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The Shoshone not only oppose the nuclear waste dump, but are hotly contesting the federal government's right to do anything there at all.

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Corbin Harney, Western Shoshone leader, at a protest against proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, Jan. 12, 2000. Steve Marcus

Yucca Mountain's Other Story

by Toby Eglund

MARCH 28, 2002. Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, along with Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn, a Republican, has been doing the rounds of talk shows and press conferences to oppose the Bush-endorsed proposal to house nuclear waste at a site in Yucca Mountain, about 90 miles north-west of Las Vegas.

According to Reid, the 70,000 tons of radioactive waste generated by the nation's nuclear power plants that is to be stored there, is vulnerable to terrorist attacks during trucking. Due to certain geographical factors, it may also contaminate ground water during storage.

While Reid and Guinn have gotten a fair amount of media coverage, the plan's other long-time opponents, the Western Shoshone and other nearby tribes, have been largely ignored. They not only oppose the nuclear waste dump on environmental grounds, but are hotly contesting the federal government's right to do anything there at all.

Western Shoshone rights to the land were established in 1863 in the Congress-ratified Treaty of Ruby Valley, but were eroded in 1979, when the federal government decided to buy the land over the tribe's objections.

That year the U.S. Court of Federal Claims awarded a payment of $26 million to the Shoshone for the surrendering of 16 million acres of Shoshone Indian title land. When the Shoshone refused to accept the money, the Department of the Interior accepted it on their behalf, in an effort to legitimize the unaccepted payment.

Court decisions since then have been mixed. In 1985, solely considering the fact that the federal bureaucracy reported the payment and without reviewing all the other evidence, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Shoshone's argument that their nation had never relinquished the bulk of their ancestral lands. On the other hand, in deliberations during the mid-1990's, the United States 9th District Court of Appeals found that neither leases of lands or federal homestead laws forfeited Shoshone title to the land.

The most recent attempt to legalize the land sale to the federal government has been engineered by Senator Reid himself. His controversial Western Shoshone Claims Distribution bill (S. 958) will dole out the $26 million, now $128.8 million, in individual payments of $20,000 to the Western Shoshone. The tribe includes about 6,600 people living in Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah.

Proponents of Reid's plan, including the self-selected Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee, argue that the money will alleviate poverty.

But the more representative Western Shoshone National Council, along with the Western Shoshone Defense Project, say the settlement is a boondoggle to get the Western Shoshone to permanently relinquish all claims to the more than 26 million acres that historically belonged to them, so that large mining companies can buy up or lease the gold and mineral-rich land from the federal government.

Critics arguments are given weight by information from the non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP), showing that Reid's primary campaign donors from 1997 until 2002 were mining concerns, including two regional companies, Newmont Mining and Barrick Goldstrike Mines.

Recently, Shoshone activism seems to be taking a toll on Reid. He canceled a March 21 Senate hearing on the bill, apparently disturbed to find that a Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee poll showing widespread support for the settlement used slanted, misleading questions. The Senator now says he won't push the legislation until the tribe conducts another, fair election that includes all tribal members.

Related links:

For the Western Shoshone Defense Project.

For the Saga of Litigation to Protect Western Shoshone Territorial Integrity.

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