawea. A Lemhi Shoshone herself, it is likely she had been adopted by the Hidatsa tribe Charbonneau obtained her from. Sacajawea served as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark team.

During the first half of the 1800's the traditional homeland of the Shoshone Indians had virtually all of it's beaver population eliminated.3 Much of the plant and animal life had been wiped out or driven away by the settlers. During the decade that followed the Shoshone Indians rebelled against the white settlers. This was the time of the US's Civil War and the government wished for peace with the tribes and unfettered access to the mines in their territory.

Treaty of Peace

Lacking sufficient troops to protect passage of its agents through Shoshone territory the US requested a treaty for peace from the Shoshone Nation.

The Treaty of Ruby Valley, also known as The Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed in 1863. The treaty offered compensation for the damages suffered by the tribes in return for safe passage through their territories. It stated that the government would pay them annually for twenty years the sum of five thousand dollars in articles such as cattle or any other commodity the President deemed suitable for their needs.

More Promises Broken

The Shoshone agreed to accept the terms of the treaty in return for the loss of game and plant life in their homelands. The treaty did not cede the tribes rights to the land, but instead granted passage without molestation to the US needs. The treaty was ratified by Congress in 1866.

The US basically ignored the treaty and allowed white settlers to move into the area under the pretense of being necessary to passage as outlined in the treaty. The Shoshone have, and do, contend that they have held up their part of the bargain, despite land laid to waste by the mining they had reluctantly agreed to. As early as 1932 they realized their need to retain counsel to enforce the treaty and their land rights.

Through different legislative acts, 90 percent of Western Shoshone land came under control of the Department of the Interior and its branches like the Bureau of Land Management.

In 1951 an atomic test site was established in Nevada. More than 100 atmospheric tests were conducted, more than anywhere else in world, and 950 nuclear bombs were detonated on Shoshone land since 1951, the most recent being in April 1990

Decades of Resistance

In 1951 the Bureau of Indian Affairs persuaded a group of Western Shoshone 4 to file a claim with the Indian Claims Commission to seek compensation for the "taking" of lands. For the extent of the proceedings, from 1951 to 1979, large numbers of the Western Shoshone protested the claim and refused to accept any money.

In 1962 the Indian Claims Commission decided that the Western Shoshone had been deprived of their land by "gradual encroachment" of whites and others without a specific "taking" date. They used July 1872 as the date of valuation for the compensation.

The Indian Claims Commission's jurisdiction was supposed to have been limited to awarding damages for ancient wrongs. Yet it's finding were repeatedly upheld, despite the very recent occurrences of some of those wrongs.

Legal Wrangling

In 1974 The Western Shoshone Sacred Lands Association sought to exclude from the "taking" those lands not currently occupied by whites. Their request was denied. In 1976 they applied for a stay pending determination by the Interior Department as to the status of their claim to title. They also filed an action in Federal District Court. The stay was denied and in Dec of 1979 the action was dismissed. When they appealed the Court of Claims suggested they take their case to Congress.

By 1979 the US Court, against the wishes of the major portion of the Shoshone, awarded less than $27 million, the 1872 value without interest, for the "taking". The Shoshone refused to accept the money because it would constitute them giving up all their rights to their ancestral homeland. Since the Western Shoshone refused to take the money, it was received by the Secretary of the Interior to be held in trust. Since then the fund has grown with interest to over $100 million.

In 1983 the Ninth Circuit reversed and said the Shoshone title was not extinguished because the money had not been paid. The government then petitioned the Supreme Court for a review. They did not ask the court to determine ownership, only if payment had been made. The court held that the transfer of fund to the Interior Secretary constituted payment whether the Shoshone accepted the funds or not.

More Dead Ends

In 1986 the Western Shoshone met with the Interior Department Representatives including Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Ross Swimmer. The negotiations ended with Swimmer stating that no Shoshone land would ever be returned.

In 1994 they met with newly appointed Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who promised to form a team to negotiate legislative proposals on their behalf. Between 1994 and 1997 the only proposal would have allowed the Shoshone to buy the land at market value from the Bureau of Land Management Disposal List using the Indian Claims Commission funds. They would in effect pay current market value for the same land the government supposedly bought from them as recently as 1979 for 15 cents and acre, the 1872 value. The Shoshone rejected the offer, and the government made no other.

The Dann Sisters

Mary and Carrie Dann are two elderly Western Shoshone women who live in the Crescent Valley, 350 miles north of Las Vegas. The ranch had been homesteaded by their father, Dewey Dann, who had paid the grazing fees to the Bureau of Land Management without protest.

The sisters however contend that they had ancestral grazing rights to the land, since it had never been conceded by treaty. They insist the Treaty of Ruby Valley upholds their rights to occupy and graze the land.

