Dann Sisters Hang Tough in Nevada

CRESCENT VALLEY, Nevada—Western Shoshone traditionalist, rancher and grandmother Carrie Dann has spent nearly three decades fighting the U.S. government for her people's right to live and ranch on ancestral homelands.

The struggle has not been easy.

There have been threats, harassment, helicopter surveillance and raids by armed federal agents. There were sleepless nights, months of anxiety and years of fighting a federal "regulatory cavalry" sent to force her off lands that the Western Shoshone have lived on for hundreds of years.

On two occasions—once at Thanksgiving—armed federal agents arrived with police convoys and livestock trucks to round up and impound Western Shoshone cattle tended by the Dann family.

One six-day raid ended with 269 horses captured and two killed.

There were even physical confrontations that left her man-handled and cuffed as Bureau of Land Management agents forcibly restrained her from trying to prevent the confiscation of Indian livestock.

"I noticed the new vocabulary being used today is terrorism," Dann said in an interview. "They've been terrorizing us for almost 30 years now. When someone threatens you on a daily basis and says they're going to take your property, your livelihood—to me, that's terrorism.

"It attacks your mind—it's a mental stress on you. I wonder to myself how we continue to go on with this struggle because we're getting pretty old now."

Since a federal agent told Carrie and her sister, Mary, in 1973 that their cattle were "trespassing on public land," the Dann sisters have tenaciously fought a protracted paper war that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In times of relative peace, the Dann sisters carry on with the hard work of running a ranch: rounding up livestock, calving, branding, castrating, growing alfalfa and tending a vegetable garden that feeds their extended family. 

It's a way of life on which the Dann family and many other Western Shoshone have subsisted for generations in the rugged, high desert mountains of what is now called Northern Nevada.

Dann insists that the BLM has no jurisdiction to charge her family with trespassing or to levy fines against her for refusing to pay grazing permit fees to the federal government. She estimates that over the years the fines have grown to more than $1 million. She said she has no intention to pay.

"The 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley only granted rights of passage through our land to white settlers. But we never gave up the land," Dann insists. "So these BLM raids are an outright armed invasion of the Western Shoshone Nation. They have no jurisdiction over us.

"The real issue is that the United States is attempting to claim control over sovereign Western Shoshone land and people," she says. "Our land has never been ceded or deeded to the U.S., so it's not possible for them to just take it and determine that our title to the land has been extinguished."

Legal scholars who have followed the hard-fought land rights case conclude that Dann is, in fact, correct in her assertions that the Western Shoshone still own the land.

Rich in traditional knowledge of the natural world, Dann has had to become a student of American law over the years and can now recite a litany of legal doctrines that have impacted their lives.

She says she knows enough about American law to know it isn't fair.

"I don't understand under America's laws how they can say we were paid for our land," Dann said. "If a white man sells his house to somebody, it's his until he gets money into his hands. But we never took one cent for our land. The government just paid itself in our name and has been harassing us ever since to get our land."

When she heads to Washington next week among a delegation of Western Shoshone who are seeking a fair and just compromise to keep their homelands, Dann says she'll do her best to persuade Congress to honor their human and civil rights.

"We know what the value of the land is—it's life," she said. "They can value the land in dollars and cents, but to traditional Indigenous people the value of land isn't money. We look at our spiritual ties to the land as the most sacred thing and this is part of what the U.S. is trying to take away from us. It's the sacredness of our lands—what it means to us—that they're trying to destroy. If they force the money on us, they'll be making us homeless in our homeland."

"It's because of our traditional ways that we've been able to carry on. If we didn't believe in who we are as Western Shoshone, and if we didn't believe in our prayers and spirituality, I guess we would be gone a long time ago.

"But the earth is our mother and we're not going to give that up. If we did, what would we do for future generations? We wouldn't be thinking about our future generations, of our children, our grandchildren and the children yet to come. I guess that's what keeps us going."