UN Committee Recognizes US Abuse of Western Shoshone Human Rights

by Candee Wadsworth and Joan Cope Savage

The Onondaga have worked for decades with other nations and peoples around the world to seek recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples. In July 2006, leaders of the Western Shoshone (Newe) joined representatives of the Onondaga Nation for a two-day meeting to update each other on the progress and challenges of this work. Members of Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) and other friends of the Onondaga were invited to attend on the second day of the meeting. Guests had the opportunity to listen to the speakers' dialogues, which included a high level of recollected detail and personal experience spanning many years.

We were grateful for the opportunity to hear and witness the careful, deliberative manner in which all were given opportunity to contribute.

From Lease to Theft
In 1863 the Western Shoshone and the US Government signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley, granting the US permission to lease land for two roads, railroad, telegraph and mining as understood at that time (small operations that did not disturb the land surface or use much water).

In 1946 the US Government set up the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) in the Department of the Interior to "compensate" Native Peoples for lands taken. The Western Shoshone assert that no lands were ceded and want the US to recognize their title to their lands. They do not want their land put in trust, as that would give control of the land to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and hence to the US Government.

In 1979, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) paid the BIA 15 cents per acre for Western Shoshone lands they said were taken by "gradual encroachment," a method of taking which has never been found to be legal. The BIA holds this money "in trust" for the Western Shoshone.

Following the discovery of microscopic gold on Western Shoshone lands, the US charged Shoshone ranchers and sisters, Carrie and Mary Dann, with "trespass" in 1974 for grazing cattle on their own lands. The issue went to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1985 that the Western Shoshone lost the land title when the Interior Department, acting as their "trustee," had accepted money.

Going International

Finding no justice in the US Courts, the Western Shoshone decided that as a sovereign nation their case should be addressed in international courts and forums, and filed a human rights complaint with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD) in 2001. A similar complaint filed with the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Commission on Human Rights led to a 2003 ruling in favor of the Shoshone, a decision which has been ignored by the US.

In July 2006 at the Onondaga Nation, Carrie Dann, who has led the legal fight for Western Shoshone land rights, spoke from the heart about her duty to take care of the land for future generations and shared her fundamental understanding that "only the Creator has title." She noted the loss of her livelihood when government agencies destroyed her horse herd. She also described the gold mining operations that use 70,000 gallons of water a minute from the Western Shoshone's aquifer.

The Western Shoshone's lawyer Julie Fishel summarized the legal effort to gain recognition for the Shoshone's indigenous rights, particularly the recent progress at the UN. In March 2006, the UNCERD issued an "early warning and urgent action procedure" in response to requests from four Shoshone tribes. UNCERD emphasized the "rights of indigenous peoples, in particular their right to own, develop, control, and use their communal lands, territories and resources..." UNCERD expressed particular concern about privatization of Western Shoshone ancestral lands for resource extraction, and about damage to areas

of cultural and spiritual significance by development of a nuclear waste depository at Yucca Mountain, gold mining and geothermal energy leases. The committee rejected the US contention that the Western Shoshone's legal rights to their land had been extinguished.

Rights of Indigenous People
In a parallel effort, a global petition for UN acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reached a milestone in June 2006 with the passage of the draft Declaration in the Human Rights Council (the US, New Zealand and Australia voted against it) and recommendation of its adoption by the General Assembly. This achievement is the result of years of travel and communications by many native nations around the world. In 1973, the Haudenosaunee Grand Council sent three men to work on native rights issues around the world. Two of them, both Onondaga, spoke at the meeting in July.

The progress of both the Western Shoshone's racial discrimination case and the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples continue to depend on the growth of broad public understanding, acceptance and support. In the past, laws based on the Doctrine of Discovery and a view of indigenous peoples as "wards of the state" have diminished native rights (see PNLs 744 and 755).

The 2006 UNCERD recommendation on the rights of indigenous peoples to own their land and conduct their cultural and spiritual life there, acknowledges rights that have been denied around the world. May this process continue with the support of conscientious people the world over.

& Our Common Future

A Collaborative Educational Series
bringing together the Central New York community, Syracuse Uni­ver­sity and SUNY ESF
Why Native American Sovereignty Makes Sense for All of Us
FEATURING Tonya Gonnella Frichner, President and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance in New York, Tonya (Onondaga), Richard Loder, Director of Syracuse University's Native American Studies Program, Richard (of Delaware descent)and Scott Lyons, Director of the Center for Indigenous Studies at St. John Fisher College (Ojibwe).
Mon., November 27 at 7 pm, Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St.

Sing and Dance with the Haudenosaunee Singers & Dancers
Wed., December 6 at 7 pm, Women's Bldg. Gym (SU), Comstock and Euclid Aves.

Programs are free and followed by a reception

Community Sponsors: Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation/Syracuse Peace Council, the Inter-Religious Council of CNY, Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation and Syracuse Cultural Workers.

Syracuse University Sponsors: Chancellor's Office, Religion Department, African American Studies, Division of Student Affairs Diversity Programming Grants, English, Geography, Hendricks Chapel, History, Honor's Program, Indigenous Sustainability Studies Project, La L.U.C.H.A. (Latino Undergraduates Creating History in America), Latino-Latin American Studies, Native American Students at Syracuse, Native American Studies Program, Office of Multicultural Affairs, Program in the Analysis and Resolution of Conflict, School of Education, School of Visual and Performing Arts, Sociology, Student Environmental Action Coalition, Students Advancing Sexual Safety and Empowerment, University College, Women's Studies and Writing Program.

SUNY Sponsor: SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

More Information and Action Steps
Petition Supporting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:


To Read the UN Resolution and Declaration - www.ohchr.org/english/issues/indigenous/groups/groups-02.htm

Western Shoshone Defense Project - www.wsdp.org, (775) 468-0230

Onondaga Land Rights Action - www.onondaganation.org, (315) 492-1922

Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation (NOON) www.peacecouncil.net/noon, (315) 472-5478

Candee (a resident of Lafayette) and Joan (who has previously written for the PNL on the Onondaga Fishery) are both members of NOON.