Western Shoshone leaders appeal to U.N. over U.S. land policy

GENEVA (AP) - A group of American Indians appealed Tuesday for the United Nations to condemn what they said were abuses of their ancient land rights by the U.S. federal government.

Leaders of the Western Shoshone said they hoped a U.N. panel would back their case that the U.S. government is trying to chase them off their ancestral territory, causing them physical, economic and cultural hardship and violating U.N. human rights treaties.

''We are here hoping that the international community can put pressure on the United States to stop its discriminatory conduct against the Western Shoshone people,'' said tribal elder Carrie Dann. ''Indigenous people do not have any rights or constitutional guarantees. It's time the United States answered some questions about our rights.''

The Western Shoshone tribal members, which the government says number 6,600 - live mainly in central Nevada and parts of California, Idaho and Utah.

Dann and her sister Mary have been a focal point of a dispute over land since the government sued them in 1974 for grazing livestock on federal acreage at their Nevada ranch.

The Shoshone delegation said the U.S. government has authorized the use of environmentally damaging cyanide for gold mining and approved military testing and nuclear waste storage on Shoshone lands.

Some 85 percent of Nevada is federal land, and the proposed Nevada Public Lands Act aims to sell much of it off to private companies, the Shoshone said.

Western Shoshone National Council member Johnnie Bobb said that although the bill hasn't passed, gold mining companies were ''lining up'' to purchase land and expand their operations.

The Shoshone have asked a U.N. panel - the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination - to condemn the United States, arguing that the U.S. action amounts to racism.

The committee has been reviewing a report by U.S. authorities on the government's compliance with an international anti-discrimination treaty which the United States ratified in 1994.

On Monday the U.S. Justice Department's newly confirmed civil rights head Ralph Boyd Jr. responded to the panel's questions about the Shoshone case.

Boyd said that U.S. law stated that ''as a result of European discovery the Native Americans had a right to occupancy and possession, but that tribal rights to complete sovereignty were necessarily diminished by the principle that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.''

But he said that given the ''legal complexities'' of the Shoshone case the panel's questions would ''require further research and examination.''

At issue is the so-called 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley between the Western Shoshone and the United States which took 23.6 million acres of land away from the tribes. Tribal leaders argue that the treaty - which they say was one of friendship - simply granted the United States limited access to the land and did not cede it to the federal government.

In 1979 the Supreme Court ruled that the Ruby Valley treaty had made the U.S. government the trustee of the Shoshone, entitled to negotiate compensation for the land on their behalf.

The court also approved a government offer of $26 million to the tribes.

The compensation package has accumulated interest and is now worth $130 million.

Last month Nevada Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign reintroduced the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act to direct the Interior Department to release the funds.

The Nevada-sponsored bill has never received a hearing in Congress.

Projections that each person could receive more than $20,000 have attracted supporters in the tribe. Three years ago some tribal leaders conducted a vote of the tribe's membership. Of those who participated, 1,230 supported the cash payments, while 53 opposed it.

Dann said the Shoshone would never accept money for their land, because they believed it was sacred.

A committee ruling in 1999 gave hope to indigenous groups around the world by declaring that Australia should suspend implementation of new land rights laws as they discriminated against Aborigines.

The committee is expected to issue its ruling on the U.S. compliance report next week.


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