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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Shoshone Sisters Fight for Land

Air Date: Week of

The Western Shoshone’s traditional lands stretch over two thirds of the state of Nevada. But since the late 1800s, the tribe has lost possession of millions of acres of that land to the government through the gradual encroachment of settlers. Two Shoshone sisters, Carrie and Mary Dann, have been fighting over ownership of their grazing land for decades, and for the sovereignty of the Western Shoshone people. Clay Scott reports from northern Nevada.


CURWOOD: When European-American settlers first crossed the Great Basin, they encountered the Western Shoshone, a people whose traditional lands stretched over two-thirds of what's now the state of Nevada and into California. In 1863, the tribe signed a treaty of "peace and friendship" with the U.S. government, but never ceded its land. Today Western Shoshone people are still scattered over Nevada and elsewhere in the region. They live in cities, towns, and tiny colonies while tens of millions of acres of what was their territory had been designated as federal land.

For decades the tribe fought to regain its territory. After 30 years of court battles, many Western Shoshone say they're now willing to accept a government payment for their land, but some continue to resist what they see as the theft of their ancestral homeland. Clay Scott has this report from northern Nevada.

SCOTT: The Dann Ranch is a modest collection of low roofed buildings patched together from scraps of lumber and corrugated tin, sheltered by cottonwood trees where the sage flats meet low mountains.

Carrie Dann is in her 60s, her sister Mary about 10 years older. They lead a simple life. A wood stove heats their house and a generator supplies occasional electricity. There's no hot water except for the natural thermal spring in the mountains nearby where, like generations of Western Shoshone before them, the two sisters go to soak. Every morning they get up early to see to their animals: white-faced cattle, a few chickens and goats. But their greatest affection is reserved for their horses.

Carrie Dann offers a bit of hay to a nervous Appaloosa mare, one of several dozen animals prancing and shuffling around a crowded corral. The horses are not used to being confined. They normally graze freely in the mountains on land run by the Bureau of Land Management. Not anymore. The Danns have never had a permit to graze their livestock on federal land, and the BLM has cracked down on what it considers trespassing. Carrie is eager to challenge that notion.

C. DANN: I'm not trespassing. As a matter of fact, I would just reverse that and say that the United States is trespassing on Western Shoshone land. I'm not going to get a grazing permit from the Bureau of Land Management because this is not their land. This is Western Shoshone land.

SCOTT: The Western Shoshone Nation never legally ceded its land to the U.S. government. But in 1962, the Indian Claims Commission, which no longer exists, ruled that the tribe lost possession of its land through gradual encroachment by settlers. That's a ruling Carrie and Mary Dann refuse to accept.

M. DANN: I know gradual encroachment is not a law. So what they got to stand on? The fact that the United States is mighty and more powerful than any other nation, that they can do as they want? They should show us how they took our land. They should show us. The date and the place where it was taken, where our proud people, our leaders, have signed our land over to them. They should first show us that.

SCOTT: So far, the federal government has not been swayed by the Danns' arguments. As far as BLM officials are concerned, the land in question is federal land and the horses are there illegally. And so the BLM has been rounding up the sisters' horses and trucking them back to the Dann ranch.

On this day the BLM is using helicopters to chase down horses, swooping low to head them off and keep them from hiding in steep-walled mountain gorges. At the BLM encampment, where armed officials in uniform and hired wranglers stroll around an assortment of pickup trucks and trailers, I meet District Chief Helen Hankins. I ask her if all of this is a disproportionate show of muscle, if the BLM is trying to make a statement.

HANKINS: I would have to disagree that all these things that we're raising are political. There's a serious concern in these areas because of the substantially high numbers of livestock and the impacts that those livestock being out on a year-round basis cause to both lands and watersheds.

SCOTT: Hankins points out the sparse vegetation, erosion, and noxious invasive weeds she says are a direct result of overgrazing. Not only are the Danns trespassing, she says, but they are grazing far more animals than this fragile land can bear.

HANKINS: Most of our grazing permitees in this part of Nevada have rotated grazing: they use one pasture and then they move to the next, and then move to the next. And so the impacts on any one particular piece of land are limited. On this allotment, for the most part, the grazing is everywhere, and it's year-round, and it's not managed in the way that industry commonly does it in this part of Nevada.

