The Great Basin Tribes

The Great Basin includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes all of the present-day states of Nevada and Utah, and portions of Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, and California. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The summers in this desert area can be hot, while the winters can be bitterly cold. While it is a physical region that does not seem hospitable to human habitation, Indian people have lived in the Great Basin for thousands of years.

The Great Basin was the last part of the United States to be explored and settled by the European-Americans. When the European-American invasion began in the nineteenth century, the invaders found that it was occupied by several different tribes, including the Bannock, Goshute, Mono, Northern Paiute, Panamint, Shoshone, Southern Paiute, Washo, and Ute.

Linguistically all of the Indian people of the Great Basin, with the exception of the Hokan-speaking Washo, spoke languages which belong to the Numic division of the Uto-Aztecan language family. The linguistic and archaeological data seem to suggest that the Numic-speaking people spread into the Great Basin from southeastern California. The homeland of the Numic-speaking groups in the Great Basin is generally seen as the Death Valley area.

The Numic languages appear to have divided into three sub-branches—Western, Central, and Southern—about 2,000 years ago. About a thousand years ago, the Numic-speaking people expanded northward and eastward.

The Ute:

 The Ute tribal territory included much of present-day Colorado and Utah. Much of this territory lies within the Colorado Plateau, a geological anomaly characterized by sedimentary rocks that have been lifted to an elevation of more than 6,000 feet. This is a semi-arid region.

 While the groups which are considered Ute shared a common language as well as other cultural features, they were never a single politically unified tribe. There was never a single tribal council or anything close to a supreme chief. Each of the groups, generally called “bands,” was politically autonomous. Membership in the bands was fluid and there was high mobility between the bands. The Ute bands include:

(1) the Weminuche (Weeminuche) or Ute Mountain Ute whose homeland is the San Juan drainage of the Colorado River.

(2) the Tabeguache (also known as Uncompahgre).

(3) the Grand River band.

(4) the Yampa whose homeland is in northwestern Colorado.

(5) the Uintah whose homeland ran from Utah Lake east through the Uinta Basin.

(6) the Muache (Moache) whose homeland ranged south along the Sangre de Cristos as far south as Taos, New Mexico.

(7) the Capote of the San Luis Valley and the upper Rio Grande.

(8) the Sheberetch in the area of present-day Moab, Utah.

(9) the Sanpits (San Pitch) in the Sanpete Valley in central Utah.

(10) the Timanogots near Utah Lake.

(11) Pahvant who lived in the deserts surrounding Sevier Lake, Utah.

(12) the White River (Parusanuch and Yamparika) in the White and Yampa River systems of Colorado.

After marriage, the couple would usually live with the wife’s band (matrilocal residence in anthropological terminology). This means that the bands were usually composed of several nuclear families which were related to each other through the female line.

The area occupied by the Ute was buffalo country and so buffalo, as well as mountain sheep, mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, antelope, moose, and rabbits, were utilized for their subsistence. The people also gathered a wide variety of different wild plants.

In hunting herd animals, the Ute often used drives in which the animals were driven into narrow areas where they could be more easily harvested. The Weminuche band hunted deer with poison arrows.

Shoshone:

The Shoshone (also spelled Shoshoni) take their name from the Shoshone word sosoni’ which refers to a type of high-growing grass. Some of the Plains tribes referred to the Shoshone as “Grass House People” which referred to the conically-shaped houses made from the native grasses. They were also referred to as the “Snakes” or “Snake People” by some Plains groups. This term comes from the sign which the people used for themselves in hand sign languages. The sign actually represents the salmon to the Shoshone, but among the Great Plains tribes, who were unfamiliar with the salmon, it was misinterpreted as meaning “snake.”

The Shoshone are often divided into four general groups:

(1) the Western Shoshone who lived in central Nevada, northeastern Nevada, and Utah. Some anthropologists have listed 43 different Western Shoshone groups.

(2) Northern Shoshone who lived in southern Idaho and adopted the horse culture after 1800.

(3) Eastern Shoshone of Wyoming who adopted many of the traits of Plains Indian culture.

(4) Southern Shoshone who live in the Death Valley area on the extreme southern edge of the Great Basin.

The Northern Shoshone groups include the Fort Hall Shoshone, the Lemhi Shoshone, the Mountain Shoshone, the Bruneau Shoshone, and the Boise Shoshone. The Lemhi Shoshone hunted buffalo in western Montana, but depended primarily upon salmon for their subsistence. The Bruneau Shoshone were not a horse people and depended largely on salmon and camas. The Boise Shoshone also used salmon and camas as primary foods and also hunted buffalo in Wyoming and Montana.

Shoshone bands, like other groups in the Great Basin and Plateau Culture Areas, were often named after their dominant food source. Thus mountain-dwelling Shoshone were known as Tukudika (“eaters of bighorn sheep” or sheep eaters). Other Shoshone groups include the Agaidika (salmon eaters), Padehiyadeka (elk eaters), Yahandeka (groundhog eaters), Pengwideka (fish eaters), Kamuduka (rabbit eaters), Tubaduka (pine-nut eaters), and Hukandeka (seed eaters), and the Kukundika (also spelled Kutsundeka; buffalo eaters).

