Remembering the Dann Sisters


Dann Sisters

In order to know where we are heading, we have to remember where we’ve been. Thus, the importance of history.

The Bundy Ranch stand-off in Southern Nevada isn’t the first public fight over property rights in Nevada. A battle between the Bureau of Land Management and the Western Shoshone tribe in Northeast Nevada ended with far different results.

The Treaty of Peace and Friendship signed in 1863 between the federal government and the Western Shoshone tribe included the use of 43,000 square miles of territory extending north from the deserts of Southern California, across much of Nevada, and into South central Idaho, and East into Utah. The treaty gave Shoshone permanent use of land in exchange for “peace,” so that the “Union of the United States” in the midst of Civil War, could guarantee the flow of gold out of California to points East.

Shoshones agreed to end warfare with settlers and the U.S., and to allow transportation and telegraph wires through its territory. Shoshone say the 1863 treaty did not sell their land to a government, but instead secured their rights to own and occupy.

However in 1934, the federal government passed the Indian Reorganization Act, saying that federal recognition and support would depend on the creation of ‘tribal’ governments based on a model devised by the Secretary of the Interior. Unfamiliar forms of governance were then superimposed on traditional Shoshone decision-making, creating artificial divisions and aggravating existing disputes.

In 1946 an act of Congress created the Indian Claims Commission, to investigate suits by Native Americans against the US for illegitimate taking of their land. In 1962, the Commission ruled against a Shoshone suit, stating:

“The Indian title to the Western Shoshone land was extinguished by the gradual encroachment of settlers and others and by the acquisition, disposition or taking of said lands by the US for its own use and benefit or that of its citizens.”

In 1966, without the participation of the Western Shoshone people, the federal government arbitrarily set July 1, 1872, as the date of valuation for Western Shoshone land, and determined that compensation should be paid for 24 million acres.

The federal government paid the tribe $26 million in 1983 through a trust, or $1.08 per acre. Today the amount is $250 to $1,000 per acre.

Furthermore, the tribe has yet to draw on any of the money.

About an hour southwest of Elko, in Nevada’s Crescent Valley, the Dann sisters lived peaceably on a plot of land, raising horses and cattle. Unfortunately, their ranch butts-up against a large gold deposit.

The federal government permitted gold mining at Cortez in 1969. In 2010, the latest available figures, 1,140,000 ounces of gold had been removed from the land.

In September 2002, BLM agents swooped in and seized 227 cattle from their ranch, where the pair were raising cattle and horses on land purchased by their father Dewey Dann in the 1930s. In December 2002, the Danns were ordered to remove remaining livestock, 250 additional cattle and 1,000 horses, and they were charged with trespassing on public land.

They were served with $3 million in fines for past due grazing fees.

Carrie Dann says, “I was indigenous and in one single evening they made me indigent. If you think the Indian wars are over, then think again”.

The Dann sisters did not transfer grazing permits into their name from their late father, Dewey Dann. Instead, they argued that their land was within the boundaries of the Western Shoshone and therefore live under territory rule.

The federal government however claimed the land was public and purchased from the Western Shoshone in 1979.  The BLM, then served the Danns warrants, and followed through with their warning to auction off their remaining livestock in January 2003.

The sisters sued the BLM to prove rightful ownership of land, but watched as agents removed their cattle and horses on January 18th. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that since the Danns received no money for their land, it was still theirs, but the ruling was overturned in the Supreme Court, using a “bar clause” stating that Indian Claims legislation denotes; when money is paid for land, its use and rights to use are forever barred.

According to the Supreme Court, the Shoshone land had been gradually encroached upon and it no longer belonged to the Dann Ranch.  Furthermore, the BLM claimed that the Dann livestock caused irreparable damage to the countryside due to over grazing.

“Grass grows back, but mining causes irreparable damage to the earth,” commented Carrie Dann.

Their struggle was the cause for a handful of protesters to fight along with the grandmothers, but their case also acted as a smoke screen for the what the government was planning. On September 24th, 2003, HR 884 made its way to the Resources Committee, which aimed to pay out Western Shoshone land for expansion of the Cortez and development at Yucca Mountain.

Shoshone tribe elders met in Washington DC one month earlier to at least place “hold” on the Bill, but their request was ignored.

Mary and Carrie Dann sued the United States government for violating their rights. The Nevada sisters said the U.S. used illegal means to gain control of Native American ancestral lands by slowly encroachment by industry and private landowners.

The U.S. government says it paid the Western Shoshone Nation for its use of their land in 1979, and has since privatized millions of additional acreage. The Western Shoshone Distribution Bill, HR 884, signed into law by President George Bush in July 2004, relaxes the territorial rules held by Shoshones for 150 years.

About 26 million acres transferred to the federal government and is ear-marked by the BLM for mining minerals, storing nuclear waste, and for geothermal energy production. This includes Yucca Mountain, a historical and spiritual area for Shoshones.

In the late 1970s the U.S. government started using Yucca Mountain as a repository for nuclear waste, but it since has maxed-out capacity with 77,000 metric tons of nuclear fuel and radioactive waste. All except 2 percent of U.S. nuclear waste was earmarked for Yucca Mountain with HR Bill 884, beginning in 2010.

The Obama Administration has since placed a hold on operations at Yucca Mountain, albeit for far different reasons.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights found the U.S. government violated the Dann sisters’ rights, although did not state that the Dann sisters owned land. The Commission suggested an “effective remedy” should make sure respect for the Danns claim to their ranch of 70 years.

The Organization of American States human-rights commission reaffirmed land-rights use of the Western Shoshone Indian tribe, rejecting the federal government’s claim the Danns’ live on public land. It was the first time both councils charged the U.S. government with violating human rights.

Carrie Dann says she wouldn’t have sued the BLM had she known the court would favor the government.

The Dann sisters fought the federal government without the help from Human Rights Watch, or the American Civil Liberties Union. The two women committed themselves to preserving their ancestral land.

Mary died following an ATV accident on her ranch in central Nevada while repairing a fence-line on April 22, 2005. She was 82 years old. Mary’s niece, Patricia Paul, said her aunt had “died as she would have wanted — with her boots on and hay in her pocket.”

Two years later, Carrie was arrested with 38 others for trespassing at the Nevada Test Site at a Nevada Desert Experience event protesting governmental programs at the site. She continues with activities to try to end nuclear testing and programs at the site.

Carrie, along with Western Shoshone Defense Project and four other tribal and public interest groups, in November 2008, sued the federal government and Canadian Barrick Gold, seeking an injunction to stop the Cortez Hills Expansion Project on Mt. Tenabo, which the Western Shoshone also consider sacred land.

The case is pending.

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