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Indians Win Land Rights Suit, But Bush Admin Ignores Court

by Jim Lobe

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(IPS) WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration has refused to respond to a landmark decision issued last month by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that U.S. claims to the ancestral lands of the Western Shoshone Indians in Nevada are illegal under international law.

The case, which revolves around a 30-year dispute between two Shoshone grandmothers, Carrie and Mary Dann, and the U.S. government, is based on the contention by the Western Shoshone that Washington illegally seized their lands without compensation or due process.

Traditional Western Shoshone land comprises about two-thirds of Nevada and includes mining areas that have earned private companies and the state billions in revenues over the years. The Shoshone, who, like many other Indian groups in the United States, live mostly in poverty, have seen virtually none of that money.

Claiming that the land belongs to the Shoshone, the Danns have been grazing their cattle and horses on what Washington claims is public land for decades without paying grazing fees.

In September, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which operates U.S. public lands, seized 227 of the Danns' cattle, and despite an appeal issued by the IACHR to return the livestock, sold them at auction. It has also levied fees and fines against the two sisters totalling more than $3 million.

"I was indigenous and in one single evening, they made me indigent," Mary Dann told The New York Times shortly after the BLM seizure.

Last month, mainly Indian cowboys began rounding up about 800 of the Danns' horses that will be herded onto private land for safekeeping so that the BLM does not follow through on a threat to impound them as well.

The U.S. government contends that Shoshone claims to the land were disposed of by the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), set up in 1946 to compensate Indian tribes for all outstanding claims against the United States.

The ICC subsequently declared that the Western Shoshone had lost their land to "white encroachment" despite protests by the Indians who continued to live on and use the land. Indeed, the land claimed by the Danns extends for many square kilometers with no sign of human habitation.

In 1962, the ICC awarded the Western Shoshone about 37 cents per hectare (15 cents per acre) for almost 10 million hectares of lands. The amount of compensation reflected land values in 1872, when Washington considered that the lands became the property of the federal government. But current land values range between $625 and $2,500 per hectare.

In 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the process that set the compensation amount.

But the Shoshone tribes refused to accept the money, depositing it in a U.S. Treasury trust account. Many Western Shoshone, including the Danns, oppose accepting the money out of concern that acceptance would void their claims. At the same time, Nevada's representatives in Congress are pushing a $100-million bill that would provide $20,000 to each of the 5,000 members of the tribe to resolve all outstanding claims.

With the help of the Washington-based Indian Law Resource Center, the Danns took the case to the IACHR in 1993. The commission, an autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), of which the United States is a member, is charged with upholding various human rights treaties and conventions ratified by OAS member states.

Last November, Amnesty International USA, which has seldom taken a position on the rights of Indians in the United States, also came out in support of the Danns. AIUSA director William Schulz voiced concern at the time that "any payments by the federal government not be used to deny the Shoshone from further pursuing claims to the land and from redress for human rights violations committed against them".

The National Congress of American Indians also approved a resolution in support of the Shoshones and charged Washington with "engaging in activities which deny Western Shoshone continued occupation of their ancestral lands and threaten the survival of the Western Shoshone people, their culture, social fabric, economy and ecology".

In its 50-page final decision made public earlier this month, the commission found that the ICC procedures were unfair and riddled with violations of due process, violating the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

Specifically, it found that Washington had used illegitimate means to gain control of the Indians' ancestral lands by denying the Danns, as well as other tribal members, "their rights to equality before the law, to be free of discrimination, to a fair trial and to property".

It was the first time that the United States has been found in violation of international human rights laws in its treatment of U.S. Indians, according to the Resource Center, which has helped bring a number of successful cases against governments in Latin America on behalf of indigenous groups.

The commission further called on Washington to make available a fair legal process to determine the Danns' and other Western Shoshone land rights and to review its laws, procedures and practices to ensure that property rights on indigenous people are consistent with those laid out in the American Declaration.

"This clearly has potential implications for other Indian claims around the country," noted Deborah Schaaf, an attorney at the Indian Law Resource Center.

So far, the administration has not reacted formally to the decision. A BLM spokesperson, who said that the IACHR's decisions are not legally binding on the United States, said she was awaiting guidance from the State Department, which handles relations with the OAS, but the responsible State Department officer did not return phone calls to IPS.

Officials previously insisted that the Danns' and Shoshone claims had been "fully and fairly" settled by U.S. courts, a claim explicitly rebutted in the commission's decision.

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Albion Monitor February 7, 2003 (

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