Among the Western Shoshone, the most important game animals were antelope and bighorn. In hunting antelope, the animals would be driven along a V-shaped runway into a corral which had been constructed of brush, stones, and poles. A medicine person who had the power to capture antelopes’ souls through dreams, songs, and rituals, would aid the hunt by drawing the animals’ souls, and thus the animals themselves, into the corral.

Bannock:

The Bannock, who call themselves Bana’kwut (“Water People”), were called Buffalo Eaters and Honey Eaters by other tribes. The Shoshone referred to them with the term “pannaitti.” Brigham Madsen, in his book The Bannock of Idaho, reports that the Bannock

“migrated from the desert areas of southeastern Oregon to the more propitious and well-watered region found at the confluence of the Portneuf and Blackfoot streams with the Snake River.”

In the Snake and Lemhi River valleys and in the Bridger Basin, the Bannock came into close contact with the Shoshone and the two groups often intermarried. Today, the term “Sho-Ban” is often used to refer to the two tribes. Culturally, the two groups shared a common heritage and a similar worldview. They also spoke closely related languages. With intermarriage, many became bilingual.

Goshute (Gosiute):

The traditional homeland of the Goshute was south and west of Great Salt Lake. They lived in the Toole, Rush, and Skull valleys. There are many who feel that the Goshute are linguistically and culturally Shoshone. The Goshute bands include Cedar Valley, Deep Creek, Rush Valley, Skull Valley, Toole Valley, and Trout Creek.

Historically these people have been designated as Go-Sha-Utes, Goshee Utes, Goshoots, Go-shutes, Gosh Yuta, Go-ship Utes, and Goships. The term “Goshute” seems to come from the Shoshone term “kusippih” which has a meaning of “dry earth,” probably in reference to the marginal land which they inhabited.

Paiute:

There are fifteen Southern Paiute bands: Chemehuevi, Las Vegas, Moapa, Paranigat, Panaca, Shivwits, St. George, Gunlock, Cedar, Beaver, Panguitch, Uinkaret, Kaibab, Kaiparowits, and San Juan. In the northern part of the Great Basin, the bands tended to call themselves after a particular food source: “salmon eaters,” “mountain sheep eaters,” and so on. In the south, the band names tended to be geographical.

 

Indians 101: Pine Nuts

For thousands of years Indian people have lived and prospered in the Great Basin by exploiting the natural resources of the area. For Indian people in the Great Basin-the Shoshone, Paiute, Washo, and Ute-one of the important traditional resources of the region was the piñon pine whose nuts provided them with nutrition.  

The Great Basin:

The Great Basin includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand.

Great Basin Map

The Great Basin is an ecologically sparse environment which includes by small areas where water, game, and plant life are abundant. The summers are often hot and the winters cold. This is an area which seems inhospitable to human habitation, yet Indian people have lived here for thousands of years. For Indian people to live in the Great Basin, they had to have a rather intimate knowledge of a fairly large territory of several hundred square miles: a territory would often encompass the full range of desert biomes.

Traditional Subsistence:

Much of the subsistence of the Great Basin Indian tribes depended on the gathering of wild plants. It is estimated that 30 to 70% of the Great Basin diet was based on plants. Several major groups of plants were important to the subsistence of the Great Basin peoples. These include piñon nuts, mesquite, acorns, agave, camas, sego lily, tobacco root, yampa, biscuitroot, bitterroot, cattails, and berries (wolfberry, buckberry, chokecherries). In general, the gathering year was divided into four periods:

Early Spring: at this time the stored foods were running low and the people were facing some hunger. The first edible plants would appear along streams, near lakes, and in the low hills where the snow first disappeared.

Early Summer: at this time a number of plants would begin to ripen, particularly in the moist hills, but some in the desert valleys. To gather these plants the people would have to leave their winter villages. As the seeds would begin to ripen in the mountains, they would then move into these areas.

Late Summer: at this time the edible roots would mature. These plants could be dug at leisure.

Late Fall: at this time the pine nuts would ripen. However, pine nuts tend to be erratic as each tree yields only once in 3-4 years: in some years there are virtually none in some areas while they are abundant in other places. The harvest period for pine nuts can be 2-3 weeks in some areas and only 10 days in others.

Traditional Use of Piñon Nuts:

Among the Western Shoshone of Nevada, piñon nuts were the staple winter food. Pine nuts are high in fat and this means that less meat would be required in the diet. Pine nuts have about 3,000 calories per pound, which means that they not for the calorie-conscious. Piñon nuts are also high in carbohydrates and protein.

The pine nuts are gathered in September and October. The cones require two years to mature, so careful observation of the cones means that the scarcity or abundance of the crop can be predicted a year in advance.

One of the common ways of collecting the pine nuts was to collect the cones just before they were about to break open. Using poles, the men would beat the trees to get the cones to drop. Then, using a stone hammer or a stick, the cones would be broken open to collect the seeds. Another way of collecting the pine nuts was to pick the seeds from the forest floor after the cones had dried and opened on the tree. This was, however, both labor intensive and time consuming.

Once the seeds were removed from the cones, the seeds were parched on a basketry tray with coals, winnowed, and then either stored in woven sacks or pits, or ground into a flour from which bread or soup could be made.

