Native Americans


The State of Nevada makes up sections of what previously was the territory of 26 Native American Tribes that are now found on 31 reservations and colonies (“Tribal Matters”). The federally recognized Indian tribes own these lands, but often, the tittle to the land is still held by the federal government (Public Law 108-270). Because of the sovereign relationship between the federal government and the Native American tribes throughout the country, federal courts have jurisdiction over issues on reservations that involve both “Indian and a non-Indian” actors, including issues of grazing and disputes over land use (District of Nevada Informational Resource Guide for Tribal Matters 2014). For this reason, occasionally conflicts arise between the tribes and the federal government over land disputes similar to that of Clive Bundy.

Map of the Native American reservations in Nevada

In 2011, a member of the Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone, Raymond Yowell, filed a lawsuit against the BLM and the Treasury Department for $30 million. Ten years earlier, the federal government seized all his 132 cattle, sold them at auction, and charged him $180,000 for grazing fees and associated penalties. In his lawsuit, Yowell states that the federal government deprived him of his constitutional rights, breaking the treaty of 1863 that said that his tribe owned the land on which he had been grazing his cattle, and thus, he was not required to acquire a federal permit to graze on the land nor pay the annual fee (Sonner 2011). A 1979 Supreme Court ruling, however, interpreted this treaty to mean that the U.S government had trusteeship over tribal lands (Supreme Court Case 78-160). More recently in 2004, the Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act guaranteed $145 million to tribe members if they relinquished their land rights to the federal government, a controversy that divided the 10,000 Western Shoshone people into groups that wanted to accept the deal and groups that did not (Public Law 108-270).

This case study serves as an example of the conflict that has arisen between the Native American tribes in Nevada and the federal government, a conflict that is remarkably similar to that of Cliven Bundy and other ranchers. It is not, however, the only problem that Native Americans have in regards to conflict over these grazing lands. In addition, a number of the federally owned lands in this part of the state contain Indian writings and drawings that are centuries old. Under the Antiquities Act, federal employees are required to ensure the safety of these historic sites and maintain them, but local ranchers who disregard the importance of these relics and the government’s ownership of the land have destroyed many of these sites (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2005). In other areas, federal employees are unable to even access the sites due to threats and physical violence committed by the ranchers. (“We Must Protect Nevada’s Gold Butte: Lands Across America” 2016). In other words, the debate of ownership of these expansive regions of Nevada affects Native Americans on both sides: many culturally significant sites are unable to be protected from graffiti because the federal government is not able to exert its control over the ranchers and protect the area while many Native Americans also strive to undermine the federal governments control by claiming ownership of the land.

Policy Proposal

A number of local Native American ranchers have argued that the land that the federal government administers in Nevada is rightfully theirs, and thus, they should have right to access the land without the interference of the federal government.

Counter Arguments

As has been proven in many court cases and upheld in multiple pieces of legislation, the federal government does have legal claim over the public land and the reservations in the western states. Furthermore, many local white ranchers are adamantly opposed to the ownership of the land by Native Americans and increased violence would likely result.