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Western Shoshone payout bill clears Congress

A controversial bill to distribute more than $145 million to members of the Western Shoshone Nation is headed to President Bush for his signature.

By unanimous consent, the Senate approved the payout bill yesterday. The measure was pushed by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada), who sits on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

"The final distribution of this fund has languished for 25 years," Reid said. "The Western Shoshone people should not have to wait any longer."

The action came just three days after the House passed the measure by an unrecorded voice vote. Democrats who previously objected supported the bill after receiving assurances that Reid would consider legislation to recover some of the lands the Western Shoshone Nation lost.

"While we do not have an exact count, there is a segment of the Western Shoshone who are opposed to this legislation," Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the ranking member of the House Resources Committee said on Tuesday. "They believe that if the claims award is distributed, they would then be precluded from expanding the land base of the various Western Shoshone Indian tribes."

The bill's passage represents a decades-long battle over one of the more well-known land claims. It began in the 1960s, when the Indian Claims Commission awarded the Western Shoshone people $26 million in compensation for lands and resources previously reserved to them under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.

But after learning that they would not receive any land through the claims process, Western Shoshone activists refused to accept the judgment award. Since then, the fund has grown to more than $145 million.

Nevada lawmakers kept pushing to resolve the issue but ran into some problems. The first one was a vote, boycotted by activists, held among the Western Shoshones meant to garner support for the bill. When questions were raised about the process, another poll was conducted, with the majority of respondents favoring the payout.

Tribal activists also have maintained steady opposition to the bill. They contend that the Western Shoshone Nation never lost legal title to the 23.6 million acres reserved by the treaty. Instead of money, they want land.

Other tribes are worried too because they fear the bill will set a precedent for Congressional termination of land claims. In another famous case, the Lakota Nation is refusing its ICC award for the Black Hills in South Dakota.

These concerns were behind an emergency resolution the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) passed at its mid-year session on Tuesday, the same day the House was considering the bill. The resolution states that "Congress should not impose a claims distribution on an Indian tribe that has not consented to the settlement of its land claims."

With President Bush's signature, the Department of Interior would be charged with distributing the money, on a per capita basis, to an estimated 6,000 Western Shoshone tribal members. Each person would receive about $20,000, free of state and federal taxes. The rest of the money, about $1.5 million, would be used for educational programs.

Most Western Shoshone tribes are based in Nevada. There are Shoshone tribes in Utah, California and Idaho as well.

Relevant Links:
Western Shoshone Defense Project -

Relevant Documents:
NCAI Resolution | Senator Reid Letter

Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act:
Bill Report | H.R.884 | S.618