Prior to European contact, a typical Shoshone family could gather about 1,200 pounds of pine nuts in the fall and this would last the family for about four months. Most frequently the pine nuts were ground with a metate and mano. The resulting meal was then mixed with cold water and stirred. Most frequently the mush was eaten cold. Among some of the tribes the pine nut mush was boiled by placing hot stones in a basket container with the mush until it boiled. In the winter, some of the tribes also made a cold treat out of the mush by setting it outside to freeze.

In some parts of the Great Basin, such as the Steptoe Valley, enough pine nuts to last for two years could be gathered during a good year. In order to preserve the nuts, they were roasted and then buried in a cold place in the mountains.

Among the Owens Valley Paiute, the pine nut gathering areas were divided into family plots. If a family were to trespass on pine-nut areas claimed by another family, violence would ensue. This was especially true if the families were from different bands.

Among some groups, such as the Shoshone of the Ione and Reese River Valleys, the pine nut tracts were owned by the villages. The tracts were in the mountains behind the villages and were bounded by natural boundaries known to everyone.

Piñon Nuts Today:

The Indian people of the Great Basin still gather piñon nuts. Today the gathering of the piñon nuts is an affirmation of their cultural heritage rather than for their physical survival. The nuts are still used in traditional foods and some are sold to supplement the family income. In Nevada, their right to gather the piñon nuts is protected by both state law and by treaty rights.  

Ancient America: Nevada

What is now the state of Nevada was home to American Indian people for several millennia prior to the arrival of the first Europeans in the area. As a part of the Great Basin, Nevada is often seen as being somewhat inhospitable to human habitation. The Great Basin Area includes the high desert regions between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. It is bounded on the north by the Columbia Plateau and on the south by the Colorado Plateau. It includes southern Oregon and Idaho, a small portion of southwestern Montana, western Wyoming, eastern California, all of Nevada and Utah, a portion of northern Arizona, and most of western Colorado. This is an area which is characterized by low rainfall and extremes of temperature. The valleys in the area are 3,000 to 6,000 feet in altitude and are separated by mountain ranges running north and south that are 8,000 to 12,000 feet in elevation. The rivers in this region do not flow into the ocean, but simply disappear into the sand. The summers are hot and the winters are cold. Yet in spite of the ecological challenges, Indian people successfully adapted to the region.  

Great Basin Map

Living in the Great Basin required that Indian people have an intimate knowledge of a fairly large territory. During the subsistence cycle, which was often a one to three year cycle, small bands of Indians would exploit the resources-animals, plants, and rocks-over a territory of several hundred square miles that would include several different biomes or ecologic communities.

The archaeological data from Nevada is rather scarce and thus we don’t have a full picture of ancient life in the Great Basin. The archaeological record includes rock art sites with pictograph and petroglyph panels, rockshelters, chipping sites where stone tools were produced, hunting blinds, and open campsites. What follows are the highlights of what we do know from the retreat of the ice fields about 12,000 years ago until the introduction of the bow and arrow about 2,500 years ago.

Stone Tools and Subsistence Patterns:

Much of the data from the earliest sites in the Great Basin is about stone tools and subsistence patterns. Archaeologists often name early cultures after stone tool styles, such as Clovis, Folsom, Scottsbluff, Elko, Desert Side Notched, Gypsum Cave, Hell Gap, and so on. The data from these early sites often provides information about the plants and animals which the people used for subsistence.

By 10,800 BCE, Indian people were occupying the Bonneville Estates Rockshelter. The shelter was used as a short-term camp. They were using nets of juniper-bark cordage to trap small game, such as rabbits and grouse. Their diet included big game (bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, mule deer), small game (rabbit, grouse), and insects (grasshoppers).

Indian people were living in the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada by 10,000 BCE. They were making a kind of projectile point which archaeologists will later call “Great Basin Stemmed”.

By 9245 BCE, Indian people at the Falcon Hill site were using Catlow Twined Basketry. This is a semiflexible basket made from twisted tules.

The Western Stemmed Tradition developed in the Great Basin about 9100 BCE spread east. The points were halfted on a socketed shaft.

The period which archaeologists call Wendover began in Utah and Nevada about 7500 BCE. At this time Indian people were engaged in a roving pattern of hunting and gathering. They were occupying settlements seasonally. Plant foods included seeds from pickleweed as well as other plants. The big game animals hunted at this time included deer, pronghorn antelope, mountain sheep, elk, and buffalo. Small game, such as rabbit, were trapped with netting.

In 7000 BCE, Indian people at the Komodo Site were using spear points which archaeologists classify as Great Basin Concave.

By 6900 BCE, the western Great Basin had become more arid. This caused the Uto-Aztecan-speaking hunting and gathering bands to begin a migration to the west and south. This was the initial breakup of this language family into what would become more than 30 distinct languages.

In 6700 BCE, Indian people began to use the Leonard Rockshelter.

In 6600 BCE, a string of about 50 large spire-ground Olivella biplicata beads were obtained in trade from the Central California coast and carried some 250 miles to Nevada. The presence of a complete string of olivella beads some 250 miles from their source provides evidence of an extensive intertribal trading system.

In 6030 BCE, Indian people left a cache containing an atlatl (spear thrower) at a site in western Nevada. Made from an unidentified hardwood, the upper surface of the atlatl is flattened and the lower surface is rounded. The handle is marked with a series of 18 deeply-cut grooves. The engaging hook or spur is carved from bone and is attached to the shaft with sinew. A boat-shaped stone is attached to the underside of the atlatl.

