On Thursday, Feb. 6, 2003, armed agents of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) - under the direction of Mr. Robert Abbey, director of the Nevada Office of the BLM - began confiscating (stealing) hundreds of horses belonging to two Western Shoshone grandmothers, Mary and Carrie Dann. For 12 days BLM agents used helicopters to round up the horses, many of which were pregnant mares, thereby putting the horses and the two Western Shoshone sisters (who are in their sixties and seventies respectively) through tremendous stress.
Raymond Yowell, Chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, said of the horses: "The preservation of these herds is especially significant given the unique Shoshone heritage of the horses. The horses have been owned and controlled by Shoshone people for as far back as can be remembered and may in fact constitute their own breed of Indian horses."
The BLM acted on the basis of the argument that the Dann sisters were illegally grazing their horses on "federal public lands" without having obtained a federal permit, and had accumulated millions of dollars in "fines." The Dann sisters have steadfastly argued that the disputed lands belong to the Western Shoshone as recognized by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, which, pursuant to the U.S. Constitution, is "the supreme Law of the land." As far as the Shoshones are concerned, their treaty and their ancestral ties to their lands are the only constitutionally protected "permit" they need.
Leading up to the BLM's theft of the Western Shoshone horses, the Dann sisters and the Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP) had rounded up as many horses as possible (roughly 300) in an effort to keep them out of the hands of the BLM. Eventually, Mr. Slick Gardner, a rancher who lives near Santa Barbara, Calif., contacted the WSDP. After some discussions, and assurances from Gardner that the horses would be well cared for, he trucked out some 500 Western Shoshone horses.
Gardner dropped approximately 150 horses at a small parcel of land at Fish Creek in Eureka, Nev. Forty-seven carcasses were later discovered. Of these horses, Indian Country Today correspondent Ryan Slattery recently reported: "The horses, a few adults but mostly foals, died over period of weeks, perhaps, months, following the controversial roundup. Some were stillborn, others died of starvation and many of the young were too weak to stand and died when they were trampled in a coral too small to hold them."
Gardner reportedly took some 246 other Western Shoshone horses to his Buellton, Calif. ranch in February. Shortly, thereafter, neighbors of Mr. Gardner, many of whom are horse owners, and members of the general public, began to express outrage at the obvious malnourishment of the horses on Gardner's property, and kept pressure on public officials to take action.
Finally, on Monday, Sept. 5, some 30 investigators with Santa Barbara County Animal Services, the District Attorney's Office, and Sheriff's Department, raided Mr. Gardner's 2,000-acre ranch and took possession of horses that Gardner had there. Reportedly, many of the horses were in such terrible shape that some of the sheriffs were in tears at the sight of them.
A far as I'm concerned, the Western Shoshone horses that died would still be alive and well if they had been left on Western Shoshone land, and not used as pawns in the BLM's political gamesmanship against the Danns. It seems clear that the Bureau of Land Management is directly responsible for the starvation and loss of the horses and foals that died, for the terrible shape that the surviving horses are presently in, and for the tens of thousands of dollars this entire episode has cost Santa Barbara County (the total cost is projected could reach $90,000 or more). Certainly, the BLM is also responsible for the tremendous hardship that this entire episode has placed on the Dann family, and the Western Shoshone people as a whole.
Some time ago, during a telephone conversation with Mr. Abbey, I asked him "As a federal government official aren't you sworn to uphold the laws of the United States?" He assured me that he is. So, I asked him, "Well, given that the Treaty of Ruby Valley is part of the laws of the United States, aren't you sworn to uphold the terms of that treaty by protecting the rights and property of the Western Shoshone people?"
"Talk to our legal department," Abbey replied, entirely unwilling to answer the question himself.
Think of it. The United States government claims to be committing the lives of American soldiers and hundreds of billions of dollars to "bring democracy" to Iraq. Yet when it comes to the Western Shoshone people, the United States refuses to behave on the basis anything approaching "democracy" or fair and honorable dealings.
The "gifts" that the United States has for the Western Shoshone are racism, arbitrary "laws," and bullying intimidation at the hands of armed agents, some of whom I can say, based on personal experience, give off the threatening impression that they are U.S. military or S.W.A.T. types. (It made me feel ashamed to not do more to support the Danns in the face of gun-toting federal agents during the BLM cattle theft). This from the country that continually declares before the world community that it is the standard-bearer of "liberty and justice for all."
The BLM has used its theft of Western Shoshone horses as a means of punishing (which Carrie Dann termed "terrorism") the most traditional Western Shoshones brave enough to boldly stand up to the U.S. on the basis of the Ruby Valley Treaty. In May 2003, armed BLM agents stole hundreds of cattle belonging to Chief Raymond Yowell of the Western Shoshone National Council and Mr. Myron Tybo. These cows were then sold by the BLM on the Internet at an amount far below their market value price. Armed BLM agents also stole hundreds of cattle from the Dann Sisters last September (2002) and also sold them on the Internet below market value.
It's good that many of the American people who hear about the situation are able to feel a tremendous sense of outrage over the deaths of many Western Shoshone horses, and the near starvation of so many others. I just wish that this concern would translate into a comparable degree of outrage at the United States government over the mistreatment of the Western Shoshone people themselves, in violation of a treaty that according to the Constitution is supposed to be respected and upheld as supreme law in the United States.
We never see major investigative reports in the mainstream media willing to provide the American people with a full understanding of the viewpoint of the traditional Western Shoshone people. Thus, it's no wonder that the U.S. government has been successful at diverting a great deal of public attention away from its reprehensible actions toward the Western Shoshone Nation.
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Law research coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan, on the Reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.