Defiance in the Land of the
A Profile of Carrie and Mary Dann
Native American woman is at war with the US. For 30 years she's
fighting to keep her ancestral land - and now the United Nations
her side. Report by Nicola Graydon
The government came for the horses at dawn. It was spring 2003
and it was
foaling season. A helicopter flew low over Pine Valley, herding
them to corrals. Some prematurely gave birth, others were
trampled. Armed federal agents stood by. By the end of the day,
over 500 horses were taken to be auctioned off to a local
rancher. Not long afterwards some 50 carcasses were dumped - the
horses had starved to death.
Carrie Dann, a
diminutive Western Shoshone grandmother who owned the
horses, refuses to talk about it. "Indians love horses," is all
she'll say. But she thinks it caused the death of her sister,
Mary, who died last April. "After that," she says, "Mary went
down real fast."
The 2003 round-up was the fourth military-style operation in one
longest-running land disputes in the history of America. For
over 30 years, Carrie and Mary Dann have fought the US
government for Western
Shoshone rights to 60m acres of land that stretch through Nevada
neighboring states. Until now, the harassment has hardly
conscience of America, but that might be about to change.
In March, in an unprecedented document, the UN demanded that the
government halt all actions against the Shoshone and find a
acceptable to them and in accordance with their rights. This
decision could force the government to transform antiquated
Indian law. And if it does it will be in no small part down to
What she lacks in physical stature - she barely scrapes 5ft -
Carrie Dann makes up for in presence and sheer
bloody-mindedness. Her face is
weathered by decades in the saddle and a 20-a-day habit - and
swearing doesn't endear her to government officials. "The Indian
ain't over yet," she says fiercely. "They're still happening
here and now." But, despite her defiance, she admits she's still
afraid the US government will confiscate her ranch to pay
outstanding fines for disputed grazing fees.
The Dann ranch isn't much to look at. A single-story rambling
house, it's surrounded by tall cottonwood trees and rusting
wrecks. Uncle Clifford, who famously threatened to douse himself
in gasoline when the "feds" first confiscated the family
livestock in the early 1990s, earning nine months in state
prison as a result, lives in a trailer in the garden. He's now
profoundly deaf. Carrie's severely disabled son is playing in
the cabin of a tractor in the front yard.
Panes of glass have been replaced by cardboard and there's no
heating. Cooking is done on a wood-burning stove. The only
place the ranch in the 21st century are the solar panels that
replaced the generator last year.
But Carrie doesn't care about home comforts. Her grandmother,
me proudly, never had a bed. Anyway, the land is all that
matters. "We've been here since time immemorial," she
says, as we make our way to
a small dam to catch brown trout for dinner. "I was born here
and this is where I'll die, whatever the government says."
The ranch is dwarfed by the Nevada landscape. Crescent Valley
away from it for miles like a vast carpet of desert shrubs and
To the naked eye, it's a vast plain of nothing much - but the
ranch is on some of the most expensive real estate in the world.
Carrie Dann is, quite literally, sitting on a gold mine.
Just down the road, the Carlin Trend, discovered in the 1960s,
is the second largest gold depository in the world after
Witwatersrand in South Africa, but the entire state is covered
with open pits. Mining has always been Nevada's raison d'etre.
There was a lull at the beginning of the 20th century; silver
ran out and gold was yet to be discovered so the state legalized
divorce, gambling and prostitution. But today nearly 10% of the
world's production of gold - over half of US production - comes
Carrie's ranch sits on the slopes of the Cortez mountain range,
first prospected in the original gold rush but as yet untapped.
Not long before the 2003 round-up, Cortez Mining (a joint
venture between Placer Dome, the largest mining operation in the
area, and Rio Tinto) tried to introduce legislation to privatise
60,000 acres for mining around Mount Tenabo, the most imposing
mountain in the range.
Tenabo is sacred to the
Shoshone for reasons other than gold, and the
ensuing uproar killed the bill but, for the Danns, this was just
another battle in an ongoing war of attrition.
The Danns' legal dispute began in 1973 when the Bureau of Land
Management fined the sisters for grazing their livestock on
"public lands" : that is, land owned by the federal government.
The sisters never had any intention to pay. As far as they were
concerned, they were grazing ancestral land ratified in the
Treaty of Ruby Valley in 1863.