Atlatl

Shown above is a photo of the atlatl.

In 6000 BCE, Indian people, called Archaic by archaeologists, were now occupying the Bonneville Estates Rockshelter. They tended to be more sedentary than the earlier residents of the rockshelter, staying in it for longer periods of time. They were obtaining obsidian for their stone tools from a quarry about five miles from the rockshelter. They brought the obsidian back to the rockshelter and fashioned their tools there. Their diet at this time included Indian rice grass, Great Basin wild rye, pickleweed, and buckwheat. They were also making coiled baskets.

Bonneville Estates

The excavations at Bonneville Estates Rockshelter is shown above.

By 5150 BCE, Indian people were occupying the O’Malley Shelter 16 miles east of present-day Caliente. The people living at the site were involved in the gathering and hunting of locally available plant and animal foods. There was a dependence on large herbivores (deer and bighorn sheep). One of the major activities for the Indian people at the site was the production of stone tools from locally available obsidian and chalcedony.

By 5000 BCE, Indian people were now using the Gatecliff Rockshelter as a campsite.

In 3240 BCE, Indian people living in the Black Rock Desert area were using stone spear points which archaeologists call Scottsbluff.

Around 3000 BCE, Indian people were making stone points known as the Pinto Series. The geographic range of the points is from western Nevada (Hidden Cave site) to Idaho (Weston Canyon Rockshelter). There are five varieties of points: (1) shoulderless; (2) sloping shoulder; (3) square shoulder; (4) barbed shoulder; and (5) one shoulder.

By 2500 BCE, Indian people were occupying Lovelock Cave which was situated near a shallow pond surrounded by tule marshes. The people were collecting fish, shellfish, edible tubers, roots, and seeds. They were using the tule for making baskets. Fiber cordage was used to make snares and nets in which rabbits and birds were caught. Sandals were woven. Blankets were made of bird skins or rabbit fur, and clothing was made of shredded bark. They were also making small split-twig figurines of deer and mountain sheep. Their culture seems to have efficiently used lakeside resources which allowed them to have a sedentary lifestyle.

Indian people in Nevada were weaving sandals and basketry by 2000 BCE. They were also making small split-twig figurines of deer and mountain sheep. In the area of the Lovelock and Humboldt Caves, Indian people were also specializing in using lake resources. They were making nets and fishhooks.

At the Stuart Rockshelter north of present-day Moapa, Indian people were using a type of projectile point called Pinto Series by archaeologists.

Burials:

The study of human remains can provide us with great insights into life in the past. While this is a controversial field, the scientific study of human remains allows the ancestors to talk to us about their lives. Listed below are some of the early burials which have been uncovered in Nevada.

In 7470 BCE, the bodies of a 10 year old child and an adult were wrapped in a diamond-pattern plaited mat and buried in the Grimes Shelter.

In 7414 BCE, the body of a 40-44 year-old man was carefully wrapped in a rabbit skin robe and woven mats and buried in Spirit Cave. One of the woven bags that was buried with him was decorated with interwoven strips of leather and tule stems. Another bag had dark bands of juniper or sage. The skill of these ancient weavers would later astound modern weaving experts: the split reeds and fur so narrow and even, the cord threads so well spun, the weaving itself close, tight, and even, and the variety of techniques and decorations. The textiles found with Spirit Cave Man were woven with a method known as diamond plating; they look essentially like modern woven fabrics.

The diet of Spirit Cave Man had included several different kinds of small fish which indicate that his group used nets or baskets for fishing. The bones in his right hand had been broken and healed. He was buried in a semi-flexed position on his right side with his head oriented toward the northeast.

His moccasins were made out of marmot hide. The moccasins had been crafted in three pieces, stitched together with hemp cordage instead of sinew.

At the time of his death, Spirit Cave Man was in his early forties. He stood about 5’5″ tall. His last meal consisted of water parsnip and small minnows. The man had lived an uncomfortable life because of abnormalities in his spinal column, including the fact that he had 34 vertebra instead of 33. About a year before his death, he had suffered a severe blow to his left temple which had fractured his skull. He had three abscessed teeth which caused the infection that killed him.  

The cranial and facial features of Spirit Cave Man are more like those of the Ainu of Northern Japan and some European populations than they are to later American Indian populations. He appears to be different from modern American Indians. He has a long cranium and a long, narrow face suggesting affilinities with Southeast Asian peoples.

In 7290 BCE, a woman died, was wrapped in a mat woven from split tules and native hemp, and was buried in Spirit Cave.

In Nevada, the body of a robust man, 40-45 years old, is buried at Wizards Beach. His teeth are well-worn and the abscess in his lower right molar is the source of the infection that caused his death.  

In 7040 BCE, the bodies of two individuals were cremated at Spirit Cave.

Bow and Arrow:

By 500 BCE, the Indian people who were using the Lovelock Cave site had bows and arrows. This more efficient weapon significantly altered hunting styles of the early hunter-gatherers. With the bow and arrow the cultures of the Great Basin change significantly.  