SCOTT: Back at the Dann ranch, as Carrie and Mary look on impassively, BLM wranglers unload yet another truckload of horses. They prod and coax the frightened animals down a chute into the corral where the horses join the milling bunch already there. The sisters own nearly 1,000 horses, far too many to keep at their 800 acre ranch. So ranches from as far away as California have agreed to take them.

This is not the first time the BLM has rounded up the sisters' livestock. Last fall the agency confiscated over 200 of the Danns’ cattle. Ten years ago they rounded up 250 horses. Both times, the animals were sold at auction and the money put toward the millions of dollars in fines the government says the sisters owe. Carrie bristles when I ask her if the BLM might have a point, if she feels they might be overgrazing the land.

DANN: In my mind, that case is not about horses, nor is it about overgrazing. The case has always been about Western Shoshone land. They have to address the land issue sooner or later.

SCOTT: There have been attempts to address the land issue for over 30 years, and Mary and Carrie have been at the forefront of the fight. But there's also talk of settling the dispute with money. A bill currently working its way to the U.S. Senate would allot a one-time payment of about 20,000 dollars to each of 5,000 or so enrolled members of the Western Shoshone Nation. But that amount is based on land prices in 1872, about 15 cents an acre, while land here today goes for several hundred dollars an acre. Meanwhile, mining companies in the area, working under government leases, are extracting millions of dollars of gold and other minerals from traditional Western Shoshone land.

C. DANN (at meeting): Well, eventually, in the future…

SCOTT: At a recent tribal meeting in Elko, Nevada, Carrie and other speakers talked passionately about the need to fight for their homeland.

C. DANN (at meeting): This is another one of those things they use to divide and conquer us. And I would like to see our people unite. Unite and stand strong. Let’s unite and stand strong, stand strong for the sovereignty of our people

SCOTT: Still, a large majority of tribal members have said they are willing to take the settlement. Many say they are tired of the endless legal wrangling. Many need the money. For people like Betty Robinson, the Dann sisters are fighting an unrealistic battle.

ROBINSON: We have no lands now. If you have a little bit of money, that something is better than nothing. Our people are tired of listening to "maybe let's have land, get all this land back." Well, when they talk about their aboriginal territory, it encompasses about two-thirds of Nevada. Well, you know, and I know as well, that that is asking for the moon and it will not happen.

SCOTT: But even if it's not realistic to expect the return of two-thirds of the state of Nevada, there are other approaches being proposed. Jim Anaya is professor of law at the University of Arizona and an expert on international indigenous rights.

ANAYA: It is possible to arrive at solutions here, in a practical sense, given the fact that there's so much land out here that's not yet in private hands that could be the basis for a negotiated settlement. A solution could be developed by which the Western Shoshone people could have a real land base, and not just these small little areas around these neighborhoods on the edges of town that the government calls colonies.

SCOTT: Another possibility, says Anaya, would be for the Western Shoshone and the BLM to manage the land cooperatively, or for the tribe to manage certain areas and the BLM others. The biggest obstacle to such a solution, he says, is one of attitude.

ANAYA: Policy makers, and by extension, really, the public at large, just don't want to look at these issues. They want to maintain these myths that everything has been settled, or that the problems went away a long time ago. And, of course, the other problematic premise is the age-old premise that Indians can't manage things for themselves. It's based on an attitude of paternalism that has plagued policy makers in this country probably since its founding.

SCOTT: That's an attitude that Mary and Carrie Dann say they have felt acutely since the time they first went to school along with non-native children.

M. DANN: (speaking Shoshone)

SCOTT: Speaking in Shoshone, the normally reserved Mary talks about the history of indignity she says she and her people have suffered. What outsiders have difficulty understanding, says Carrie, and what the government has always underestimated, is the strength of their connection to the land – this specific arid, wind-swept piece of land where they have spent their entire lives.

C. DANN: In our traditional and cultural and spiritual ways, land is not a real estate. Life cannot exist without land. Everything that you and I wear comes from this land in one way or another, and it's important. It's really important. It's life, meaning life – life to all things.

SCOTT: The Danns' stubborn battle with the U.S. government is one of conflicting and competing interpretations of history, of social and environmental justice, of sovereignty over land. What's at stake, they say, is this: that when their people's connection to the land is broken something vital will be lost forever. If they think we're going to give up and go away, says Carrie, one foot resting on the rail of a corral, then they're going to have to think again.

For Living on Earth I'm Clay Scott in Crescent Valley, Nevada.

For a slideshow of this story, click here.


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