Collection notices still arrive at the tiny
local post office but Carrie doesn't even bother to open them.
"I probably owe $5m by now," she laughs hoarsely.
From 1974 to 1991 their case was shunted from court to court:
the US District Court and bouncing backwards and forwards
Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, which ruled against the
1985. "It was all totally wrong. I felt like we were being
screwed by the federal court system all the way along. But
sometimes I think that being Indian means they can screw us
whichever way they want."
The Western Shoshone had been screwed by earlier findings of the
Indian Claims Commission on which the Supreme Court based their
final ruling. Set up by President Truman in 1946, ostensibly to
honor Indian rights and treaties, the commission ruled in 1977
that the Shoshone had "lost" their lands in 1872 by "gradual
encroachment" and awarded $24m as compensation.
"Gradual encroachment by what?" Carrie Dann sweeps her hand
the emptiness. "There's nobody else here - but the drilling
rigs. In 1965 the word was 'taken'. T A K E N. Now it's become
'lost to gradual encroachment'. As far as I know, the
constitution states that nobody can take another's land unless
it's by the federal government for public use: and, even then,
there are procedures to follow." However, the Western Shoshone
refused to take the money. "It's still there drawing interest,"
says Carrie. "I understand it's now over $130m." She snorts in
derision. "But no amount of money will make us give up the
rights to our lands."
The Peace and Friendship Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863 is one of
Indian treaties that didn't cede land, because nobody wanted it.
It was a parched high desert; vicious in winter and equally so
The white settlers were looking for safe passage to the gold
mines in California during the great gold rush that began in
1848. Until then, the Indians of the interior had barely come
into contact with white people. But once the rush began,
thousands of settlers began moving west with rifles to shoot
wild game and herds of livestock that grazed Shoshone land to
dust. In just one year, 70,000 gold-seekers passed through
The gold rush was devastating for native peoples. From 1848 to
population dropped from 150,000 to 31,000. According to Carrie,
families survived massacres in Ruby Valley itself.
The treaty allowed settlers to mine, ranch, cut timber and
extract natural resources but, crucially to the Dann's case, it
recognized the Western Shoshone as landowners.
The Shoshone nation stretches over four states: from Snake River
in Idaho, through much of Nevada to the edge of the Mojave
desert in California and taking up a small corner of Utah. The
treaty awarded the Indians compensation for use of land at
$5,000 a year for 20 years. It was never paid, and neither was a
promised royalty for extraction.
The HQ of the Western Shoshone Defence Project (WSDP), set up by
Western Shoshone National Council in 1991 to help the Danns'
case, is a
trailer on scrubland off 6th Street in Crescent Valley, a
barely-there town that is mainly made up of mine workers.
Julie Fishel, a human-rights lawyer who's been with the WSDP for
years, points out of the window: "There it is: the mountain
desperate to get their hands on." Mount Tenabo dominates the
horizon. Fishel became involved with the Danns in 1998,
beginning full-time work on their case in 2001 when she received
a desperate call asking her to
help them respond to a bill that was being introduced by Harry
Nevada's Democratic senator, to force the distribution of the
monies the Shoshone have never claimed. Fishel began to turn
Reid has widely-reported links with the
mining and gaming interests that
have made Nevada one of the fastest growing states in the US.
Angeles Times recently revealed sizable sums his sons and
have received for lobbying on behalf of mining companies in
"They really needed my help. The spin against them in Washington
claiming, basically, that they were almost terrorists. That
really alarmed me. I finally got to talk to someone in
authority. When I explained the situation, he said, 'This is
completely different to what I have been told.' I asked him
where he was getting this from. And he said, 'Senator Reid's
Nonetheless the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill was signed by
W Bush in July 2004, forcing the Western Shoshone to accept the
$20,000 at person. But still the money is languishing in state
While the first gold rush was devastating to native peoples, the
gold rush that began in the 1980s and intensified in the 1990s
is disastrous for the environment. Thousands of acres of
woodlands have been cleared, streams have been contaminated with
cyanide and mercury, wildlife is disappearing and the landscape
is scarred by open pits a mile wide and towering waste dumps.
Environmental experts say it could take 100 years for the land
to recover, and fear the consequences of the rapid depletion of
the aquifer - a vast underground lake - by an industry that
wastes some 10m gallons of water a day per mine in the most arid
state in the US. About 383 billion gallons of water have already
been pumped from one mine alone. Yet the gold industry remains
one of the least regulated of all extractive industries, with no
federal environmental guidelines and no requirements to clean up
after the mines become defunct.