A Western Shoshone Perspective on Yucca Mountain

Yucca Mountain in the Great Basin has been selected as the location for disposal of high-level nuclear waste from US commercial nuclear power reactors. The site was approved by President Bush in 2003 and has now entered the licensing phase. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is reviewing million of pages from documents in the most complicated regulatory process in human history. However, many questions about the suitability of the Yucca Mountain site are still left unanswered. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing guidelines compel the Department of Energy to prove site ownership of Yucca Mountain.  The Western Shoshone Native American tribe is asking, “How did the US obtain ownership of Yucca Mountain from the Western Shoshone Nation?”  The Western Shoshone people have been asking similar questions of the US since they signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley  in 1863. The Department of Energy pattern of argument in addressing Western Shoshone concerns seeks to minimize any assertion or assumption of existing ongoing rights. To the contrary, historical evidence provides fact of lawful ownership to Yucca Mountain by the Western Shoshone Nation.

Discovery, conquest, abandonment and sale are the lawful methods for the US to acquire land. Treaties of cession are the most common lawful method of transferring land ownership from the original Native American owners to the US in exchange for protection, goods and monetary payments. Treaties are contracts that emanate from International Law and are a formal relationship between one government recognizing another with the intent of preserving the existence of each nation party to the agreement. This is why the US Constitution specifically authorizes that treaties, “shall be the supreme law of the land.”  Relations between the Western Shoshone Nation and the US by treaty have similar provisions yet is different in important ways that have lasting effect.

Westward expansion was booming with the discovery of gold after the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo between the US and Mexico. In Article 11 of the treaty the US solemnly pledged, “…Special care shall then be taken not to place its Indian occupants under the necessity of seeking new homes”. The shortest route to the gold fields of the west was overland through Native American country while the fastest route was by steamship via Panama. During the 1850’s gold from the Sierra Nevada Mountains was transported to Panama, through the jungle by rail and on to the US Treasury in Washington. A steamship carrying tons of gold bullion was lost to the bottom of the sea in 1857 triggering a financial crisis across America that precipitated the need for an overland transportation route. When the Civil War began in 1860 gold was needed to finance the war against the Confederacy requiring a secure overland shipping route.

Congress passed the Nevada Organizing Act  in 1861 allowing for the organization of the Territory of Nevada, “provided, further, that nothing in this Act contained shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining to the Indians in said Territory, so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians, or to include any territory which, by treaty with any Indian tribe is not, without the consent of said tribe, to be included within the territorial limits or jurisdiction of any state or Territory.”  In 1863 the US and the Western Shoshone Nation signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley. Unlike other treaties with Native Americans, the Treaty of Ruby Valley did not have provision ceding land to the US. Rather, the US agreed to pay the Western Shoshone Nation $5,000 a year for twenty years for the specific interests sought including unobstructed travel routes. In 1869 the US Congress ratified the Treaty of Ruby Valley and President Ulysses S. Grant Proclaimed the treaty in recognition of the relationship with the Western Shoshone Nation that helped the US win the Civil War. Three years later the US ended making treaties with Native Americans because all interests across the continent had been secured, “provided, further, that nothing herein contained shall be construed to invalidate or impair the obligation of any treaty heretofore lawfully made and ratified with any such Indian nation or tribe.”  The US failed to make the required payments due under Article 7 of the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The Western Shoshone Nation views the US failure to make payments as an abandonment of the rights and interests sought by treaty and a return to the current state of being before the treaty – status quo ante.

Poor legal interpretations and discrimination are used to undermine Western Shoshone sovereignty and property rights. In 1823 Chief Justice John Marshal for the US Supreme Court held in the case, Johnson & Grahame’s Lessee v. M’Intosh that Native Americans held only occupancy and possession (aboriginal title) to their lands. According to Steve Newcomb, Director of the Indigenous Land Institute, “the ‘discovering’ Christian European government is understood to have dominion over the soil even before physical possession is taken and before any ‘Indian title’ has been extinguished. It became the view of some Europeans commentators that, if the lands in question were not ‘possessed by any Christian prince’ at the time of their supposed ‘discovery’ then, according to the international law customary to Christendom, the Christian sovereign prince was understood, from the perspective of Christendom, to automatically obtain “sovereignty” and ‘dominion’ over the soil inhabited and possessed by non-Christians (or what US Supreme Court Chief Justice Marshall referred to in the Johnson ruling as heathens).”   Chief Justice Marshall violated the supposed separation of church and state, as well as, the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion. The Western Shoshone people are being penalized and persecuted to this day by the US for their lack of belief in Christianity. The Supreme Court ruled and the President and Congress violate the basic human rights of the Western Shoshone people with impunity.  

Other arguments used to justify the occupation of Western Shoshone country is a propaganda claim that Native Americans do not have a concept of land ownership. The Western Shoshone people are a distinct people and, unlike the US, possess a national ethnic identity. Western Shoshone nationals do have a system of property ownership in privity with all other Western Shoshone people. The people of the Western Shoshone Nation did not survey their boundaries though property rights and interests were known among mutual or successive Western Shoshone land users. Boundary points were known, marked and enforced by Western Shoshone chiefs throughout the region. The Nevada Surveyor General authorized under the 1861 Nevada Organizing Act identified the exterior boundaries of the State of Nevada and left the rest to the imagination. Most of the Great Basin was consumed by American imagination with boundaries constructed of the mind. Most of the land that makes up the Western Shoshone Nation was not in fact legally acquired. Incomplete land surveys and deficient maps show errors favoring the US and justify the abuse and oppression of the Western Shoshone Nation. More than 100 years passed without any rectification of the legal doctrine of discovery or any effort by the US to correct the errors in US surveys and deficient maps. Western Shoshone nationals continue to abide by the terms of the Treaty of Ruby Valley while being persecuted on their own property for activities “as hunters or herdsmen” contemplated by the treaty.

