If only the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes could have had it as easy as the Pequot tribe of eastern Connecticut.
Faced with a shrinking reservation, the Pequots discovered a little known federal law banning the sale of Indian land without permission from the U.S. government, reclaimed land lost to white settlers, and by 1993 boasted a casino with more than $1 billion in revenue. Even white people started claiming as little as one-sixteenth Pequot blood in attempts to get in on the action.
Instead, Skull Valley Goshutes living on a reservation southwest of the Wasatch Front must deal with federal grand jury indictments against tribal chairman Leon D. Bear, in addition to indictments against three of his critics. The indictments of theft, fraud and false statements against Bear, plus counts of theft and bank fraud against his opponents make the head spin. Who would have guessed running a small band could get so complicated?
It’s been quite complicated ever since Private Fuel Storage came to town, offering the band untold sums to store high-level radioactive waste on its reservation. The proposed waste site exposed fault lines among band members. It got us jumping as well. Unable to find any effective means of stopping the waste site against what seemed an insurmountable wall of tribal sovereignty, news of these indictments brought a smile to the face of anyone who wanted the waste site stopped. Then Gov. Mike Leavitt hinted often that an ongoing FBI investigation into the band’s financial matters might turn up something—anything—that might pull Bear from power and install a tribal leader more sympathetic to the white man’s concerns.
Let’s not hold our breath. Private Fuel Storage, the company that struck a deal with the band, made it clear that its contract for a waste site still stands. Even U.S. Attorney Paul Warner has said the indictments have “nothing to do” with the possibility that 44,000 tons of radioactive waste might end up on Utah soil. Strictly speaking, that’s probably true. It’s also true that lots of people have kept their fingers crossed that these indictments might come to pass. Which came first, the fact that investigators knew of possible corruption within the band, or that they only paid attention to allegations after the threat of a waste site?
The question’s important not because we should or shouldn’t care about alleged ill dealings within Native American tribes. Let justice take its course. The question is important because it reveals that perhaps we only care when it stands to impact us.
If the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes attempted to open a casino, perhaps we’d shout just as loud. As for pollution and desecration of the environment, we do that quite well without a nuclear waste site sponsored by American Indians. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that 732 million pounds of toxic chemicals were released into Salt Lake County, placing us at the top of the national toxic pile. How many Skull Valley Goshutes had a hand in that?