Trespassers on Native land

Ian Zabarte’s long fight for Western Shoshone justice

By Linda Pentz Gunter

In the United States, a school day — at least one that used to involve attending in person, remember those? — begins with the Pledge of Allegiance.

In Australia, New Zealand and Canada, it more typically begins with a land acknowledgement. And not just a school day. As Teen Vogue recently explained it to its young readership, it also happens at meetings and even hockey games.

“An acknowledgment might be short: ‘This event is taking place on traditional Chickasaw land.’ Or it might be longer and more specific: ‘We are gathered today on the occupied territory of the Musqueam people, who have stewarded this land for generations,’” explained the Teen Vogue article.

It happens occasionally in the US, too, but usually at rallies — and now on activist Zoom meetings — rather than at official events. However, it shouldn’t become another trendy thing we all do to feel better and politically correct. It needs to come with meaningful action.

“Although land acknowledgements are powerful statements, they are only meaningful when they are coupled with authentic and sustained relationships with Indigenous communities and community-informed actions,” writes Michigan State University’s Native American Institute’s Guide to Land Acknowledgment.

Western Shoshone 1997 protest march at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site. (Photo transferred by Western Shoshone Defense Project to Special Collections and University Archives Department, University of Nevada, Reno)

That relationship has historically been far from meaningful. Instead, it is a dark and bloody one, leading eventually to a slow genocide, made infinitely worse once the White man had split the atom and discovered the bomb.

When the military industrial complex showed up in Shoshone country to test its atomic bombs, or excavate a mountain for a potential radioactive waste dump, they were there “as trespassers,” says Ian Zabarte, Principle Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians, and this year’s winner of Beyond Nuclear’s  Dr. Judith H. Johnsrud “Unsung Hero” Award.

“The United States gave away Shoshone property before there was the United States here,” Zabarte explained during a recent on-line teach-in about uranium and Indigenous rights. 

The plunder started with gold. But once the US began working on nuclear weapons, Indigenous lands were mined for uranium. And that, in turn, led to atomic testing, carried out almost entirely on Shoshone land, “the most bombed nation on Earth,” as Zabarte describes it.

The US continues to trespass, and trample, on Western Shoshone land, violating the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley which only gave certain rights to the United States. As the Las Vegas Sun reported it, “The Shoshone did not cede land claims to the federal government in the treaty. Instead the tribe granted Americans the right to enter its lands for passage and developments like railways and mining. In return, the federal government would compensate the tribe.”

As far as the Western Shoshone are concerned, the treaty did not mean decimating and poisoning the land and its people with atomic bomb tests. It did not mean dumping the country’s high-level radioactive waste there. It did not mean the ability to seize their horses and cattle, which had long roamed freely on the territory to which they and the people belonged — not the other way around.

And the treaty most certainly did not give permission to commit acts of genocide. 

Shoshone horses were seized by US government officials. (Running horses, Dann Ranch, February 11, 2003. Photo courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives Department, University of Nevada, Reno.*)

But, as Zabarte said in an earlier article, republished on the Beyond Nuclear International website: “What the Shoshone people experience is a deliberate intent by the US to systematically dismantle the living life-ways of the Shoshone people for the benefit of the US and the profit of the nuclear industry. This meets the minimum threshold of genocide under both the UN Convention and the US enactments of the crime of genocide.”

That genocide includes the around 900 atomic tests on Western Shoshone land, conducted largely by the US but also by the United Kingdom, during the Cold War. It includes the decision to site the country’s only high-level radioactive waste deep geological repository on Western Shoshone land at Yucca Mountain, Nevada threatening groundwater and drinking water. (The project was canceled by the Obama administration in 2010, but hovers perpetually in the wings, absent, so far, any alternative site.)

And it includes trampling not only on Indigenous rights and traditions but, literally, on some of the most rare and important flora and fauna in the US. 

“The oldest and most isolated plants and animals are here, in Newe Sogobia, the people’s Mother Earth,” wrote Zabarte in a recent email. “Pando, Quaking Aspen, is the largest and oldest tree up to 80,000 years old and spreads across 25 square miles. Bristol Cone Pine is 6,800 years old. Yutumbe, Creosote is an 11,700 year old clone plant. Thyms Buckwheat is a plant that only exists on 5 acres here, and nowhere else on Mother Earth. There is also the Devils Hole Pupfish, the most isolated fish that changed from salt water to fresh water near Death Valley.”

So not “nothing out there” as proponents of the Yucca Mountain radioactive waste dump love to claim.

That campaign — to block the Yucca Mountain dump — is one, among many issues of Indigenous justice, on which Zabarte has been campaigning tirelessly for years. That is why Beyond Nuclear selected him for the organization’s 2020 Johnsrud Award, usually given during the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability’s annual DC Days.

DC Days brings Alliance members, of which Beyond Nuclear is one, to lobby on Capitol Hill and to recognize and honor allies and activists during an awards event. Both had to be canceled this year due to Covid-19, but Beyond Nuclear gave its award anyway, named in honor of Johnsrud, a long-time board member and inveterate anti-nuclear campaigner who died in 2014.

The “unsung” in the award’s title is particularly troubling when it comes to Indigenous peoples because the rest of us have looked away for far too long. Theirs is a story that rarely gets told or heard. Theirs is a presence that rarely gets seen in the halls of power. The decision of the incoming Biden administration to nominate Laguna Pueblo Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) for Secretary of the Interior is a welcome, though belated, shift in the right direction.

“Our identity is the land, our identity is clear, pristine water, our identity is the oldest life on the planet here in the Great Basin,” says Zabarte. “This is what is important to us.”

As it should be to all of us. Because we are all involved, one way or the other.

“We are all downwinders,” says Zabarte. “The fallout has gone across the United States, across the ocean, around the world. The material from weapons testing is in everything.”

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear and writes for and edits Beyond Nuclear International.

Headline photo of Ian Zabarte with U.S. Representative Dina Titus (D-NV) courtesy of Ian Zabarte.

*The photo shows the horses of sisters and Western Shoshone land rights activists, Mary and Carrie Dann. We have just learned that Carrie has passed away. Mary died in 2005. The pair won the Right Livelihood Award (the “alternative Nobel”) in 1993.

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