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January 03, 2014
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NEVADA YESTERDAYS: Treaty of Ruby Valley

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As Nevada enters its sesquicentennial celebration, there is another event that happened 150 years ago that really deserves no celebration, but it should be remembered: The Treaty of Ruby Valley.

The story of Native Americans often can be an unhappy one. American history is full of examples of their land being taken and their tribes attacked. But sometimes the issues were on both sides, and the quest for a solution turned out differently than expected. Thats the case with this treaty.

In the early 1860s, a band of about three to four hundred Western Shoshone attacked travelers on the Humboldt River and the Overland Trail. The Western Shoshone weren't the only Native Americans feeling the pressure from the westward movement and western settlement. Remember that in 1860, whites and Northern Paiutes had fought the Pyramid Lake War. The territorial governor, James Nye, doubled as superintendent of Indian affairs. He hoped to avoid further troubles. But the army started forcing Western Shoshone to work as scouts for nearby Fort Ruby. The federal government was planning the transcontinental railroad and wanted things calm along the route.

Western Shoshone Anrestral Lands So, Nye and other officials worked out the Treaty of Ruby Valley, signed on October 1, 1863. Both sides got something. The Western Shoshone would stop any attacks and allow settlers on their land for travel, mining, and military purposes. The federal government would pay them for their loss of their food supply due to the encroachment. The treaty did NOT say the government would get the Western Shoshones land, or that they were giving up land. But thats what happened.

Nearly a century later, the Western Shoshone began arguing for their right to the land before the Indian Claims Commission, created in 1946 to hear claims against the federal government by native groups. In 1973, the commission ruled that the Western Shoshone were entitled to receive 26 million dollars for 24 million acres of land, but many in the tribe said no, they should have the land.

Mary and Carrie Dann Two sisters, Mary and Carrie Dann of Beowawe, became symbols of their resistance. In 1974, the Bureau of Land Management accused them of illegally grazing their cattle on public land. The Danns countered that they owned the land. They sued the federal government. The case wended its way through the courts.

Finally, in 1985, the United States Supreme Court ruled. It held that the Western Shoshone had no right to the land. But the treaty hadn't taken the land. Rather, it was due to the Indian Claims Commission setting aside money for them. The court also said that under what it called original aboriginal rights, the Western Shoshone could sue the federal government for land. The next year, U.S. District Judge Bruce Thompson held that the Danns could graze their cattle under those rights, but the land wasn't theirs.

In 1992, two Western Shoshone chiefs refused the federal payout. In 2004, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act set it up to pay 145 million dollars for 25 million acres. The tribe again said no.

The Western Shoshone have received a lot of attention for this, including two documentary films narrated by Robert Redford. The United Nations has criticized the federal government. But, 150 years after the Treaty of Ruby Valley, the struggle continues.

Nevada Yesterdays is written by Michael Green, professor at the College of Southern Nevada, and is funded by the Nevada Humanities in memory of Frank Wright.

Broken Treaty at Battle Mountain (1974) and To Protect Mother Earth (1991)

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