The Raids Begin

In 1973 the Bureau of Land Management cited the sisters for trespassing on BLM land. When the case went to the Supreme Court the BLM's position was upheld. In November of 1992 the BLM began its assault on the Western Shoshone Nation at the Dann Ranch. They set up a media and transportation blockade and seized the livestock of the Dann Band of Shoshone Indians. They took and sold at auction 700 horses from the ranch.

In May of 1998 the BLM demanded $564,000 from the Dann sisters for grazing violations. Then in September of 2002 they staged a predawn raid that confiscated more than 200 head of cattle. Around 4 am they arrived with six or seven big trucks to haul the cattle, helicopters, an airplane, and 20 all terrain vehicles, along with more than 50 armed federal agents.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In 1993 the Danns along with the Yomba and Ely Shoshone tribes filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, of which the United States is a member. The complaint accused the US of failing to live up to it's obligations with the Western Shoshone and challenged them to reform their discriminatory practices that deny the human rights of America's indigenous people.

On two seperate occassions the Commission issued "precautionary measures" against the US to halt the BLM action against the Danns until completion of the Commisions investigation. The US never formally responded. On July 30, 2002 the Commission released a report stating that the United States government is violating international human rights laws in regard to its treatment of Mary and Carrie Dann. The commission found the U.S. violated articles of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, including the right of equality before the law, the right to a fair trial, and the right to property.

The Dann Sisters, or the Western Shoshone at large, have yet to have their claims addressed in a serious manner. While they fight their individual battles with the US, plans are under way in high offices to make their efforts mute.

Senator Reid

The US asserts it seized the Shoshone lands by encroachment as early as the 1860's. Accepting this as the US's official stand on the matter, individuals such as Senator Harry Reid, have introduced bills to the senate to extinguish the Shoshone claims once and for all.

Senate Bill 958

Senate Bill 958, pushed by Senator Reid, would distribute evenly the over $100 million fund to any Shoshone in the area of at least one quarter blood descent. If the distribution is allowed to take place, the Shoshone will receive a fraction of the huge price the land would command on the open market.

Senate Bill 719

Many believe Senator Reid deliberately by-passed tribal governments and down-played opposing public opinion in order to push the bill through congress. It has also been suggested that his eagerness to see the bill passed may be related to a separate bill he supports, Senate Bill 719. The Northern Nevada Public Land Management Act would privatize the greater portion of Nevada and make it available for sell to the highest bidder.

His office has repeatedly ignored attempts by the Shoshone to contact him and arrange some sort of equitable negotiations.

National Holiday

For every band, tribe, and nation of natives living in America on the arrival of white men, there is a story of ill treatment. The story of the Dann Band of the Western Shoshone Tribe of Indians is not unique in it's miscarraige of justice. Despite the magnitude of the problem, there is little public debate on the issues. Not enough people are aware of the situation to keep it in the news, and the ones who are, feel helpless to change it.

Native American Day Holiday Bill

To address this state of affairs, United Native America
has brought a bill before Congress known as the Native American Day Holiday Bill
, HR 5653. The purpose of the bill is to have a hearing on the racial exclusions suffered by Natives of this country. They also propose to pay tribute to those who have endured the longest and most costly in human lives, oppression of peoples known to the world.

The Indians contend they do not want to sponsor Columbus Day, and believe it should not be a national holiday. It cites examples of states that have already done away with the holiday that pays tribute to a dubious at best national hero. The fact that Columbus has a national holiday and yet the peoples whose lifestyle he help to irradicate do not, is indicitive of the attitude that persists in America today.

The Gathering of First American Nations March

United Native Americans is also supporting The Gathering of First American Nations March
set for June 27, 2003 at the Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. The gathering hopes to convince Native Americans to unite and take a stand against the deliberate deteriorating of their tribal sovereignty by the US Government. They demand that the treaties be honored, and insist they cannot continue to tolerate the third world conditions their people must live in, in this one of the wealthiest nations in the world. The message they want to get out; the US Constitution is not being honored in so far as the first peoples of this land are concerned.

History of Shoshone Indians Southeastern Idaho Native American Prehistory and HistoryPBS Online- Lewis and ClarkCalifornia Trail, Western Shoshone HistoryThe British Involvement in the US Civil WarLast stand for Western ShoshoneWestern Shoshone IssuesReno Gazette JournalUS Violates Indian Rights
1These include most of Idaho, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of California, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.2There were seven distinct Shoshone groups including the Eastern, Goshute, and Western Shoshone. The four remaining groups of are generally considered The Northern Shoshone and they include The Fort Hall, Lemhi Valley, and Northwestern Shoshone.3 One notable example is the expedetion of Peter Skene Ogden of Hudson's Bay Company. His mission was to create a "fur desert" to discourage American trappers from coming into the area.4 Known as "Western Shoshone Identifiable Group Vs. U.S." the claims were heard and decided despite opposition by the major portion of the Shoshone.

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