- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 11, 2007

LAS VEGAS — The way Allen Moss sees it, vast stretches of the West and all of their wealth belong to the Indians. Despite being turned back in lawsuit after lawsuit for decades, the Western Shoshone leader says he won’t rest until the U.S. government honors a 19th-century treaty that the tribe says entitles it to reclaim ancestral lands extending from California through Nevada and Utah to Idaho.

The lands include much of the Las Vegas area. The Shoshones say they are not interested in Sin City — too many people, too many problems. But they want the rugged desert hills that have yielded tens of billions of dollars worth of gold for decades.

At issue is the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, which the Shoshone say gave the tribe — not the federal government — royalties and final say over water, mineral and property rights for land covering 93,750 square miles, an area roughly the size of Maine.

Mr. Moss, a representative to the eight-member tribal council in Nevada, estimates the number of Shoshone at 5,000 to 8,000. They are descendants of people who lived from the Snake River Valley in Idaho to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, across most of eastern and central Nevada, and in Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in California.

The tribe has taken its case to fence lines, courts, international tribunals and the public.

It sued to block the nation’s nuclear waste from being stored in Nevada. It succeeded in postponing government plans to explode a nonnuclear bomb that would send the first mushroom cloud in decades over the desert. It went all the way to Switzerland to ask the United Nations to intervene in the land dispute.

The tribe keeps losing on most fronts, but also keeps appealing. In some cases, its members have notched a place in Western lore.

Tribal elder Carrie Dann and her sister Mary became folk heroes for defying the government in a losing, quarter-century battle to graze cattle on federal land without authorization.

The Supreme Court ruled against the tribe in another case in 1979, saying the Treaty of Ruby Valley gave the United States trusteeship over the tribal lands. In September, the Court of Claims in Washington accepted the government position that the treaty was “merely one of friendship and that it conveyed no treaty rights.”

Bob Hager, a lawyer who has been handling Western Shoshone cases at no charge since 1983, maintains that the tribe is losing on technicalities. He said the tribal claim finally gained traction — and attention — with the U.N. Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year in Geneva.

The panel said the U.S. government is trampling on Shoshone rights. It cited the privatization of Shoshone ancestral lands for mining and energy developers and federal efforts to open a nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, 90 miles from Las Vegas.

Cynthia Magnuson, a U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman in Washington, said the government would not comment on the dispute because the case is still in court.

The government has offered tribal members money, arguing that it is unrealistic to expect the United States to give back lands acquired through “gradual encroachment” and now dotted with cities, crisscrossed by interstate highways and railroads, and used for mining, ranching and recreation.

Legislation signed by President Bush in 2004 approved the distribution to tribal members of more than $145 million, including about $26 million that a federal Indian claims commission awarded in 1979.

Some Shoshones have said they would take the cash, but others balked. Mr. Moss, who loads pre-printed newspaper advertisements for a living, said the money will not be touched because to take it would be to concede the government’s position.

“Our land is not for sale,” he said. The money continues to collect interest.

Mr. Moss is not sure his sons, now 25 and 21, will take up the decadeslong fight.

“They can’t believe how long the battle has taken,” said Mr. Moss, 52. “They were taught in school this is a land of laws. I sit here saying, ‘This is how the laws have been manipulated and twisted.’

“The whole thing boils down to, ‘How many times can you break the law or twist the law in your favor?’ That’s what the government has done.”

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