Before Anglo settlers arrived in present-day Nevada, the Western Shoshone Indians occupied half of the state's current land area. Now, most of the tribe's members live on tiny reservations, many of them in poverty, even though a congressionally approved land-claims settlement of $121 million has been waiting for final Shoshone approval for 21 years.
Two years ago, what Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, D, called a majority of Western Shoshone members voted 1,230-53 to take the money, a move Reid saw as the tribe's approval of the deal. This summer, he introduced the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, which would distribute the $121 million equally among eligible tribal members.
"We have waited a long time and gotten nothing," says Western Shoshone Claims Committee co-chairman Larry Piffero. "Enough is enough." Piffero says the tribe has only recently begun to take action because a "silent majority" has decided to speak up. Piffero acknowledges that the compensation is meager, but he says it will help: One out of three tribal members doesn't have a job.
But others contest the vote's legitimacy. "There are 5,000-6,000 Western Shoshones," says Christopher Sewall of the Western Shoshone Defense Project, a coalition of tribal members and Anglo activists. "How was that vote a majority?" Sewall says the vote was not organized by the tribal councils, many of which object to taking the money, but by a small group of Shoshones that had assistance from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The payments wouldn't create economic development opportunities for future generations of Western Shoshones, he adds, and acceptance of the money would seal off any chance for the tribe to reclaim its historic homeland.
The bottom line, says Sewall, is that the one-time payment "is not going to change conditions here." Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Sen. Reid says he will do what he can to push the bill through Congress this fall.