A dozen or so years before Cliven Bundy faced down armed agents of the Bureau of Land Management over grazing rights, Nevada rancher Raymond Yowell watched as the BLM seized his herd. Adding to that insult, they’ve taken his money too since 2008.
Yowell’s 150 head of cattle had grazed for decades on the South Fork Western Shoshone Indian Reservation in northeastern Nevada until the BLM seized them. They sold the cattle at auction, using some of the money to pay off part of Yowell’s ‘back grazing fees.’
Then the BLM sent Yowell a bill for the outstanding balance, some $180,000. They’ve been garnishing the former Shoshone chief’s monthly Social Security checks ever since.
While Bundy defied the BLM over fees for grazing cattle on ‘government-owned’ land, Yowell’s cattle roamed reservation land. But a 1979 Supreme Court decision held that even land designated for Indian reservations is held in trust for them, and thus subject to BLM regulation.
The Western Shoshone have never relinquished their right to the territory and treaties led to the creation of the reservation granted to Yowell and other cattlemen the right to graze cattle on the land. He’s also sued the BLM, the Treasury Department and others for $30 million, saying he was exercising his “treaty guaranteed vested rights” to be a herdsman.
Members of the Te-Moak Livestock Association deny the land in question belongs to the federal government. They say it was never alienated under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.
The treaty gave certain rights to the U.S. in the Nevada Territory, but didn’t state that the Shoshone were to surrender their lands. This omission created problems for the Indian Claims Commission from the time it was established in 1946 until it was dissolved in 1978, forcing outstanding issues to be transferred to the courts.
The federal government purchased the land from the Shoshone in the 1940s, but tribal members claim they were paid cents on the dollar for the land. Also the traditional members claim the land was not for sale and they refused payment.
In 2004, the fed’s passed the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act, which authorized payment of $145 million for the transfer of 25 million acres to the U.S. Seven of the nine tribal councils within the Western Shoshone Nation opposed the legislation. Then on January 17, 2006, the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Western Shoshone National Council against the U.S. that sought to quiet title to lands defined in the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
In 2013, Yowell represented himself in a successful effort to win a federal injunction to stop the BLM from impounding his cattle, as well as a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that reversed the lower court. He continues to represent himself, this time in a petition to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear his case, where he argues his cattle were taken without due process and in violation of multiple treaties.
As all this played out, other members of the Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone formed the South Fork Livestock Partnership had cattle grazing on the land. The SFLP members paid the grazing fee to the BLM.
Meanwhile, the TMLA, of which Yowell is a member, quit paying permit fees in 1984 with the claim that they didn’t have to pay for grazing on land that was rightfully that of the Western Shoshone. The BLM cancelled the Association’s permit in 1989.
Yowell retired in 2006 after nearly 30 years as chief of the national council. He said he leaves most of the heavy lifting to his son these days at his ranch on the edge of the Ruby Mountains where his parents first settled in the 1930s.
As Oglala Lakota chief Mahpiua-Luta (Red Cloud) stated, “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they kept one; they promised to take our land, and they did.”