Another way to win back land

  • Raymond Yowell, whose cattle were seized by theBLM

    Michelle Nijhuis

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

LEE, Nev. - South of Elko, on the west side of the Ruby Mountains, the shady meadows of the South Fork Reservation are thick with irises. Here, Raymond Yowell, who was appointed chief of the Western Shoshone in 1985 by the members of the Western Shoshone National Council, runs his ranch from the house where he grew up.

Like the Dann sisters, Yowell has long grazed cattle outside his homestead without a permit. The week before the tribe voted whether or not to accept federal land settlement money, after years of threats and failed negotiations, the Bureau of Land Management seized Yowell's cattle and auctioned them off in Reno. The auction triggered an angry protest at the agency office in Elko, attracting not only tribal members but a loud contingent of anti-federal activists from the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood.

Yowell shows no signs of battle fatigue. He says the Shoshone are still entitled to control 75 million acres of Great Basin land, the most generous interpretation of the terms of the Ruby Valley Treaty. "It's wrong that the U.S. government took that land from us," he says. "Why should we cave into them?"

But Yowell also remembers a long-ago conversation with Pauline Esteves, then the chairwoman of the Timbisha Shoshone tribe in Death Valley and a member of the National Council.

"How do you think we can get our land the quickest?" she asked Yowell one evening in the late 1980s, after both had spent the day protesting against nuclear-weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site. "I said to her, 'I'll be very honest with you - we may never win our war. You may be more successful if you go another route.'"

A different path

That's exactly what Esteves did. The federal government had officially recognized the Timbisha as a tribe in 1983, but the tribe had only a tenuous claim to a small chunk of National Park Service land; agency regulations even prevented them from building houses with foundations.

Then Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, a long-time champion of Native American rights, attached a provision to the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. The act expanded Death Valley National Park, and Inouye's provision required a federal study to determine if land could be restored to the Timbisha Shoshone. That study led to several years of negotiations among tribal members and the Park Service and other federal officials, facilitated by University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson.

In 2000, Congress gave the Timbisha about 314 acres with water rights within the park, stipulating that the tribe could build a "modestly sized" resort that did not offer gambling. The tribe also gained shared management responsibilities for another 300,000 acres of park land and title and water rights to about 7,400 acres of nearby federal land. It was the first time the Park Service had ever ceded land to a tribe.

"We were treated as squatters," says tribal administrator Barbara Durham. "With land comes an identity for the tribe. Now we can build homes for people, and we hope we can resurrect our language and our songs."

That hasn't happened yet. Esteves was ousted from office in June 2001 by a group of younger tribal members from Bishop, Calif., and the Timbisha are now divided over the future of the land.

Still, Western Shoshone land-rights activists point to the agreement with hope. Even if the cash payment to the Shoshone moves forward, Congress could give individual reservations title to some BLM acreage. The agency could also agree to share some land-management responsibilities with the tribe.

A stormy political climate

"There's no reason to believe that Congress would have ever chosen for these peoples to be essentially landless," says Charles Wilkinson. "One can reasonably expect that over time, Congress may very well respond by setting aside another reservation or adding to an existing reservation."

Nevada Sen. Harry Reid would support a tribal proposal for a "reasonable" expansion of Western Shoshone reservations, says his press secretary Tessa Hafen. Reid is currently pushing another Senate bill that would return 24 acres near Lake Tahoe to the Washoe tribe.

Nevada BLM director Robert Abbey, whose agency was involved with the Timbisha negotiations, calls the agreement a "positive experience."

"I don't see why it can't occur again," he says. His agency is already talking about boundary adjustments with several Western Shoshone governments.

Abbey warns that any reservation expansion would likely face opposition, however. Many rural counties would rather see federal lands privatized than turned over to tribes; hunters and four-wheelers can be very protective of their access to public lands; and mining companies would surely oppose transfer of any land with mineral potential. The Timbisha Shoshone agreement also faced criticism from some environmentalists, who feared the park would lose essential water rights.

Abbey's higher-ups might not be enthusiastic about the idea, either. Recent Republican administrations have supported shrinking the federal land base, and some have turned land over to tribes. The Bush administration, however, has taken aim at tribes' very identity: This year in the Pacific Northwest, the Chinook tribe lost its federal recognition and funding, and the Duwamish tribe was denied recognition approved by the Clinton administration.

But Fermina Stevens, the 32-year-old chairwoman of the Elko Band of Western Shoshone, is ready to face the steep odds. About 1,500 people live on the band's 150 acres in the low, sagebrush-covered hills on the north edge of Elko. Half the land is already occupied by densely packed tribal housing and administrative offices.

"We've got 75 acres left," she says. "Seventy-five acres, a gas station and a convenience store. That's not much."

With more land - even 1,000 acres, she says * the band could build more houses and make room for a playing field. They could invest in wind or solar power, or even in geothermal energy. "Energy development is huge in Indian Country right now," she says. "There are grants and training programs. We could do so much."

Stevens, who opposes the land claims payment, hopes her tribe will soon be able to move forward. "You hear, 'You're a land person, you're a money person,' and the two people don't communicate," she says. "It's been a brick wall in front of us for so long."


Copyright © 2002 HCN and Michelle Nijhuis

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