"The Legal Effect of the Judgment": Indian Land Claims, Ecological Anthropology, Social Impact Assessment, and the Public Domain

By Clemmer, Richard O. | Human Organization, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

"The Legal Effect of the Judgment": Indian Land Claims, Ecological Anthropology, Social Impact Assessment, and the Public Domain


Clemmer, Richard O., Human Organization


The legal, cultural, and ecological issues surrounding Western Shoshone Indians' claim to and use of the public domain in Nevada are examined through discussion of three cases of contested uses: plans for a mine in a proposed World Heritage Site; plans for a dam at a sacred site; and economic use of the public domain for stock grazing by a Western Shoshone family. Results of a research project aimed at documenting historic and contemporary uses of the area as well as Shoshone land claims reveal a challenge for anthropologists and other social scientists to include the political impact of institutional power on ecosystems in environmental studies.

Key words: indigenous, ecology, religion, social impact assessment, Shoshones

Western Shoshones, the Public Domain, and Ecological Anthropology

Much of what is called "public domain" in Nevada is under contested stewardship. Projected and actual uses of the public domain include mining; dam and reservoir construction for recreation and water management; hunting and gathering plant materials for medicine and for making useful and artistic objects; subsistence and economic activities from gathering wild turnip and pine nuts to herding domestic cattle; and religious ceremonies. Although uses and plans originate with various public and private entities, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has regulatory oversight over all projects and uses of the public domain. For decades, conflicts over appropriate use of the public domain have been simmering within a larger political context.

Phrased as a debate among different groups of stakeholders over appropriate uses of land and resources and measures of the relative benefits of choosing one use over another, the conflicts are the sort often analyzed through social impact assessment methodology. Social impact assessment relies on methodologies developed within ecological sociology and ecological anthropology; however, the larger context is contested ownership of the public domain itself. Three cases highlight the nature of this contested ownership: plans for a mine in a proposed World Heritage site; plans for a dam at a sacred site; and economic use of the public domain for stock grazing by a Western Shoshone family. This contested ownership derives from assumptions enacted into law through the Indian Claims Commission Act. Because the contested ownership encompasses the land in these three cases, I must discuss the nature and origins of the claims to the larger area (Figure 1). Therefore, after briefly discussing ecological anthropology and social impact assessment, I shall review the social impact issues and the research projects that they spawned. I shall then place these endeavors within the larger context structured by the ICCA to highlight the political dimensions of the contested stewardship of Nevada's public domain.

Ecological Anthropology and Social Impact Assessment

Since implementation of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA), the standard model for analyzing the social costs and benefits of using the public domain for particular purposes has been a methodology known as environmental analysis. This methodology embeds the human dimensions of environmental impacts as "social impact assessment" (SIA). NEPA mandates the integrated use of natural and social sciences and the environmental design arts in planning and decision making that may have an impact on the human environment. The mandate requires ascertaining who are the "stakeholders" in plans for a particular area and weighing local residents' opinions about them, then suggesting ways to mitigate negative concerns. The concept of stakeholders gives voice in the SIA process to all those groups who will be affected by the proposed action: current users of the area; potential users of the area; local business owners who might profit or lose; the agency that will manage the installation. The advantage to the stakeholder concept is that all groups and individuals who have any sort of interest in the plan either going forward or being disapproved can, in theory, be taken into consideration in the decision-making process. …

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