On June 18, 2003, the House Committee on Resources held a hearing on H.R. 884, The Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, sponsored by Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons. The Committee allowed only three Western Shoshones to testify: Te-Moak Chairman Felix Ike, Laura Piffero (whose recently deceased father Larry Piffero was a member of the self-styled Western Shoshone Steering Committee), and Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council.
Chairman Ike and Laura Piffero said that they represented the majority of Western Shoshones, who, they contend, want the funds in Docket 326-K distributed (some $130 million dollars). As evidence for their position, Ike pointed to the “referendum” vote that he, Larry Piffero, Nancy Stewart, and their supporters organized last June.
In my estimation, Ike was less than honest with the Committee on Resources. His testimony appears on Te-Moak Tribal Council letterhead, thereby making it appear that his testimony reflected the sentiment of the Te-Moak Tribal Council as a Western Shoshone governing body. But Ike did not tell the Committee about the Band Council and Te-Moak Council resolutions refusing to accept the process or the results of his so-called referendum.
Ike misled the committee by not disclosing how the Te-Moak Tribal Council opposed his actions and the actions of the so-called Western Shoshone Steering Committee every step of the way. Ike did not disclose that he and his group worked with the BIA to bypass the Te-Moak Council and the other Western Shoshone councils in drafting the claims distribution legislation now before Congress. Ike did not disclose to the Committee that he had been ordered by a number of the Band Councils and by members of the Te-Moak Council to conduct himself in keeping with the terms of the Te-Moak Constitution that he is sworn to uphold, and to not go off on his own.
Last November, I wrote a column describing how Chairman Ike had defied the Te-Moak Tribal Council by holding a vote on the distribution issue. I pointed out how the Te-Moak Tribal Council had told Ike to stop what he was doing, to slow down, to proceed only with Council approval, and to deal with the land issue. He refused to honor or respect these directives, and instead went ahead with his “vote.” Ike even went so far as to refer to his vote as a “referendum” despite the fact that he refused to abide by the Te-Moak Constitutional format for a “referendum.”
According to the Te-Moak Tribal Council, Ike’s actions violated the Te-Moak Constitution he is sworn to uphold. That six of the nine Te-Moak Tribal Council members sent a letter to the Committee on Resources explaining how Chairman Ike did not follow the Te-Moak Constitution and was not authorized to present the testimony he delivered to the Committee provides ample evidence that this is true.
As I was recently thinking about the dubious nature of last June’s “vote,” a number of questions occurred to me. For example, why do people like Felix Ike and Senator Harry Reid assume that the Western Shoshone people only have the right to vote at the very tail end of the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) process? In other words, have the Western Shoshone ever been allowed to vote on whether or not they would accept the ICC’s “findings of fact” and “final determination” in the Western Shoshone case? No, they haven’t.
Have the Western Shohsone ever been allowed to vote on whether they would accept the Indian Claim Commission’s decision, especially given their knowledge that the Commission did not produce one scrap of historical documentation to support its “finding” of a “taking” of Western Shoshone lands by “gradual encroachment?” No, they haven’t.
Were the Western Shoshone ever allowed to vote on whether or not to withdraw their case from the Indian Claims Commission process once they realized that that process was a trap that would create the illusion and the legal fiction that their lands had been “taken” from them? No, they weren’t. A non-Indian court was allowed to decide the matter for them, without their consent.
Were the Western Shoshone ever allowed to vote on whether or not to accept the stipulated agreement between the federal government attorneys and the attorneys for Wilkinson, Kragun, and Barker, whereby the attorneys agreed to the idea that Western Shoshone lands had been “taken” by “gradual encroachment” as of July 1, 1872? No. Non-Indian attorneys were allowed to decide that issue for them without their consent.
And now, as a “legal matter,” and from the point of view of the United States, all Western Shoshones are considered bound by a stipulated agreement that came out of the minds of non-Indian attorneys, without Western Shoshone consent, and without Western Shoshone involvement.
Have the Western Shoshones ever been allowed to vote on whether the United States ought to honor and respect the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley? No they haven’t.
However, the Te-Moak Tribal Council did vote last August when it passed a number of resolutions explicitly telling Ike he was not authorized to work with Reid on the ballot and the vote.
The response to this vote, however, was all too predictable when Reid promptly ignored the results, but chose instead to legitimize Ike’s “vote.” Reid’s involvement in the matter is particularly troublesome because it means that a United States Senator shamelessly engaged in unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of an Indian nation by assisting one side over the other to violate the Te-Moak Constitution.
It is worthy of note that Ike and Reid did not develop a ballot that would gauge whether the Western Shoshone want their treaty and land rights upheld and protected. The reason is clear. Such a ballot would possibly lead to a result that wouldn’t serve Reid’s true goal: to remove once and for all the Western Shoshone title cloud from Western Shoshone lands. The Associated Press reported last week that Reid has Nevada land holdings and mining claims worth $786,000 to $1.67 million. Question: Are these land holdings and mining claims located in Western Shoshone country?
Above, I have cited many of the issues that the Western Shoshones have never been given the opportunity to vote on over the decades. Are we expected to believe that the ICC process was “democratic” because a secretive group called the “Western Shoshone Steering Committee” was able to politically manipulate a “vote” last June, with the assistance of a powerful U.S. Senator?
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Research Coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today.