In a memorable
indictment in The New York Times recently, John Leshy, a
lawyer for the Department of the Interior in the Clinton
said: "Nevada is being written off as a sacrifice area for
For the Indian communities that, like Carrie, still rely on the
land for ranching and subsistence farming, sacred pools used for
ritual are diminishing or poisoned; mountains of legend and
folklore are dynamited and turned into toxic waste dumps.
us, the Earth is a sacred thing," explains Carrie, seeming
slightly frustrated at having to explain once again what is, to
her, a basic tenet of life. "We were taught the Earth is like
our mother, and we have to take care of our mother because she
gives us life.
The Earth, the air, the water and the sun are
all sacred to us and they are being destroyed, polluted and
contaminated. For us, this is like spiritual genocide."
She admits that the treaty allows mining on Western Shoshone
points out that, in 1863, this amounted to a few men with
explosives. But she's still willing to talk with mining
"We're prepared to meet with them. Is there such
a thing as responsible
mining? I'll have to work that out for myself."
The Danns were one of the few Indian families who avoided moving
reservations or into town. They would retreat to caves in the
mountains to avoid trouble. Once, her grandmother told her, they
had hidden for months during an epidemic when clothes
distributed as gifts by the military infested the tribe with
smallpox. "Their own records tells that 98% of our people died -
killed by bullets or disease," she says bitterly. "If you don't
call that genocide, what is? But they still treat us badly."
In 1951 the Atomic Energy Commission chose Western Shoshone land
to set up a test site for nuclear weapons. Between 1951 and
1992, the US and
Great Britain exploded around 1,000 nuclear devices there. More
the Western Shoshone invoked the treaty in a lawsuit against a
Department of Energy plan to make Yucca Mountain into a dump for
the country's nuclear waste. "We call that mountain Snake
Mountain because it moves," one elder told me. And, sure enough,
geological surveys indicate the area around the mountain has
more than its share of seismic shifts and mini-earthquakes.
The Western Shoshone call their land Newe Sogobia, meaning '"the
people's earth mother", and their creation myths tell them they
were placed here to take care of the Earth. Unlike other tribes
who were placed in reservations far from their original
homelands or migrated to safety, they have, at least, managed to
The Dann ranch is as good a place as any to conduct a last
stand. At night, Carrie watches the lights of exploratory
drilling rigs - or "metal horses", as she calls them - as they
move around in the valley below her. She has no idea how she
will survive financially without her livestock but continues to
catch fish and gather pine nuts. The few horses that remain stay
close to the ranch now, as if for comfort, and the land is
missing the cattle to graze back the grass that has overgrown in
an unusually wet summer. Fishel recalls the day of the round-up:
"Carrie was nearly broken by it. She was on the ground
sobbing. She said to me, 'Julie, I'm done. They've destroyed
The weekend I visit, the Shoshone are conducting the first sun
dance in Ruby Valley since 1941, after which Indian religious
rites were banned by the Department of the Interior until the
1970s. It's an extraordinary ritual where dancers fast for three
days and three nights while they dance to the point of
exhaustion. It's said to connect the people to the sun in an act
of self-sacrifice to both the Earth mother and the community. In
this case it has brought together hundreds of Western Shoshone
in the place where the Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed
over a century ago. Nobody is downplaying the
significance. Carrie is hopeful it's a sign of
a cultural resurgence.
"I want the spiritual rights of our people to be restored," she
says. "And that means we need our rights to the land, for that
is where we worship."
The UN decision in March
has given long-awaited recognition to her struggle and a July
deadline for the US to report on compliance. The Committee for
the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva has also
demanded the US recognize and protect the Shoshone's cultural
and spiritual practices. Carrie admits it's a huge step in the
right direction but she has further ambitions.
"I want the United States government to come to
us and say, 'Our history is long and painful. We have mistreated
you. We massacred, raped, humiliated and starved your people. We
admit we committed acts of genocide.' That would be a good
thing. If they decided to put a price on that, I would accept
the money. But I will never accept money for this land.
"We've been put here by our creator to be custodians of this
believe me when I say to you that we are not caring for these
just for Indian children. We are caring for these things for