LAS VEGAS - Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., is dropping his bill and backing a measure by Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., to give Western Shoshone Indians about $25,000 apiece for ancestral lands lost in the 1860s to the U.S. government.
"This issue has been pending for over three decades," Gibbons wrote in an April 28 letter asking the House Resources Committee to consider a Reid bill to pay Western Shoshone Indians $143.9 million for the land.
An estimated 5,000 to 6,000 tribal members would get the payments - but some are strongly opposed to the deal. Tribal members live mainly in Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah.
"During this time, many members of the tribe have passed away without ever seeing the benefits," Gibbons said in the letter to Resources Chairman Richard Pombo, R-Calif. Committee spokeswoman Nicol Andrews said Pombo would endorse Reid's bill.
Gibbons spokeswoman Amy Spanbauer said Thursday in Washington, D.C., that Gibbons decided to endorse Reid's bill to speed Western Shoshone legislation.
Western Shoshone factions that oppose any settlement expressed dismay, saying they were not informed of Gibbons' switch.
Julie Fishel, director of the land recognition program at the Western Shoshone Defense Project, said several tribal leaders met with Gibbons aides the same day the congressman sent his letter to Pombo, but were not told of the move.
"This ... should have been shared," Fishel said. "The payment is setting the stage to divvying up their land to private interests."
Spanbauer said most Western Shoshone support the federal legislation that stems from an Indian Claims Commission judgment against the U.S. government for taking Western Shoshone lands.
Reid's bill clarifies that American Indians wouldn't be taxed on any settlement they accept, an issue that stalled Gibbons' bill. The Reid legislation also ensures that payments wouldn't disqualify beneficiaries from need programs such as college financial aid and food stamps.
Gibbons has maintained that Western Shoshones would not have been taxed on the settlement under his bill, which the House Resources Committee had endorsed but which stalled short of final floor debate.
It remained unclear whether House Democrats would allow a vote on Reid's bill, but Reid welcomed Gibbons' support.
The Western Shoshone ancestral lands ranged from the Snake River Valley in Idaho to Salt Lake Valley in Utah, across most of eastern and central Nevada, and into Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in California.