The story of the Western Shoshone is a long lesson in the ways that law can fail indigenous people threatened by mineral interests. The ancestral territory of this native American people encompasses an area stretching from southern Idaho, through eastern Nevada, to the Mojave Desert of California. Underneath this swath of over 240 thousand square kilometers (over 60 million acres) lie billions of dollars worth of gold. Nearly 10 percent of the world's gold production — and 64 percent of US production — comes from Western Shoshone land.
Treaty of Ruby Valley
Prospectors hoping to strike it rich began entering Western Shoshone territory in the 1840s. Clashes with the Shoshone prompted the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley between the US government and the Western Shoshone Nation. The treaty allowed settlers to mine, establish ranches, cut timber, and extract other natural resources from Shoshone lands, but it also recognized the Western Shoshone people as the landowner, entitled to royalties for the extractive activities. But no royalties have ever been paid.
The gold rush continues today, but the prospectors have been replaced by corporate mining — a practice that has proved far more destructive to Western Shoshone lands, sacred places, and scarce water resources.
Battling the U.S. Government
The failure to pay royalties is a treaty violation and the Shoshone have been attempting for decades to get the government to live up to its constitutional obligations. In 1979, the government tried to legislate a settlement that would have abrogated the treaty and awarded the Shoshone a one-time payment of $26 million, or roughly 15 cents an acre, in exchange for relinquishing title to their land. The Shoshone refused the settlement, maintaining that the lands were never for sale in the first place. Even so, the government is acting as if it were the landowner. Today, Shoshone ranchers are required to pay federal grazing fees to run cattle on their traditional lands, and the government continues to hand over huge tracts of Shoshone lands to mining companies. Among the beneficiaries are Newmont, Placer Dome, and Barrick. Under the national mining law, which dates from 1872, corporations can purchase so-called public lands from the government for as little as $5 a hectare ($2.50 an acre), without owing a penny in royalties for the minerals they extract.
Sacred site of the Western Shoshone.
Photo: Western Shoshone Defense Project
Court Favors the Shoshones
In December 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a part of the Organization of American States, found that the US government was violating the fundamental rights of the Western Shoshone to property, due process, and equality under the law. But the government has ignored the ruling and is moving forward with legislation that would open the territory up to a major new form of extraction, geothermal energy, and to additional mining. In September 2003, the Shoshone filed suit yet again, reasserting their claim to their ancestral territory and demanding payment of the royalties owed them under the treaty.
Barrick Strikes Gold
In 2005, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved Barrick Gold's request to explore 30,000 acres in an area around 15 miles from Mt. Tenabo, a site sacred to the Western Shoshone nation located in Nevada. Barrick Gold's activities disturbed 250 acres of nationally recognized cultural historic sites.
Then in 2008, Barrick Gold sought approval from the BLM for expansion of the Cortez gold mine directly onto Mt. Tenabo. The Cortez Hills Expansion Projection includes a new open pit, three new waste rock facilities, a new heap leach pad, new roads and facilities and the permanent loss of 817 acres of pinion trees. Members of the Shoshone fear that project approval would threaten sacred Shoshone gravesites, disturb ritual grounds, harm important water sources, and reduce access to pine nuts, a traditional Western Shoshone food source that are harvested from the pinion trees.
In December, 2008, the BLM approved Barrick's Cortez expansion onto Mt. Tenabo. A year later, a federal appeals court issued an injunction to halt the mine, determining that the tribes shown that the mine expansion would likely violate the National Environmental Policy Act. However, this injunction was lifted in 2012, after a court found that Barrick Gold had corrected potential violations. The tribe is considering appealing this decision.