The Western Shoshone Indians living on the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada want the federal government to recognize their status as a tribe distinct from all other Indian groups living on the reservation with them.
The tribe took the first step in the long road back to its identity last week when it filed a suit in Salt Lake's U.S. District Court demanding that the federal government review a contract the tribe drew up with Salt Lake attorney John Kennedy.The Indians retained Kennedy to help them regain federal recognition after they decided that Piutes - a larger band of Indians that dominates the reservation - were not treating them fairly.
Federal law requires that contracts between Indian tribes and private attorneys be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kennedy said. However, the government declined to review Kennedy's contract with the Western Shoshone, saying that because it did not recognize the Western Shoshone as a tribe, federal approval wasn't necessary to hire Kennedy.
So Kennedy and the Western Shoshones fell back a step in their bid for federal recognition and filed a suit against the government Friday, claiming it must review the contract because the tribe has been federally recognized.
"A tribe's status with the federal government can only be terminated by Congress," Kennedy said. "Congress has never terminated the Western Shoshone's status."
In his suit, Kennedy argued that the government recognized the Western Shoshone in 1863 when it promised to give them their own reservation and again in 1877 when the reservation was created.
But after the Western Shoshone settled the Duck Valley reservation, other Indians moved onto it.
Piutes now outnumber the Western Shoshone on the reservation nearly threeto one, Kennedy said. The Piutes control most of the seats on the joint Indian council, which in turn controls jobs on the reservation, housing, land leases and grazing rights.
"The Shoshones feel it is their reservation; they are not being treated fairly by the Piutes and the federal government is refusing to help them," he said.
The government won't review Kennedy's contract because the tribe is not listed on the federal government's register of recognized Indian tribes, Kennedy said.
The government now wants the tribe to go through the costly and complicated process of becoming recognized by the federal government, Kennedy said.
But the tribe claims the federal government recognized it 100 years ago and cannot arbitrarily refuse to recognize it now.
Kennedy plans to use the constitution drawn up by the Western Shoshones in 1910 as further evidence of tribal status. He will rely on subsequent charters and agreements drawn up by the Indians and previously recognized by the government to support their claim.