Still, more abuse of the Western Shoshone people and land are the result of negligence by the US in the development and testing of weapons of mass destruction. In the 1950’s the US occupied a vast expanse of Western Shoshone lands that now comprise the Nevada Test Site 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas for use as America’s nuclear proving ground. During the period of nuclear weapons testing from 1951-1994, the US detonated 904 full-scale nuclear weapons tests, 24 in collaboration with the United Kingdom.  The Western Shoshone Nation with the help of American supporters engaged in active protest against nuclear weapons testing and the MX inter-continental ballistic missile system planned for the Great Basin. The MX missile system was cancelled and full-scale nuclear weapons testing ended at the Nevada Test Site.

In 1994 the Western Shoshone National Council, traditional government of the Western Shoshone Nation, began questioning the incidents of cancer and other health consequences experienced by the Western Shoshone people known to be plausible from exposure to radiation in fallout from nuclear weapons testing. Reaching out to Southern Paiute neighbors they formed the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities Project to understand what happened to them and educate their communities on culturally appropriate protective behavior.

Collaborating with researchers from Marsh Institute at Clarke University, funded by the Center for Disease Control and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities project reviewed the Department of Energy, Off-site Radiation Exposure Review Program. What they found was that the Department of Energy study used a shepherd lifestyle to model Native Americans, but that the shepherd lifestyle did not accurately replicate the Western Shoshone or Southern Paiute people’s lifestyle. Based upon lifestyle differences alone the Nuclear Risk Management for Native Communities project found that Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute people were exposed to radiation through unique exposure pathways that included diet, shelter and mobility. Radiation exposure risk for adults are as much as 15 times greater than non-Native American communities downwind, as much as 30 times greater risk for children, and as much as 60 time greater risk for inutero exposure.  

Politically weak, socially and economically isolated the Western Shoshone people are vulnerable to exploitation. For the Western Shoshone Nation the stakes are mortal. The abuse continues as the Western Shoshone Nation is targeted for the disposal of nuclear waste from 115 nuclear reactors at 75 sites in 30 states. From the Western Shoshone perspective, nuclear waste streams from the reactor communities would become a river as they enter the Western Shoshone country, placing a disproportionate burden of risk upon the land and people of the Western Shoshone Nation.

A key point to know is that the Department of Energy and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission worked together to establish guidelines and site selection criterion for a repository prior to 1980. Late in the site selection process the Department of Energy threw in the Yucca Mountain site because contractors at the Nevada Test Site were looking for new programs and realized that a nuclear waste repository would be needed, be very expensive and take a long time. Most of the language has changed and now the site relies almost entirely on engineered barriers rather than natural barriers. The Department of Energy has spent billions of dollars trying to make the Yucca Mountain site not look as bad as it is. The result of those expenditures is the Total Performance System model. The Total Performance System model involves the whole interaction of engineered barriers and natural barriers to achieve the goal of waste isolation.

The important difference between Yucca Mountain and the earlier sites considered is that the planned repository is in the biosphere, 900 feet from the top of Yucca Mountain and 400 feet above the water table, in heavily fractured rock called welded tuff. Though it looks dry, the rock at Yucca Mountain is 90 percent saturated with 10 percent water held within the pores of the rock. When hot nuclear waste is emplaced in the mountain, the rock shatters releasing the water that turns to vapor that can carry radiation to the surface along earthquake faults. Another scenario is that the vapor will condense into water when the waste cools and will flow back into the repository and carry the waste to the water table contaminating the groundwater. Once in the groundwater the radiation will be transported to surface spring locations. A large amount of nuclear waste placed in one location could combine to become a critical mass as it emerges to the surface poisoning the land and people living there in the future.  

To the Western Shoshone people Yucca Mountain is part of a seamless scared landscape known in the Shoshone language as, Newe Sogobia. Newe is what the Western Shoshone call themselves meaning, the people. Sogobia is the name of Mother Earth. Used together, Newe Sogobia is the political, social, cultural and spiritual embodiment of Western Shoshone people and land as a nation. There is no separation of church and state. The Western Shoshone people share a common ethnic identity that accounts for their continued struggle for political, social, economic and environmental justice against the threats, hazards and risks the US forces upon Newe Sogobia. To the Western Shoshone people, culture is the most important aspect for measuring the strength of a nation. Cultural identity is obtained from living in a place that provides a sense of identity binding the Western Shoshone people to the land.

