Mary and Carrie Dann never received a visit from the camouflage cavalry, and I’m not sure whether they would have welcomed the support of armed militia.
But the story of the Shoshone sisters is worth revisiting in the wake of recent events at Cliven Bundy’s ranch near Bunkerville. Despite his lack of standing in federal court, Bundy used the support of a few hundred protesters — some heavily armed — to temporarily dissuade the Bureau of Land Management from rounding up his “trespass cattle.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called Bundy’s gun-toting allies “domestic terrorists.” The rancher calls them “patriots.”
I call it all pretty ironic in light of the long struggle of Mary and Carrie Dann. The Dann sisters were roping, riding cattle and horse ranchers whose animals grazed far and wide on the thin grass of the rolling desert east of Reno. Much of the land was officially considered federal, but the Danns figured their people were there first. Their rights weren’t just legal and constitutional, but historical and ancestral as well.
If rancher Bundy thinks he has precedence because his family has run cattle in the Gold Butte area since 1877, imagine how the Danns felt. The Western Shoshone had roamed enormous stretches of what would become Idaho, Utah and Nevada long before the lines were drawn for statehood. The Shoshone had a signed agreement, the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, which defined their expansive territory while allowing others safe passage and even let miners develop the region’s gold deposits.
Sounds like a good deal, right?
Of course, the deal changed. As Nevada grew following statehood and the discovery of gold and silver, there was pressure to, ahem, revisit the terms of the agreement. Ranchers wanted to run their cattle, too. And, mostly by congressional action a long way from the windy deserts and mountains of western and central Nevada, the official shape of Shoshone country changed right beneath their feet.
Decades later, part of Shoshone land would be called the Nevada Test Site and become the home of atomic weapons testing. By the time the Danns were ranching cattle and horses on the arid land, their neighbors cried foul. And the legal standing was enforced by the BLM, whose officials said the Shoshone ranchers were harming the drought-stricken foliage and parched soil. After a long legal fight, the Danns’ “trespass” cattle and horses were removed.
Mary Dann, a spiritual leader of her people who possessed a wicked sense of humor, once observed to The New York Times, “Trespass? Who the hell gave them the land anyway? When I trespass, it’s when I wander into Paiute territory.”
As you may have guessed by now, the BLM isn’t known for its sense of humor.
The Western Shoshone filed a lawsuit, but in 1962 a court ruled they had lost their land legally and weren’t entitled to government compensation. After the Indian Claims Commission heard the Shoshone’s appeal and awarded in 1979 awarded it $26 million, the native American tribe voted not to accept the money. The people wanted their land back, but the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed.
In protest, the Danns stopped paying their federal grazing fees in 1973. They fought mightily, but in 1998, the BLM issued trespass notices, ordered the removal of hundreds of head of cattle and horses, and fined the sisters and the tribe some $3 million. Even an endorsement and order by the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination failed to dissuade the federal government. And an attempt by Sen. Reid to end the matter by distributing $20,000 to each tribal member failed to come to fruition.
The Danns weren’t above the federal law of the land — even if that law had shifted like desert sand.
The Danns had the support of the United Nations, but not the endorsement of armed “patriots” or an outpouring of assistance from conservative media outlets and right-wing political action networks.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295.