The House voted Monday to unlock more than $145 million in Western Shoshone settlement funds, marking the closest the Indians have come to receiving payment for millions of acres lost to Western settlers.
Legislation that has caused years of deep division among tribal members was passed by voice vote. It was sent to the Senate for what was expected to be quick and final approval.
The uncontested vote came as a surprise to Western Shoshone who oppose the settlement. They expected House Democrats to speak against it.
Democrats dropped their opposition after being lobbied by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who had spearheaded a settlement bill along with Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev.
"It's been 30 years and it's time to pay our people," said Nancy Stewart, co-chair of the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee.
"Our people are some of the most poverty stricken people in our great nation," said Stewart, a member of the Fallon Western Shoshone Tribe.
Reid wrote to House lawmakers Friday, urging "swift consideration and passage" of the Western Shoshone bill and promising to work on outstanding land issues related to the settlement.
Western Shoshone groups who have lobbied against compensation contend the settlement payments will extinguish tribal legal claims to their ancestral lands.
"They are going to go ahead and start selling it to the gold mines and start shoveling the water to Las Vegas and shipping nuclear waste through Western Shoshone territory to Yucca Mountain," said Te-Moak tribal chairman Hugh Stevens.
Hours before the House vote, the National Congress of American Indians approved a resolution that Congress not "impose" a claims distribution bill upon any "tribe that has not consented to the settlement of its land claims."
The resolution further stated Congress should direct the Interior Department to negotiate land disputes with the Western Shoshone before any compensation legislation is approved.
"It's a very sad day for Indian rights, particularly for Western Shoshone who are struggling to hold onto their land rights," said Steve Tullberg, director of the Indian Law Resource Center.
Gibbons said the bill would not preclude tribes from making land claims.
Congress in 1979 allocated $26.1 million to the Western Shoshone at the direction of the Indian Claims Commission, which had determined the tribes should be compensated for land and resources lost because of gradual encroachment. The tribes were given an 1872 price for their land and minerals, about 15 cents an acre.
The fund has accumulated more than $145 million, which will be divided equally among eligible Western Shoshone.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates about 6,000 would receive settlement money; however, Stewart said as few as 3,500 Western Shoshone could qualify for the settlement.
Eligible recipients would be those living at the date of the bill's enactment, a U.S. citizen and at least a quarter Western Shoshone.
Another $1.5 million would be set aside in an education trust fund for the tribes.