The Western Shoshone Nation is being destroyed through US development of Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository. The Western Shoshone people view the world holistically, considering the political, social, cultural, economic impact and moral wisdom of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Unable to answer questions about safety within the context that Western Shoshone were asking them, the Department of Energy only considered Western Shoshone society through the narrow view of cultural resources studies. The process used by the Department of Energy, “cultural triage” that is defined as, “the forced choice situation in which an ethnic group is faced with the decision to rank in importance equally valued cultural resources that could be affected by a proposed development project.”   So, the Department of Energy researchers reframed the question in a form science could answer, “Is this burial, plant or animal safe from a road, tunnel or building needed for a repository at Yucca Mountain?”  The answer was returned as the answer to the original question being asked by the Western Shoshone people. The Western Shoshone National Council view the use of “cultural triage” and every proximate act, in furtherance of, and as a means to dismantle a living culture for the benefit and profit of the nuclear industry, a violation of International Humanitarian Law, and a crime under the UN Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and the US enactments, the Proxmire Act.  

The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe in Death Valley, California petitioned the Secretary of Interior in 1998 to be designated an “affected Indian tribe” under provisions of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act.  After 9 years, the Department of the Interior certified the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe as “affected” and eligible for financial assistance to conduct independent oversight, monitoring, impact assessment and to prepare for licensing proceedings at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Yet, another year has passed without funding to the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe while the Department of Energy spends hundreds of millions of dollars at Yucca Mountain, conduct viewed by most Western Shoshone as environmental racism.

The Yucca Mountain project is alive and moving forward in licensing proceeding before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Atomic Safety Licensing Board. However, the process is far from over. The next president of the US will have to set an appropriate budget for nuclear waste storage. The president’s budget may include increased funding for Yucca Mountain site activities, flat funding, or reduced funding. Reduced funding is one way the Yucca Mountain project may be ended if the president deems that the site is not suitable or unsafe. Also, the Congress can amend or repeal the Nuclear Waste Policy Act to consider other options than Yucca Mountain.

Progress is being made as the Western Shoshone Nation endures. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe continues to press for full meaningful involvement and funding to adequately prepare contentions before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission at Yucca Mountain. The Western Shoshone National Council has an obligation to protect Newe Sogobia and formally protests US oppression and abuses in international forums. In 2003 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States found that the US violated the human rights of the Western Shoshone under the American Declaration of the Rights of Man, by denying the right to due process, to equality before the law, the right to a fair trial, and the right to property, in connection with determinations and protection of Western Shoshone property rights in their ancestral lands. At the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2006 urged the US to: a) Freeze any plan to privatize Western Shoshone ancestral lands for transfer to multinational extractive industries and energy developers; b) Desist from all activities planned and/or conducted on the ancestral lands of the Western Shoshone or in relation to their natural resources, which are being carried out without consultation with and despite protests

of the Western Shoshone peoples; c) Stop imposing . . . restrictions on hunting, fishing and gathering, as well as arrests, and rescind all notices already made to that end, inflicted on Western Shoshone people while using their ancestral lands.  

American Indian Candidates

( – promoted by navajo)

Congress passed legislation in 1924 which gave all American Indians citizenship. While citizenship should imply the right to vote, the states often imposed barriers to allowing Indians to vote. In some instances they ignored-or simply pled ignorance of-the fact that Indians were citizens.

A combination of factors-restricting voter registration, gerrymandering, discouraging Indians from voting (including intimidation)-make it difficult for Indians to get elected to public office. At the present time there are Indian running in several states. The diary below mentions a few of them.  

Arizona:

Freshman lawmaker Chris Deschene (Navajo) has won the Democratic nomination for the office. In the general election Dechene will face Republican Ken Bennett who assumed the position when Jan Brewer was elevated to governor.

Oklahoma:

At the present time, Oklahoma is the only state where there are more Republican Indians serving in the legislature than Democrats.  There are twelve Republicans in the House and seven Democrats.  There are three Democrats in the Senate. This year there are a number of Democratic Indian candidates supported by INDN’s List running for office in Oklahoma.

Jeff Jones (Osage) is running for District Attorney against a right wing State House member. None of Oklahoma’s 27 District Attorneys at the present time are tribal members. Jones was a member of the Teamsters Union. He got his law degree by going to law school at night.

Steve Burrage (Choctaw) was appointed State Auditor and Inspector in July 2008 and is now running for election. In accepting the appointment, he said, “I want the State Auditor’s Office to be the best auditing firm in Oklahoma.” He immediately set work to accomplish this benchmark. Steve has conducted audits that have prosecuted felons and saved the state of Oklahoma hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Maya Torralba (Kiowa) is challenging an incumbent Republican in District 56. A champion of progressive causes, she completed the 2007 INDN Campaign Camp.

Ken Luttrell (Cherokee) represents one of the most Republican districts in Oklahoma currently held by a Democrat. Republicans are committed to defeating him. Luttrell is a former member of the Communications Workers of America Union and serves on the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators.

Cory Williams (Cherokee) was elected to the state legislature (District 34) by 63 votes in 2008. He is currently running for reelection in one of the toughest State House races in Oklahoma. Republicans  used smear tactics and dirty tricks to try to beat him two years ago in one of the nastiest races in Oklahoma and they are will stop at nothing to try to defeat this progressive champion in November.

Nevada:

In 2000, John Oceguera was elected to the Nevada State Legislature as Assemblyman for District 16 in Southeast Las Vegas. The voters in District 16 have returned John to office every two years since that time. At the present time, John Oceguera is on track to become the next speaker of the house. He is being challenged by a republican and needs our support. He has been endorsed by INDN’s list.

South Dakota:

The top law enforcement person in the state is the Attorney General, an elective position. At the present time an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Ron Volesky, is running for this office.  

American Indian Candidates: John Oceguera

( – promoted by oke)

For thousands of years the Agai-Dicutta Numu (Trout Eaters People) band of the Northern Paiute had lived within the Great Basin area of what is now the state of Nevada. Traditionally, the Paiute was peaceful people who ruled over their own affairs. They had little need for chiefs. The people governed themselves through a combination of consensus and a cultural norm of service.

When the United States acquired Nevada from Mexico following a brief war, things began to change for the Indian nations within the region. The United States negotiated treaties and appointed chiefs. Then, in 1924, Indians acquired citizenship and the right to vote. Voting, however, is only part of their participation in politics: getting tribal candidates elected to state offices in also important. One of these candidates is John Oceguara, an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe.  

Political Background:

In 2000, John Oceguera was elected to the Nevada State Legislature as Assemblyman for District 16 in Southeast Las Vegas. The voters in District 16 have returned John to office every two years since that time.

Oceguera served on four legislative committees in his freshman year: Commerce and Labor, Constitutional Amendments, Judiciary, and Transportation.

By 2003, Oceguera was named Assistant Majority Leader and Vice-Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. He also served on both the Commerce and Labor Committee and the Transportation Committee. During the period between legislative sessions, he served on the Legislative Subcommittee to Study the Death Penalty and Related DNA Testing. Additionally, he was one of a select number of young legislators appointed to a Toll Fellowship, a bipartisan organization which trains new legislators nationwide.

In the 2005 session of the Nevada Legislature, he continued as Assistant Majority Leader, chaired the Transportation Committee, served as vice chair of the Committee on Commerce and Labor, and continued to serve on the Judiciary Committee.

Following that session, Oceguera chaired interim committees to review regulations and study legislative security. He was vice chair of the Legislative Commission, and continues to hold that position. Trusted with additional leadership duties, John served in 2005 and 2006 on the Committee to Consult With the Director and the Legislative Counsel Bureau Biennial Budget Review Committee.

At the beginning of the 2007 legislature, Oceguera became Assembly Majority Leader and took over the reins as chair of the Committee on Commerce and Labor. He continued working on the Judiciary Committee.

In Carson City, Oceguera has a reputation for being thoroughly informed on the issues, ready to ask the tough questions and willing to go the extra mile for the district he represents. Back in his district, he is known for keeping the lines of communication open to the residents and businesses there. He takes a grass roots approach to both campaigning and representation, often going door-to-door, meeting with the voters and hearing their concerns first-hand.

Professional Background:

John Oceguera is a firefighter who has worked his way through the ranks of the North Las Vegas Fire Department. He was appointed as Assistant Fire Chief in 2008.

With regard to higher education, John Oceguera has a  B.S. in Fire Administration from Cogswell College (1995) and a  Masters in Public Administration from UNLV (1998). He was one of the first to enter the new William S. Boyd School of Law at UNLV and, in 2003 received his Juris Doctorate in law.

Current status:

At the present time, John Oceguera is on track to become the next speaker of the house. He is being challenged by a republican and needs our support. He has been endorsed by INDN’s list.

John OcegueraRepresentative John Oceguera, an enrolled member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, has spent his life serving the community as a firefighter and member of the IAFF. In 2008, he was named Assistant Fire Chief of the North Las Vegas Fire Department. In the state legislature John has been an effective leader and most political insiders believe he is on track to be the next Speaker of the House.

John is being challenged for reelection by a Republican for the Nevada State House of Representatives in District 16.

PLEASE MAKE A CONTRIBUTION AT INDN’S LIST TO HELP JOHN IN THIS RACE!

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 An ongoing series sponsored by the Native American Netroots team focusing on the current issues faced by American Indian Tribes and current solutions to those issues.

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Native American Network gets out Nevada’s vote

RENO, Nev. – Longtime Republican strongholds in the Midwest and West appear to be up for grabs in the upcoming presidential election, and Native people are emerging as the key swing vote, according to Democratic Party political strategist Celinda Lake. Speaking for the party, Lake has said, ”We cannot win these key battleground states without a turnout in the Indian vote.”

Enter Kalyn Free, Choctaw, who recognized a historic opportunity to make the nation take notice of indigenous people and their issues.

A former Oklahoma district attorney and Justice Department senior counsel, Free founded the Indigenous Democratic Network, or INDN’s List, in 2005. The Oklahoma-based group recruits, trains and funds Democratic Native candidates; of the 28 it has endorsed for state and local offices, 22 have won their races.

Nevada’s election format also works well with her concept. ”In caucuses, you can have a big effect with a small number of people,” explained Louis Gray, Osage, INDN’s List Education Fund’s Nevada state director. ”The last time Nevada caucused, 4,000 people turned out. If we get just 1,000 Indians to the polls, we may represent some 25 percent of the electorate. Then we’ll have representatives who go to the state convention and help write the state platform.”

The tasks for Gray and his small staff, who began work in November, are to register Native people, hold ”mock caucuses” to familiarize new voters with the process and, finally, help people get to the meetings on election day. Caucuses, Gray explained, are one-hour events, during which a voter enters a room and goes to a spot designated for his or her favorite candidate. ”If your candidate does not attract a certain proportion of voters present, other candidates’ supporters can lobby you to switch to their corner,” he said.

www.indiancountry.com